My mother used to go to a huge amount of trouble with the Christmas meal. As a result, I simplified things down … well no, I didn’t really, it just seemed less fuss than when I was a child.
It started several days before Christmas Day with the Decorating of the Table. She always used an elaborate layout with red and green satin, lots of flowers and candles and it was very pretty. Afterwards we ate at a small table in the study or on our knees in the sitting room because the dining room was out of bounds. And on the day itself, she spent the entire day in the kitchen getting hot and flustered, except for the brief moments she allowed herself to eat or when, much later in the day than Wink and I wanted, presents were opened.
I’ve said in previous years that people were always invited for the day, elderly people who lived alone and did not have relations to go to, and usually my grandfather came to stay too. So in the morning, our father went off to fetch them whilst Wink and I helped prepare vegetables and so on. By this time, the massive turkey had been in the oven for some time, while a whole ham on the bone was simmering and so was the Christmas pudding that had been made for us by our cook from Weymouth hotel days, Mr Dyke.
The thing is, a roast is the easiest meal to prepare for a lot of people. You shove it in the oven, having weighed it and written down the cooking time. You’ve prepared and inserted the stuffings already of course, and there’s plenty of time to parboil the potatoes if it wasn’t done the day before, get the bacon and chipolatas ready to go in the oven and so on. It’s all a matter of having a time-plan and remembering to put everything on it. And if something was forgotten, then forget it altogether. There’s too much food anyway, who cares?
My ma did. Looking back, I can see why the food took a long time to cook, but not why she had to spend the whole day in the kitchen. The first course was tinned consommé, for goodness sake, with a generous slosh of sherry (this counted as sophisticated in the mid-1960s). It was quite sensible actually, the vegetables could cook while you were eating it but it didn’t fill you up at all. Then the turkey (which had a dreadfully dry breast, she was an excellent cook normally so I don’t understand) and ham (gorgeous) and everything else, and then a pudding that had looked after itself for about three hours, then a Stilton.
It was quite boring for Wink and me, because Daddy kept out of the way of the bevy of old ladies and we weren’t allowed to open presents. So we sat there being polite for several hours while they drank sherry and bickered gently. After we’d eaten, they bickered again as they compared presents while we watched Disney Time.
So, when I had children, I wanted it to be different and I wrote a time plan that scheduled in break times to be with the family. I accepted help if the Sage offered, which was usually peeling potatoes (yay!) and otherwise just checked the oven at appointed times. I’d prepared veg the day before, it was simple. For a few years, Weeza didn’t eat meat so I made a separate meal for her. The first course might be wontons or blini or something like that, which were made on Christmas morning. And for the past 20-something years, I’ve scheduled in playing the organ for the service at 10 o’clock too. And none of us wanted more than a mouthful of the pudding, so I always made another dessert to go with it. But there was always a couple of hours, in chunks, to stop work and be with the family, because that was what we all wanted.
I can only assume, however, that it wasn’t what she wanted. Otherwise, why would a superb hostess be red-faced and flustered in the kitchen for hours when I, admittedly efficient but much less practised, could spare hours of my time to be with my children?
I have to say, however, that Weeza’s memories aren’t the same as mine. Because when I had my half-hour breaks, we’d open a couple of presents and I reckoned that would enable them to appreciate what they had, and I’d not miss out on the fun. But what she remembers is the pile of presents that was not opened until noon, when champagne was opened and the blini or whatever served.
The last few years, we’ve been invited to the family, either Weeza’s or Al’s. This year, I’m doing it again, but there will only be four of us, me and the Sage and Ro and Dora. We’ve decided on roast pork, because Dora, who had never eaten crackling until I served it to her (her family background is Muslim, though she has no particular religion), adores it. We’ll have the proper Christmas roast beef (turkey, pah!) another day when we’re all together.