Six years ago, when my brother Justin brought his fiancee, Victoria, to Virginia for her first Christmas chez Schillinger, my mother marked the occasion by making a roast suckling pig. (Never mind that the entire family had gathered round the VCR the night before to watch Babe, the tear-jerking family drama about an adorable piglet who evades the knife.)
On the morning of the feast, my mother made mince pies while my father drove to the country butcher to fetch the swine. When he arrived home with the beast, there was a panic. It being December, the suckling pig had matured into a suckling hog—as big as a golden retriever—with curving sharp teeth and holes where its eyes had been. It looked like the victim in a porcine snuff film. As my mother despaired, my father had the presence of mind to grab a handsaw and divide the monster into two halves, each of which just squeaked into an oven. After it was roasted, which shrank it some, Mama laid it out on an enormous platter, covered its severed waist with a cummerbund of holly bunches, stuffed each hollow eye socket with a grape (she put Wite-out irises on them, studded with cloves for pupils), and pried its baked, fanged jaws wide enough apart to pop in a Clementine orange. When she appeared with the beast in the dining room, we all screamed. Luckily, Victoria had brought a ham—a gift from her mother, whose Southern dictum is, “Never go anywhere without a ham.”
There is so much we do not understand about Christmas. For instance, why do we sing “Oh bring us some figgy pudding” every December, when if anyone were to hand some to us, we wouldn’t know what it was? (And when the song “Winter Wonderland” comes over the radio, babbling, “In the meadow we can build a snowman, Then pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say: Are you married? We’ll say: No man. But you can do the job/ When you’re in town—” What does this even mean?) But the holiest mystery of all is contained in Dr. Seuss’ legend, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which the Grinch descends on Whoville and makes off with the roast beast. We shed a tear for the hungry Whos, but do we stop to ask what beast it is that they habitually roast, come Noel? Is it a turkey? A steer? A pheasant, gibnut, ostrich, warthog, caribou? For that matter, what about all of us beyond Whoville? What are we expected to roast? Why is there no one beast that suggests itself for this holiday meal?
There can be no question what animal reigns on American tables at Thanksgiving. Ever since the writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale won her campaign to make Thanksgiving an official national holiday in 1863—when Abraham Lincoln at last solemnized the day—the turkey has been the undisputed creature of choice for that occasion. But there is no clear-and-away winner for the pièce de résistance that lands on tables a month later. Cathy Kaufman, culinary historian at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and senior editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, is currently writing a culinary history of Christmas in America. A lecture she likes to give at Yuletide is called “For Want of Tradition.”
“There is no immutable Christmas dinner,” she explained to me earlier this week. In fact, the nostalgic ideal of American Christmas plenty—”turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum puddings,” and so on, ornamented with holly, mistletoe, and ivy, and enjoyed en famille, is largely a British import. In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, he created a pattern for the feast (see above) and launched an international turkey mania. After Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, observes the humble goose-and-mash fest of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, he repents for his miserliness by sending the Cratchits the prize turkey in the poulterer’s window. In Europe in the mid-19th century, Kaufman explained, turkey was a “luxury bird.” In Civil War-era America, as the country struggled to find unifying and binding national traditions, the mythic Christmas conjured by Dickens was adopted wholesale.
For several decades, the turkey starred at Yuletide feasts at home and abroad, but by the turn of the century in this country, the bird had become a charity staple—the government cheese of the merry-making world. “Once it started becoming associated with the poor on Ellis Island or orphan newsboys, the socially aspiring moved to beef and venison,” Kaufman said. By the late 19th century, snobbish cookbook writers were arguing for a return to European feudal traditions, in which wealthy landowners rewarded the peasantry for a year of hard labor with lavish spreads of beef and brawn. “There was the sense that turkey and goose is fine for the hoi polloi,” Kaufman explained, “but if you want to be elegant, you want to do beef or venison.”
Venison can be a fraught choice. Once, when the family was crammed in the Caprice Classic, driving through a snowstorm to my grandparents’ place in Illinois, the car hit and killed a deer. My father and grandfather strung up the animal in the barn and cut him into venison steaks. I remember, when they sliced through the stomach, field corn fell out. We kids refused to eat Rudolph. But eating “Babe,” a couple of decades on—well, with bacon and sausage on the breakfast table, that was less of a stretch. The pig has long been a staple on the holiday board. “This actually goes back to the Roman Saturnalia,” Kaufman explained—the annual pagan winter solstice feast in honor of Saturn, father of the gods. “There were lines from Martial, to the effect of, ‘This boar was fed on acorns to make your Saturnalia happy!’ ” she said. “I don’t think it ever really went in or out.”
In the 21st century, Saturnalia is a misty memory, if that; and since the World War II, traditions in this country have evolved to embrace the immigrant backgrounds of American households. For many Swedish-Americans, Christmas dinner wouldn’t look right without lefse and lingonberries, goose with cloudberry sauce, meatballs, and pickled herring; for Japanese-Americans, turkey is negotiable, but rice is not; Russian-Orthodox Americans expect salmon pie with hard-cooked eggs (kulebiaka); Italian-Americans might lay out seven kinds of fish; Vietnamese Americans may skip the feast entirely and hold out for the lunar New Year; and British-descended Americans still long for a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. The American Christmas feast increasingly celebrates the savors of the melting pot, and the room for additions to its menu is endless. Ms. Kaufman affirms, “There’s definitely not one meal.”
In England, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated, turkey still holds great allure as a once-a-year treat on Dec. 25; and traditionalists like to serve goose stuffed with chestnuts sage and onions, just like the Cratchits had it (even though goose was plebeian in the Cratchits day) and/or roast beef, which is never unwelcome on a Wedgwood plate. But in the colonies, turkey became the sine qua non of the iconic November meal, leaving the contents of December’s roasting pan a giant question mark. After all, how many times in quick succession can a person, with genuine relish, tuck into a dish that tastes, one critic observed, “like damp terrycloth”?
In the wake of the suckling hog debacle, my mother introduced ducks for Christmas. An entire flock of waterfowl (six) were sacrificed to feed 12 celebrating mouths. Thirteen, actually; one of the bassets, Ruby, dug the carcasses out of the trash, out in the snow by the carport, and gulped down so much duck fat that her liver shut down. She had to be rushed to the vet, where the doctors said her blood was like a duck-grease milkshake. After $3,000 of emergency medical treatment (including a canine blood transfusion), duck has fluttered off the menu, never to return.
This Christmas Eve, Mama is making chicken Kiev, stuffed with apricots. We’re not Russian, so this may not sound all that traditional, but it will be our tradition—at least this year. With any luck, nobody will scream at the unveiling, and no dog will end up in intensive care.