Cover

It ain’t Xmas till the fat goose singes...

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 22, 2017
Paint the town red: Filled with bits and bobs, Christmas markets, especially the ones in Europe, play a part in spreading festive cheer.

Paint the town red: Filled with bits and bobs, Christmas markets, especially the ones in Europe, play a part in spreading festive cheer.   -  Reuters

As you like eat: You can choose a Narnia-themed Christmas party in an artificial kingdom of snow. Or a Dickens Old-Fashioned Christmas Party that whisks you back to the 1840s. Seen here is a Dickens-themed annual Christmas event at Chatsworth House near Bakewell, Britain.

As you like eat: You can choose a Narnia-themed Christmas party in an artificial kingdom of snow. Or a Dickens Old-Fashioned Christmas Party that whisks you back to the 1840s. Seen here is a Dickens-themed annual Christmas event at Chatsworth House near Bakewell, Britain.   -  Reuters

Snowstopper: In the air there’s not just particulate pollutants, but a feeling of Christmas. And a strange nostalgia for a white Christmas complete with turkey, trimmings and family drama.

Snowstopper: In the air there’s not just particulate pollutants, but a feeling of Christmas. And a strange nostalgia for a white Christmas complete with turkey, trimmings and family drama.   -  Reuters

...the Grinch slides down the chimney and does away with the food, the pudding blazes in brandy, and a murderer uncorks a bottle of horrors at dinner. Forget your table or larder; it’s time to gatecrash Yuletide feasts in fiction

Cotton wool season is upon us. A time of PVC pine trees and glittering baubles. Honey-glazed ham and treacly sentiments. Santa caps, cinnamon and ‘Silent Night’.

In the air there’s not just particulate pollutants, but a feeling of Christmas. And for me, at least, a strange nostalgia for something I’ve never actually experienced — a white Christmas complete with turkey, trimmings and family drama.

For just as polymer snow can never replace the real thing, and a Tofurkey Vegan Roast scores low on the authenticity scale, a Mumbai Christmas doesn’t really make the grade. Not even when there’s a nip in the air and a boozy Christmas pudding on the table. Not even when five-star hotels create life-sized gingerbread houses and allow children to pluck goodies off the wall. Not even when fancy restaurants go to extraordinary lengths to recreate Dickensian Christmas dinners, complete with stuffed turkey, mashed potato and lumpy gravy.

Naturally, I had great hopes for my first Christmas in the US. The Los Angeles malls were awash with green and gold; tingalings and jingalings; ho ho ho and mistletoe. In the supermarkets, shoppers lugged baskets stuffed with trussed birds and eggnog-y drinks. The newspapers were full of candy canes and holiday spirit. Then my cousin decided to get married, and I flew to Philadelphia, landing there along with the first snowflakes of the season.

The next morning we awoke in a winter wonderland. Finally, I had my White Christmas. Except, of course, it was also my cousin’s mehendi. The official mehendi lady couldn’t make it through the snow. So the unofficial mehendi lady was pressed into service. And instead of tossing snowballs and sampling mulled wine, I spent the day drawing deranged pigs (supposed to be flowers) and blood splatters (meant to be season-appropriate snowflakes) on scores of hands. The bride was dismayed, the bride’s mother exhausted and Christmas dinner summarily abandoned.

The next year we were invited to celebrate Christmas with an American family in Los Angeles. Here, everything was as it should be. The punch bowl was the size of a paddle pool. The table heaved with pies and roasts. Glittering baubles and candles twinkled on every surface. But still... something was missing. Despite all holly and ‘Hark, the herald angels’, the perfect Christmas remained as elusive as Santa Claus.

But why this inevitable disappointment? The reason is strange, but simple. When it comes to Christmas, the real world simply cannot compete with fiction. Do what you will, the turkeys are rarely as splendid, the families rarely as eccentric and the murders rarely as juicy. Look where you will, snowbirds and the Ghosts of Christmas Past are tough to find. As are gallant nutcrackers and pirouetting sugar plum fairies.

Enid Blyton, for example, weaves the ultimate festive fantasy in ‘The Magic Snowbird’. Jim and Mollie are dreadfully disappointed that they can’t go their friend’s party — till a magical snowbird carries them away to a land where tiny goblins paint rocking horses and pixies build dollhouses. And Christmas trees have little buds that grow into “the loveliest things you could imagine! Fairy Dolls, big books, fire engines, great boxes of soldiers, footballs and all kinds of things hung there!”

Not that Blyton needs magic to summon up a perfect Christmas. In Five Go Adventuring Again — the second book in the Famous Five series — George is in one of her grouches. But even she can’t sulk when there’s a tree covered in coloured candles and the promise of presents. “Joanna the cook was busy baking Christmas cakes. An enormous turkey had been sent over from Kirrin Farm, and was hanging up in the larder… There were boxes on the shelf in the sitting room, and mysterious parcels everywhere. It was very, very Christmassy!”

These are just some of the captivating plum-pudding-and-tinsel moments tucked away on our bookshelves. There’s Harry Potter, gaping at “a hundred fat roast turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes; platters of chipolatas; tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce...”

Owen Meany, playing the part of the infant Jesus during a nativity play, in which the angel is almost dropped to his death and the hind legs of cows and donkeys start fainting on the stage. Sherlock Holmes seeking a jewel thief, amidst the icy sidewalks, crackling fires and fat roasting geese of London. And, of course, Bertie Wooster entering in the Yuletide spirit: “It being Christmas Eve, there was, as I had foreseen, a good deal of revelry and what not. First, the village choir surged round and sang carols outside the front door, and then somebody suggested a dance, and after that we hung around chatting of this and that…”

It may be tough to recreate Wooster’s or Meany’s Christmas, but these days you can replicate most others. You can choose a Narnia-themed Christmas party in an artificial kingdom of snow. Or a Dickens Old-Fashioned Christmas Party that whisks you back to the 1840s. Or, if you have a ticket to London and ₹20,000 to spare, you can attend the grand feast hosted at the Hogwarts Great Hall by Warner Bros.

Not me, though. I’d much rather get myself a box of mince tarts, pop in a Frank Sinatra CD and retreat into a Christmas of the imagination. And for those who’d like to come along, here are the most gatecrash-worthy Christmas feasts in fiction:

The first of the great Christmas feasts

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

This was the book that began it all. Till Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Easter and Boxing Day were the big holidays in Britain. But mean, miserly Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghosts of Christmas changed that overnight. The Christmas Eve dinner in the poor but loving Cratchit household provided a formula for centuries to come: The goose from which a “gush of stuffing issued forth”. Apple sauce and mashed potatoes. The pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.

Even more amazing is the fact that Scrooge’s whimsical decision to send a gift to the Cratchit family started a tradition across the world — roast turkey at Christmas.

The worst of the Great Christmas feasts

Emma, Jane Austen

Emma persuades her pretty friend Harriet to turn down a local farmer and transfer her affections to Mr Elton, the vicar. What the headstrong heiress doesn’t realise is that the ambitious Elton has set his sights on her, instead.

Jane Austen has never been one for Christmas sentimentality. So it’s hardly surprising that on Christmas Eve, Emma has to deal with miserable weather, disagreeable men and an unwelcome proposal. After the party at Randalls, Emma is alone in her carriage with Elton, who seizes the opportunity to declare that “he was ready to die if she refused him, but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some affect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible”.

Emma is indignant on Harriet’s behalf. Elton is indignant on his own behalf. He protests that he “need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith”. The journey continues in an atmosphere of “swelling resentment and mutually deep mortification”, and Emma is honest enough to acknowledge her folly to herself.

What’s better than a juicy turkey? A locked-room mystery

Hercule Poirot’s ‘Christmas’, Agatha Christie

Simeon Lee is a rich but unpleasant man — so everyone is surprised when he invites his family to Gorston Hall for the festive season. Christmas Eve witnesses angry encounters and an elaborate dinner, and the stage is set for murder:

“From next door the piano sounded.

Mr David was playing. But why, Tressilian asked himself, did Mr David play the ‘Dead March’? For that’s what it was. Oh, indeed things were very wrong.

He went slowly along the hall and back into his pantry.

It was then he first heard the noise from overhead: a crashing of china, the overthrowing of furniture, a series of cracks and bumps.

‘Good gracious!’ thought Tressilian. ‘Whatever is the master doing? What’s happening up there?’

And then, clear and high, came a scream — a horrible high wailing scream that died away in a choke or gurgle.”

Mr Darcy saves the day

Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding

On Christmas morning, Bridget Jones wakes up to find that she weighs 9 st 5 (“Oh God, have turned into Santa Claus, Christmas pudding or similar”). Then gift exchange is a nightmare and Bridget receives a set of “mini-spanners” to fit different bottle lids and a “slo-cooker” for one. After which Mrs Jones and Una Alconbury, her meddling best friend, launch into their annual spat over the gravy. So Bridget is actually relieved when her mother’s Latin lover bursts through the French window — and runs upstairs pursued by her mother.

Eventually, her mother comes down again:

“Well, thank goodness I managed to calm Julio down,” she said gaily after a pause. “What a to do! Are you all right, Daddy?”

“Your top — Mummy — is inside out,” said Dad.

I stared at the hideous scene, feeling as though my whole world was collapsing around my ears. Then I felt a strong hand on my arm.

“Come on,” said Mark Darcy.

“What?” I said.

“Don’t’ say ‘what’, Bridget, say ‘pardon’,” hissed Mum.

“Mrs Jones,” said Mark firmly, “I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.”

Christmas in Whoville

‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’, Dr Seuss

“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot...

But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did NOT!

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!

Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all,

May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

This is how Dr Seuss begins his delightful poem-story about the Grinch and his plan to destroy Christmas in Whoville. On the night before Christmas, the Grinch slides down the chimneys and takes away all the food, toys, presents and trees. But to his amazement, Whoville still manages to sing and celebrate and be merry. Which is when the Grinch realises that Christmas doesn’t, perhaps, “come from a store” and that it, perhaps, means “a little bit more”. Which is when he returns to Whoville — a changed being.

“And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”

It is the loveliest ending imaginable. And like the Grinch, I hope you all have a Happy Whoville Christmas.

Roast chicken and gravy

It’s not easy to lay our hands on Whoville beasts and turkeys. So here is a simple recipe for roast chicken and gravy (a version of Jamie Oliver’s recipe):

Ingredients:

1 chicken (about 1.5 kg)

2 medium onions

2 carrots

2 sticks celery

1 bulb garlic

1 lemon

Olive oil

A bunch of fresh herbs — a mix of thyme,

rosemary and bay leaves

1 Remove the chicken from the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 240°C. Wash and roughly chop the vegetables. Break the garlic bulb into cloves, leaving them unpeeled. Then pile all the veg, garlic and herbs into the middle of a large roasting tray and drizzle with oil.

2 Drizzle the chicken with oil and season well with salt and black pepper, then rub all over the bird. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables.

3 Carefully prick the lemon all over, using the tip of a sharp knife and put the lemon inside the chicken’s cavity, with the bunch of herbs.

4 Place the tray in the oven, then turn the heat down immediately to 200°C and cook for and hour and 20 minutes.

5 Baste the chicken halfway through cooking, and if the veggies look dry, add a splash of water to the tray to stop them from burning.

6 When the chicken is cooked, take the tray out of the oven and transfer the chicken to a board to rest for 15 minutes or so. Cover with a layer of tin foil and a tea towel and leave aside while you make your gravy.

Gravy

2 onions

2 carrots

2 sticks celery

2 rashers of bacon

2 sprigs sage

2 sprigs rosemary

10 bony pieces of chicken

4 tbsp flour

2 tbsp cranberry sauce (I substitute with a

mix of dried cranberries and cranberry

juice)

1 Preheat the oven to 180°C. Then peel the onions, wash the carrots and roughly chop with the celery and bacon.

2 Put the vegetables, bay leaves, sage, rosemary into a sturdy roasting tray, then scatter the chopped bacon on top. Bash the chicken pieces with a rolling pin to help release extra flavour as they cook, then add to the tray. Drizzle with oil, season with salt and black pepper, toss, then cook for an hour, or until tender.

3 Remove the tray from the oven and transfer to a low heat on the stove. Grind and mash everything with a potato masher, scraping up all the goodness from the base of the tray (the longer you let it fry, the darker your gravy will be). Just leave it to cook away for a few minutes.

4 Gradually stir in the flour, then pour in 2 litres of boiling kettle water. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until thickened and reduced, stirring occasionally. When the gravy is the consistency of your liking, pour it through a coarse sieve into a large bowl, pushing all the goodness through with the back of a spoon. Then stir in cranberry sauce and thicken to the perfect consistency.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and food writer based in Mumbai

Published on December 22, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor