In response to well-intentioned inquiries about what I might serve when hosting my very first family Christmas dinner, I was somewhat flummoxed. My abode is well placed but not spectacularly large and the European galley-style kitchen is not equipped with more cutlery than could serve my modest immediate family of three. Yet at this time of the year my family’s expectations for tradition are very strong. They like cooked birds with French-style stuffing or roast beasts accompanied with Yorkshire pudding. Side dishes are expected to have some important connotation and context — I come from a family of chefs and writers of historical cookbooks.
Then one morning while sitting in Professor Ruth Harvey’s medieval English literature class it struck me, as it did many a character in ancient texts, to ask the question, What would Jesus do? Indeed, for Christmas dinner I only needed to determine what would Jesus eat? Surely the prophet didn’t worry about cutlery and table settings. I was certain that even with my limited historical knowledge of ancient Middle Eastern cooking I could concoct a simple good old-fashioned biblical meal.
Loaves and fishes were the obvious menu items that came to mind but without enough forks it seemed that the filleting might be troublesome. Of course Jesus was a well rounded sort who would not have limited his palate to modest fare. He dined with tax collectors and hobnobbed with Roman centurions.
The menu selections began to broaden, and so did the historical context. It struck me that diners in the Middle Ages were also adept at serving up meals without fancy place settings. It was not much of a leap, even counting for the several centuries, to concoct a menu evocative of biblical times and western holiday traditions. I called my sister Sonia, who was to help me in preparing the meal, and she was similarly enthused, although she did point out that the recipe I suggested from Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking for a saffron colored potato soup served in stale bread bowls was not authentic to the 13th century — the potato is a new world addition to the English menu.
The two of us envisioned medieval knights making their way through the Holy Land, mixing their western tastes with the bounty of the East. Soon we had devised a menu that consisted of: “Grete,” but modestly sized, “Pyes” for both the carnivores and vegetarians, distinguished with red and green crosses to indicate the contents; stuffed vine leaves; roast brussel sprouts and chestnuts; and plates filled with dates, olives and figs scattered about the table. But what about dessert?
Apparently intricate sculptures made from sugar and paste, sometimes gilded, were the crowning glory of the medieval banquet. If I start soon I am sure I can construct a simple Cistercian church in the Romanesque style before Christmas. My sister will work on making Turkish delights. After we wandered quickly from the first century to the 13th, I finally had a moment for reflection and I began to question the original intent of this family dinner. Perhaps, Christmas, perhaps… means just a little bit more than impressing your relatives with fancy foods, either for their historical significance or their complex design.
Sonia and I will most certainly attempt to make the pies, less the cathedral. My sister Betty, the elder and the sage, has agreed to make the traditional pudding and my brother, the real chef, has agreed, as is also the tradition, to light the pudding on fire. Alas, sister Stephenie, taking care of forests in Banff, will miss the affair. Yet I am tempted, in spite of all the good intentions, to seek inspiration from another favourite historical time period of mine — the early 1700s, known as the Golden Age of Piracy. After all, if captured on a ship, surely first century prophets, medieval knights or even 18th-century merchants would have consumed that staple of all galley-sized kitchen meals — Salmagundi — which in essence is nothing more than whatever is in the larder thrown into a big pot. Some meals never go out of style.
This article originally appeared in the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO BULLETIN • TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2008