Every now and then it feels necessary to step back from the daily bombardment of unpleasant news that can wrench your spirit into a forlorn space. It helps to summon cheerful thoughts that remind us that there is beauty around us, and that life very often goes on inside our heads and we can control how we respond to what’s swirling on the outside.
In a burst of seasonal curiosity, I’ve been asking people what dish most represents Christmas to them. Part of my interest is because we truly live in a space with a deeply textured cultural background. All kinds of lives have planted themselves down here and spread massive roots. I want to know what their traditions are. No matter how far removed, a taste of home always lingers on the palate.
I find that often, when one contemplates the things that bring most pleasure, it comes from childhood memories.
Several dishes have come to be associated with Christmas: hams, pastelles, baked chicken with stuffing, garlic pork, turkey, pigeon peas, festive versions of rice, macaroni pies, and so on. The ovens are busy inhaling and exhaling the black cakes and sponges, the sweetbreads and homemade breads and now cookies and biscuits join the list of baked goods.
Sorrel must be the ubiquitous drink in every household, no matter whatever else is served up—like ponche de crème and ginger beer. Apples and grapes have fallen by the wayside as the fruits of the season, but they still feature in the parade.
I figure everyone has their favourite dish; that one plateful that has to be present for the Christmas day meal to feel complete. I am so keen to hear what that dish might be.
I know for me it is a baked chicken with stuffing and bread, which comes from childhood.
When we were children, my mother would bake a whole chicken twice a year. One on Christmas Eve, and the other on Old Year’s night. It always seemed to be a big production to me, perhaps because it came at the end of the confusion of the unspeakable household rumpus that went on for weeks beforehand.
I know everyone is familiar with the cleaning and dusting and polishing—even if they no longer do it themselves. Our floors would have been painted probably earlier in the week, usually red, and even the day after your foot would leave a delicate impression on the supposedly dry surface. That tradition was replaced by linoleum later, and the it would be a bedlam of cutting and fitting it into place.
In those days, it was also the shopping for fabric to sew new curtains, which mostly went up on Christmas Eve, thankfully accompanied by the aroma of bread and chicken in the oven. That marked the end.
I confess, I do not miss those traditions.
I believe the upheaval disoriented me so wildly, that as an adult, I do not partake in those rituals. Cleaning happens, but I have never felt inclined to ‘put away’ my house for the season.
Decorations are limited to poinsettia plants. No lights, no tree, no tinsel garlands and bows. Writing this, it occurs to me that it must have been a pretty dull place to visit. The options seemed very foreign to me, and frankly, I have never been attracted to shiny things.
What made the season special was cooking and having friends over—a big miss this year.
Still, the baked chicken has remained the centre of everything else that evolved.
One bird, not a big one, fed the six of us. I still can’t figure out how my three siblings and I had it for Christmas Eve dinner and for breakfast the following morning. It really went a long way. Maybe the hot, homemade bread with butter that always accompanied it, filled us up.
My mother made the stuffing with the giblets, which one of us would grind in the meat grinder (which I think is somewhere in my cupboard) along with the chive bundle, and the onions, garlic and pepper. Then she would sauté this with the Crix biscuits, which we would reduce to crumbs with a rolling pin, and then stuff the bird. She would sew up the opening with black thread, to make sure it was visible after, and into the oven it would go.
My own recipe has changed considerably since. I was never a fan of the taste of liver, so I use a combination of gizzards and minced chicken. I don’t stuff the chicken with it though; I prefer to bake it separately, as I am always wary of how quickly a stuffed bird can deteriorate. In our time, it didn’t last long enough for spoilage!
Over the years, it became my role to bake chickens and make the stuffing (dressing, really) for our growing family. One year, I think I did eight on Christmas Eve. I never undertook bread-making—that has never been my thing. It’s become more difficult for me to manage, so now I only commit to doing the stuffing on the larger scale. But it is still the one dish I make only two times for the year, once on Christmas Eve and the other on Old Year’s night. I suppose that because I do not have it often, it retains its special meaning.
It’s a pleasant respite to revisit a happy childhood memory—a good way to lift the mood.