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Feasting Like the 'Dickens':
A Victorian Christmas Dinner

By E. Grimes

 

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese,
game, poultry...mince pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot
chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense
twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim
with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly
Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s
horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping
round the door.

‘Come in!’ exclaimed the Ghost. ‘Come in! and know me better, man!’

~~Dickens’
A Christmas Carol

 

CHARLES DICKENS must have taken special pleasure in writing the above passage, and I don’t know
who could read it without feeling a little hungry (I can almost smell the oranges and punch even as I
write this). Of all the Ghosts that haunted poor Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present has to be
my favorite. Yet when we read of the magnificent Christmas dinners of Victorian England, it’s hard
to believe that during Oliver Cromwell’s stern Puritan reign two centuries before, the celebration of
Christmas was actually forbidden.

No one in England was allowed to forget that, either; for when the season rolled around, town criers
would shout "No Christmas! No Christmas!" through London’s streets. The Lord Mayor of London
went so far as to gather and burn any Christmas greenery found hanging in the city. Such a law might
have delighted Scrooge, yet it could not have been popular with the rest of England---for when Cromwell
died, so did his ridiculous prohibition.

By the time Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the holiday was again in full favor. But as Dickens
clearly illustrated in his famous book, Christmas celebrations sharply varied with England's social classes
and their respective incomes (or lack of them). Yet even the poor, like Bob Cratchit in the story, did their
best to provide Christmas dinner for their families.

Since A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books---and having a love of most anything Victorian---
I’ve made it a habit in the last few years to have a "Charles Dickens Supper" on or around Christmas,
recreating a similar type of menu that Dickens' characters enjoyed: roast goose, sage and onion stuffing,
roast chestnuts, and plum pudding. Although for several decades turkey has been more popular in England
and elsewhere, there are still some who prefer the traditional goose.

It isn’t to everyone’s taste, since some find goose to be too fatty; and of course, any other poultry or meat
are just as acceptable for Christmas dinner. Goose fat is, in fact, quite delicious and as valuable as duck fat
for cooking. But if cholesterol (and calories) are your concern, you can render out some of the fat by pricking
the goose's skin all over and soaking it in boiling water before roasting. Much of the fat is around the neck
cavity and under the breast skin, and this can be removed. Roasting on a spit or a rack will also lessen the
bird's fat content; be sure to put a pan underneath to catch the drippings.

If you also fancy plum pudding, bear in mind that it has a complicated recipe and requires a good deal
of advance timing to prepare and store. It's much easier to buy one; some bakeries will make them,
but you can often find plum puddings and hard sauce at gourmet food shoppes and import stores (some
supermarkets even carry them at Christmas). You can also order them by mail or online. But if you'd like
to try your hand at making your own, you can find recipes for it in British cookbooks; an excellent source
is
The Cooking of The British Isles by Adrian Bailey and Time Life Books.

However you get a pudding, there is a delghtful ritual to serving it: pour brandy or liqueur over the top,
then light it---the effect is beautiful! You may also provide an extra dessert (or two or three!) in addition
to the plum pudding, such as a pie or cake. Just a few words about fruitcake, by the way: sometimes it
deserves the bad reputation it gets; but a properly made fruitcake can actually be tasty.

As you and yours savor your own Dickensian feast, you might want to add to the theme by playing some
old English Christmas carols; perhaps an audio recording of Dickens' famous classic. Or, after dinner,
someone might like to read aloud from
A Christmas Carol or one of Charles Dickens' other works.

So here is a Victorian-style menu that even Scrooge would enjoy. And to all you web-surfers out there:
Happy Holidays!

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"

****************

Menu
Roast Goose
Sage and Onion Stuffing*
Mashed Potatoes with Gravy
Vegetables
Rolls
Applesauce or Cranberry Sauce
Plum Pudding w/ Hard Sauce
Roast Chestnuts
Apples and Oranges
Mulled Wine Punch*

*Recipe (listed below)

 

Recipes

(Author's note: all measurements listed are U.S. only.)

Sage and Onion Stuffing
To make 8 servings

1 7-8 oz. bag of plain croutons
1 small onion, chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon fresh
or dried parsley
1 large raw egg
3 fresh sage leaves, minced,
or 1 teaspoon. ground sage
1 teaspoon salt
to cup warm (
not hot) poultry broth
apple, chopped finely,
or cup applesauce (optional)

In large bowl, mix croutons with chopped onion and parsley. Add
egg, salt, and sage and apple (if used) and mix well, gradually adding
broth just until stuffing is moist (if using applesauce, you may want to
add less broth).

Stuff goose just before roasting. If there is stuffing left over, bake in
separate pan 30 minutes before the goose is done.

This will also make a good stuffing for turkey and other poultry. For
a large turkey, simply double the recipe.

Mulled Wine Punch
To make 8 servings

3 cups claret* or other dry red wine
1 cup port wine
Sugar or honey (optional)
1 small orange
6 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of grated or ground nutmeg
Orange slices (optional)

*Bordeaux, known as "claret" in England

In large, non-reactive kettle, mix claret and port together, adding sugar
or honey if used (the port is quite sweet enough, so you may wish to leave
out any extra sweetening). Insert cloves into orange (leave orange whole
or halve it if you wish) and add to wine mixture with the cinnamon stick
and nutmeg.

Simmer on lowest heat, stirring often, just until piping hot (do not allow wine
to boil). Remove spices and orange, then pour into large punch bowl just before
serving. Decorate with orange slices if desired. If you prefer a non-alcoholic punch,
you may substitute grape juice, cranberry juice or cider for the wine.

White Punch: Use same ingredients as for Mulled Wine Punch, except substitute
white wine and white port or sherry.

****************


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