I’ve been thinking about food traditions and celebratory eating habits of late. My youngest is off in the wilds of Canada (well, really just Vancouver if I’m to be completely honest) on her student exchange and her host family took her with them to celebrate Thanksgiving with family in Oregon in the USA. She has returned to Canada singing the praises of pumpkin pie, which in turn led my brain to turn to thoughts of turkey dinners and other celebratory meats. Many of us are in the process of planning our Christmas meals here in Australia and for quite a few of us, this is the one time of the year when we will contemplate the roasting of those over-sized, foolish fowls. Of course they are the cornerstone of North American Thanksgiving meals and I, for one, always assumed turkey was the traditional dish because they were native to the region, plentiful and what the pilgrim fathers would have dined on to commemorate their thankfulness. It turns out I am quite wrong about this and it is actually a habit that evolved much later. In colonial times turkeys were eaten year-round and thus considered commonplace, whereas November was the time of the year when the pigs were slaughtered, making the ribs a treat that was not often to be found outside of that period.
In England and Europe the celebratory table birds included turkey, which was introduced there in the 16th century and considered quite exotic. However, all large birds were fair game for the Christmas menu, with the level of festivity considered to be in direct proportion to the size of the bird. Peacocks and swans were to be found upon the tables of the wealthy, but it is the goose that has enjoyed lasting popularity in this part of the world. The ceremonial killing and eating of geese has it’s roots in ancient times. Being migratory birds, they appeared and disappeared at regular times in the yearly cycle. They were linked with the changing seasons and sacrificed to give thanks for the harvest and for the ritual feast of winter solstice. While they were a costly extravagance for the poor, in Victorian England working class families belonged to “Goose Clubs” where members joined together in order to purchase a meal that might otherwise be out of their financial reach. I suspect these clubs were probably the forerunners of todays Christmas clubs.
Another celebratory meat that seems to have slipped down the popularity charts in later years is the boars head. It was a staple of medieval banquets and in Tudor times it was often the centrepiece of the Christmas meal, presented with much style and decoration. This dish also had its roots in ancient times when the boar, as a much feared beast and a danger to humans, was hunted and served at Roman feasts. The tradition was absorbed and adapted in later times and it’s presentation at Christmas subsequently came to represent the triumph of Christ over sin. The annual Boars Head Feast is the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season. It is still celebrated with strict rituals in several colleges both in Oxford and Cambridge and was also exported by the colonials to the United States.
While I am quite fond of some traditions and understand their value and cultural significance, I think I might just stick with a leg of ham when I’m planning our Christmas feast.