Christmas past – excerpt

Mosaic of Christmas dinnersThis is an excerpt from Me and My Big Mouth, a memoir about living through Australia’s food revolution from the late 1940s to today. It may or may not see the light of day in your bookshop sometime in the future.

Much has been written about the extraordinary custom of serving up a full English-style Chrismas feast on what was often a broiling hot December day. As early as the 1840s, a prominent Melbourne citizen, John Hunter Kerr lamented the heaviness of the traditional Christmas pudding, suggesting that it would be better replaced by “some cooler and more seasonable dainty dish.” The very thought would have been heresy in our family – and indeed, still would be.

Christmas Day, of course, began with presents and the myth of Father Christmas (I’m not sure that we ever referred to him as Santa.) Elaborate subterfuges were constructed to keep us believing – the sooty footprint on the hearth, the biscuit crumbs and empty lemonade glass on the table, the elegant arrangement of hydrangeas my mother had placed in the empty summer fireplace toppled over. Of course, the house had actual chimneys, which at least made the legend somewhat credible.

Breakfast could never be contemplated until the pillowcases full of goodies were emptied and the last present ripped from its wrapping. Under the tree there were also ‘official’ presents from our parents and grandmother, but the excitement was focussed on that pillowcase hanging at the head of the bed. It never occurred to us that the amount of time our parents spent shut in their bedroom on Christmas Eve was completely disproportionate to the number of presents under the tree. The sound-track to Christmas Eve, along with the mysterious rustling from the bedroom, was 3KZ broadcasting ‘Carols by Candlelight’. At that time, this Melbourne institution hadn’t degenerated into a pop concert with a few carols tossed in, and the Christmas spirit crept over us to the strains of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”.

Later on Christmas morning, friends and neighbours ‘dropped in’. The first drinks of the day appeared remarkably early and few seemed concerned by the need to drive later on. The .05 law was far in the future, there weren’t as many cars on the road and unless you did something really stupid you were unlikely to be pulled over for driving under the influence.  By 11am, the men were well started on the beer.

In the 1950s the only wine that ever made an appearance in our house was sweet sherry, and that was reserved for guests.

There was generally a stock of spirits – scotch, gin and brandy – to supply the aunts with their favourite mixed drinks at family celebrations. On those occasions my mother could usually be tempted with a Pimms. Pimms No 1 Cup isn’t a drink you hear a lot about these days – at least not here in Australia. However, it’s still the drink of choice at toffy English events like Wimbledon and, to me, has always had that quintessential sense of Englishness about it. Mixed with lemonade and with its essential garnish of orange slices and cucumber batons it had a touch of glamour that was missing from the plain old gin and tonic or scotch and dry ginger ale that the aunts usually consumed.

Accompanying the drinks were little bowls of nuts and dried fruits, including my mother’s personal favourite – muscatels. These appeared only at Christmas and were presented still on the stem, in wizened little bunches. Unlike packaged sultanas and raisins they contained seeds. Thus originated a family legend which, whenever it’s trotted out, reduces my normally placid mother to quivering indignation. Everyone in the family knows that, instead of discreetly swallowing the muscatel pips, my mother spits them out. But, so it’s said, not daintily into a handkerchief, but with gusto. I’m not sure that anyone has actually seen the pips ricocheting around the living room but too much focus on detail can only spoil a good story. Suggestions that she take up wine tasting, having already perfected one of the essential skills, have so far fallen on unhearing ears.

Another essential offering whenever festive drinks were served was a platter of smoked oysters. These pungent oily morsels were served on cheese crackers. They remained a smart middle-class hors d’oeuvre until 1971 when Bruce Spence, playing Stork in the eponymous movie, single-handedly destroyed the smoked oyster’s social status by affecting to remove one from his nose and eat it. No-one ever felt the same about smoked oysters after that.

Having warmed up with drinks and nibbles, it was time to head off to the main event – Christmas dinner (meaning lunch). The clans gathered at my maternal grandmother’s house. There were boisterous cousins, aunties you didn’t really want to kiss and hearty uncles with beers in their hands. There was a large backyard with secret places to hide in, climbable trees and many other interesting ways to get your best clothes dirty. There was a dark, mysterious pantry from which you could generally steal sugar lumps, but entry was via the kitchen and on Christmas day the kitchen was full of steam, clatter and bustling women.

My grandmother was, um, a strong minded woman. The word ‘tartar’ springs to mind.

Things had to be done her way (which is probably why my grandfather had highly developed peace-making skills). She shamelessly poisoned her neighbour’s trees when they were foolish enough to drop leaves on her side of the fence and, when she learned to drive, had a terrifying belief that the road was hers alone. Eventually, widowed and suffering with arthritis, she doggedly set her affairs in order and (so we believe although it was never proved) ended her own life by overdosing on her medication. Wait for God?  Not Ninny!

On Christmas Day, Ninny took a managerial role, leaving most of the actual work to her daughters and daughter-in-law. She held court in the lounge room, as various neighbours came to pay their respects, while turkeys and pickled pork were carved, roast vegetables crisped in trays of bubbling dripping and the Christmas pudding bowl clank, clank, clanked away in its boiler. One of the men was usually summoned to taste the brandy cream and pronounce on its alcoholic content. Green beans and peas (fresh-shelled, not your frozen variety, not yet) tumbled into colanders.

On a hot December day there was a definite glow in the kitchen: as my grandmother was fond of saying, “horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow”. The linoleum-topped kitchen table was a mosaic of assorted china as the dinners were plated. It was a production line, the trick being to ensure that everyone had some of everything, except for the person who didn’t eat peas and the one who didn’t like gravy. And don’t forget the extra potato for each of the men.

The table had been laid in advance: tinsel was stewn along starched white damask tablecloths, freshly ironed for the event. Cut crystal and Royal Albert dishes held chocolates and nuts.

Somehow, we were all marshalled into the dining room, aunts whisked in and out identifying whose was which dinner, and the feast began. There was bread sauce for the turkey, apple sauce for the pickled pork, gravy for both and a mound of sage and onion stuffing. Crispy potatoes of course, always pumpkin, half a baked tomato and an ample helping of the green vegetables.  There was never an entrée – it was straight into the bird and its trimmings.

But this was still just a prelude to the main attraction, the pudding. This had been hanging in its pudding cloth in the pantry since Cup Day (the first Tuesday in November and possibly the world’s only public holiday held just for a horse race). This was the latest possible date for making your Christmas pudding, according to family lore. Generously laced with alcohol (rum, brandy, whisky or all the above) in which the dried fruits had soaked for a day or two, the pudding had duly been stirred by all members of the household, who were then required to make a wish. In those days, the household would have consisted only of my grandparents and I suspect Pa would have made the same wish every time – for a year of peace and quiet.

 The pudding was served, not with the more traditional custard or ‘hard sauce’ (butter creamed with sugar and brandy or rum) but with brandy cream. This light, fluffy sauce involved beaten eggwhites, cream, sugar and quite a lot of brandy. I suspect it was perfectly possible for some of the ladies (who scarcely drank alcohol in those days) to come away from the table quite tipsy as a result. There was a plain whipped cream alternative for the children.

Of course, whether or not you liked the pudding it was obligatory to have two helpings. The reason was financial. Buried in the rich, dark fruity pud was hard currency: threepenny and sixpenny bits mainly, with the odd shilling and one highly coveted two-shilling piece. Children turned into beggars, soliciting pudding money from their parents to add to their troves. Our pocket money was sixpence a week, so in an instant you could double your weekly income – or better!

One year, the two shillings failed to turn up. My Uncle Bill was, as usual, complaining about never finding any money in his pudding. My mother insisted that he must have been mistaken because, tired of her big brother’s annual complaint, she had deliberately engineered it so that the prized coin would be his. He claimed that the servings must have been mixed up; she stuck to her story.  The next day the family grapevine conveyed the news: my mother was correct. Uncle Bill had found the two shillings in the bottom of the bowl. Not the dessert bowl, you understand.

The combination of food and climate was always guaranteed to produce a certain torpor during the afternoon, especially for many of the adults who had been enjoying Christmas drinks since around 10.30 that morning.

Uncles sprawled on couches, aunts nodded in armchairs. The rest of us gathered around my grandmother’s pianola, squabbling about whose turn it was to pedal. As a result of these afternoons, my memory stubbornly retains the lyrics to a vast number of popular songs, most of which were considered old fashioned even when I learned them. I can still warble a few verses of “Did Your Mother Come from Ireland” or “Silver Threads Among the Gold” at the drop of a Christmas stocking.

After this musical interlude, it was back to the table for Part Two of the Christmas feeding frenzy. Huge platters of cold turkey, cold pickled pork and ham (ham only ever made an appearance at tea time) were placed on the table. Mustard (dry Keen’s mustard, mixed with a little vinegar and water) now sat alongside the bread sauce and apple sauce. It was a fiery mix, which is no doubt why my grandfather averred that the Keens people made most of their money from what people left on their plates.

The cold cuts were accompanied by platters of salad. Salad in those days consisted of iceberg lettuce leaves, wedges of tomato and batons of Kraft Cheddar cheese with, perhaps, the luxury touch of a few spears of canned asparagus. The only dressing offered was a substance erroneously referred to as mayonnaise, although its only relationship to the real thing was some similarity in appearance and viscosity.  More accurately described as a form of salad cream, this was made mainly from sweetened condensed milk with the addition of vinegar and mustard. Imagine my surprise in later years when I discovered what mayonnaise was really meant to taste like.

Another accompaniment to the salad was a bowl of sugar. Throughout my childhood, raw tomatoes were often sprinkled with sugar. Similarly, when you ate lettuce leaves it was common practice to roll them up and dip them into sugar as you ate them. It was just another symptom of an era when olive oil was a medicinal substance and the collective sweet tooth dominated Australian cuisine.

The collective sweet tooth was certainly satisfied by the grand finale to our Christmas Day feasting: the pavlova. In the ‘50s, the ability to produce a first rate ‘pav’ was the measure of a real cook. My mother’s pavlovas were esteemed throughout the family circle. There was your four-egg pav or your six-egg pav, depending on the size of the gathering. Christmas generally rated two six-egg numbers.

The essential item for making a pavlova was a Sunbeam Mixmaster. This piece of equipment used up rather a lot of kitchen real-estate, especially when the only bench space available was the top of the old, disused fire stove. However it could chug away unattended for the twenty minutes or so required to beat the egg whites to the required stiffness, a spoonful of sugar being added at intervals. Tiny amounts of cornflour, vanilla and vinegar were quickly folded in at the end of the process and the thick, glossy mass was spooned onto a circle of brown paper on an upturned scone tray.

The pav cooked slowly in a low oven and was left in the oven to cool. The trickiest part of the preparation was inverting the fragile meringue onto a serving dish before filling it with whipped cream. The pavs were filled just before serving, the traditional garnishes being strawberries or passionfruit. In later years, my mother became more adventurous and her mint choc chip filling (made from a crushed Peppermint Crisp chocolate bar) was considered a daring innovation. Kiwi fruit, which eventually became ubiquitous as a pavlova topping, was quite unheard of.

I am not a pavlova fan these days. Perhaps it’s a result of too much, too early in life. However, my mother’s pavs were miracles of crisp meringue crust and melting marshmallow heart. Your average commercial pavlova usually falls short in the marshmallow department. And as for piling the cream on top of the meringue instead of inverting the whole thing first: wrong, wrong, wrong!

The whole ritual of Christmas has persisted in our family to this day, although the venue has changed as the responsibility has devolved to new generations. However, the pav on Christmas night has become a thing of the past, another casualty of our time-poor era and changing tastes. It’s a custom my husband would gladly revive, being as much a pavlova fan as ever.

A full English-style Christmas feast on a broiling hot December day – excerpt from book Me and My Big Mouth