Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Victorian Holiday Menu

My Christmas dinner this year was a simple and low-key affair. But after the gifts were unwrapped and the guests departed, I began to wonder how my ancestors may have celebrated the holiday along the Erie Canal years ago, and what they may have prepared and eaten.

Queen of the Household - Title Page
I found a sample Christmas dinner menu in Great-Grandma Nan's 1891 book of household hints, Queen of the Household:

- Clam or Oyster Soup
- Celery
- Baked Fish with Hollandaise Sauce
- Roast Turkey with Oyster Dressing
- Roast Duck with Onion Sauce

- Baked Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
- Baked Squash
- Mashed Turnips
- Canned Corn (This was a surprise; presumably home-canned.)
- Stewed Tomatoes
- Graham Bread; Rolls
- Salmon or other Salad

- Plum Pudding
- Peach Pie
- Fruit and Nuts

- Coffee and Chocolate

Queen of the Household - Frontispiece
I don't know how many guests this elaborate menu was intended to serve, but I surmise that it must have taken a kitchen full of helpers to prepare and serve such a repast, with three different meat and fish dishes (no, four if you count the salmon salad!), two kinds of potatoes, four vegetables, and three desserts.

Our modern hosts and hostesses may typically simplify this menu to perhaps serve only the following: turkey with dressing, baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, squash or another favorite vegetable, dinner rolls, a green salad, and a pumpkin or mincemeat pie, followed by coffee or tea.

Perhaps next year, if I am ambitious, I'll try out the recipe for plum pudding as a surprise treat for my family:

Christmas Plum Pudding:

"Shred finely 3/4 pound beef suet, and add to it a pinch of salt, 1 1/2 pounds bread crumbs, 1/2 pound flour, 3/4 pound raisins, 3/4 pound currants, picked and dried, 2 ounces candied lemon and citron together, and 1/2 a large nutmeg; mix these thoroughly, then add 4 eggs and milk enough to moisten it, but not too much or the pudding will be heavy; tie in a pudding-cloth, well floured, and boil for 5 or 6 hours [!]; or, we think better when boiled in a mold, which should be well buttered before the mixture is put in.  The mold should not be quite full, and should be covered with 1 or 2 folds of paper, buttered and floured, and then with a floured pudding-cloth."

I find it curious that in five different recipes for "plum pudding," none of the recipes actually includes plums. They list other fruits, such as tart apples, raisins, currants, and citron. Some also include nutmeg, brandy or sherry, and as in the Christmas Plum Pudding, chopped beef suet.

As I wondered about why a "plum pudding" would not contain plums, I checked the definition of "plum" in my American Heritage Dictionary, and found a less-well-known meaning: "A raisin, when added to a pudding or cake." That answered my question about "why no plums in a plum pudding."

Rather than attempt such an elaborate dessert for my next holiday dinner, I might try a simpler recipe from Grandma Nan's cookbook: Poor Man's Pudding  --  "Take 1 quart milk, 6 eggs, 6 tablespoons flour, and a little salt; bake 1/2 hour; use butter and sugar dip." Or better yet - an instant chocolate pudding from the supermarket . . . !

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Short Days, Long Nights

The shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, is only a week away. In a frenzy of consumerism, Americans are frantically shopping for gifts. I got ahead of the game this year, and mine are already wrapped and hidden away until the big day on Christmas.

But the Dutch and many Dutch-Americans have already had a fun- and goodie-filled celebration  --  Sinterklaasavond, or Saint Nicholas Eve.

As Saint Nicholas Eve (December 5) coincides with my birthday, my childhood memories of the day are a blurred combination of birthday cake, and wooden shoes filled with chocolates, nuts, and oranges.

Dutch Settlers Society Celebration:

This year, as for the past five years or so, I attended the annual Saint Nicholas Eve dinner of the Dutch Settlers Society of Albany. There was good food, music, and much gezelligheid (a Dutch word that connotes comfort, coziness, and camaraderie), a talk by Albany's Mayor about the city's rich history  --  and to top off the evening, the traditional visit by Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, as he is known in Dutch.

Sweet Treats:

I also had an opportunity this week to attend a talk by Dutch food historian Peter Rose about the history and origin of Saint Nicholas lore, and the traditions connected with the celebration of this feast day, including the many recipes for tasty treats prepared for the fete.

If you have a sweet tooth like I do, you will want to try out such dainty delicacies as speculaas, most often known in the United States as "windmill cookies."

Family Mystery Solved:

Years ago, my Mom had a pair of bas-relief wooden carvings that we knew were of Dutch origin. I had a vague memory of these artifacts being displayed in the house I grew up in. And so it happened that my sister unearthed the pair, "hidden in plain sight," in the basement of the house.

The red-painted carved boards, about 13 inches by 4 1/2 inches, represent a quaintly dressed young man and woman. It was obvious to me that they were similar to the cookie boards representing Saint Nicholas and other Dutch symbols used to mold cookie dough around the holiday. But why a boy and girl? Was there a particular significance to the pair?

I learned during the talk that the paired figures are known as vrijers, or "lovers," based on the legend of the Saint's anonymous gift of dowries to three sisters whose father was too poor to provide them with the requisite sum. In this fashion, Saint Nicholas made it possible for the young women to marry.

How old are the pair of vrijers that turned up in the basement? I have  no idea, but I don't dare to try filling them with sticky cookie dough. They will, however, be a unique piece of holiday decoration this year, and a great conversation starter.

My shoes are waiting for Sinterklaas's visit!