Talking turkey

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on December 20, 2019

Charles Dickens’s magical description in ‘A Christmas Carol’ has laid down the template for the festive meal

The harbingers of the green-and-red season arrive in the first fortnight of December. Some sneak in as WhatsApp forwards. Others slide under the door on printed leaflets. A few pop up during chats with friends, heralded by those irresistible words, “I know this woman who does the most amazing maple glazed ham...”

Some Christmas menus are elaborate affairs, produced by home chefs and trendy-turned-trad-for-the-moment restaurants. They wax eloquent about fennel and garlic roast pork with an orange compote and garlic mashed potatoes. Or Polish duck roasted and stuffed with apple and dried cranberry. They chatter about vegetarian options — pumpkin risotto with goat cheese and dried cranberry, and the vegan mushroom and chestnut- stuffed seitan roast.

Others are no-nonsense lists. Take, for example, the Christmas menu mass photocopied by Farm Products, an eccentric 130-year-old South Mumbai landmark: “Please book in advance your X’mas and New Year Order,” it states sternly, before getting to the meat of the matter. “Imported cooked stuffed turkey, Indian cooked stuffed turkey, cooked stuffed suckling, imported cooked stuffed duck, Indian cooked stuffed duck, honey roast smoked ham...” Or, for that matter, the Christmas offerings of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, once a ‘Europeans Only’ hub of burra sahibs, chota pegs and food from “back home”: “Keeping with the festive tradition of the Club, the F and B Dept will be able to execute your orders for the following Christmas and New Year Specialities,” it states. “Ham whole cooked and dressed, ham whole cooked and dressed American style, turkey cooked and stuffed (min wt 4 kgs), chicken liver pate...”

So what if there are no tantalising adjectives to differentiate between regular and American-style ham. Or explanations on what goes into the stuffing — a mix of ham, bacon, cold cuts, mushrooms and green apples? Or chicken mince, pistachio, chestnuts and wine? I only have to read a protein-rich list or two to start humming, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” (even if the temperature outside is 29 degrees Celsius).

For more than any other frill or fancy it is the Christmas dinner that makes Christmas. Both in the real world and in literature.

Author Charles Dickens is widely credited with having created Christmas as we know it. Dickens lived during the bleak days of the Industrial Revolution, when workers spent endless hours in clamorous, soot-blackened mills and factories. In 1843, Dickens went to Manchester to deliver a talk, and spent time at the Field Lane Ragged School — and returned determined to “strike a sledge hammer blow” for the poor. He dashed out A Christmas Carol in six weeks and changed history.

In the book, Dickens tells the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption. He shows Christmas as the only time “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave...”

Dickens is also famous for the meal with which the impoverished but loving Cratchit family celebrates Christmas. His magical description has laid down a template for Christmas dinners. Not just in mistletoe-hung and twinkle-lit homes in Nebraska or Notting Hill, but also in the lanes of Panaji, the skyscrapers of Mumbai and the world of our imagination.

The centrepiece of the Cratchits’ meal was a goose stuffed with sage and onion, served with apple sauce and mashed potato. Later, the reformed Scrooge sends the Cratchits a grand turkey. This gesture established the tradition of The Grand Turkey Dinner. And although the meal has acquired add-ons — Brussels sprouts, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, pigs-in-blanket — the festive meal largely follows Dickens’s blueprint.

When Becky Bloomwood — of the popular Shopaholic series — panics about hosting Christmas, her mother has only one advice. “Get a good turkey and you are halfway there.” Easier said than done. Becky has to fashion a vegan turkey for her half-sister out of gluten-free doughnuts; decide whether to make Brussels sprouts with chestnuts or butter and pick a stuffing out of the many that her cantankerous guests demand. And, finally, she has to escape from a locked pet shop to take delivery of her turkey. So it’s a minor miracle that the golden, crispy turkey emerges from her oven on Christmas Day.

I’m glad Becky got her turkey. But I’m not sure I’ll get mine. Every year I flirt with the idea, and every year I decide that a four-kilo bird takes too much commitment and fridge-space. I’m so terrified of the leftovers that I sympathise with those who opt for a Christmas Tinner — three courses of turkey, potatoes, broccoli, bread sauce, sprouts, stuffing and mince pie, all in a tin. Or a pigs-in-blanket pizza even.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not going the Christmas Tinner route. Instead, perhaps, some ham from the Yacht Club, a roast chicken from Farm Products, roast potatoes from my oven. Then maybe apple sauce inspired by the Cratchits, and cranberry stuffing inspired by Becky Bloomwood. Rounded off with a couple of Santa hats and Frank Sinatra on the stereo.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Cranberry apple sausage stuffing — to be had with or without roast turkey/chicken/ pork
  • Ingredients
  • 500g sausage
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 3 cups sliced spring onions, white and pale-green parts only
  • 2 apples, chopped
  • Some chopped celery — according to taste
  • 1 cup dried cranberries, rehydrated in boiling water for 15 minutes and drained
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh sage leaves
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
  • 6 cups bread cubes
  • 1/3 cup chopped parsley
  • 2-3 cups chicken stock
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Method
  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • Chop and sauté the sausages until cooked. Transfer the sausage and oil to a large bowl. Melt the butter in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the leeks, apples, celery and sauté until leeks are soft, about eight minutes. Mix in the drained cranberries, sage and rosemary. Add the mixture to the sausage, then mix in the bread and parsley. Next add the chicken stock until the stuffing is very moist but not mushy. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Bake in a 9x13-inch rectangular casserole dish and place, uncovered, in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until the top is crispy. Remove and serve.


Published on December 19, 2019

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