Christmas is nearly upon us! I hope you are more prepared than I am. 😄
Since I am apparently committed to a holiday food theme for this year (Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day), I figured we would close out with historic Christmas foods and meals! My family has their favorite food traditions for Christmas, especially the almond cookies mom made every year. I don’t remember a year without a ham either. But how did families in the past celebrate? Let’s take a look!
Historic Bills of Fare
Before we had holiday menus, we had “bills of fare.” Some cookbooks provided suggested menus to serve seasonally or on special holidays and feast days. Nearly all of them are eye-wateringly caloric, meat-centric, and extravagant. So, basically, not much has changed. 😉
1685: The Accomplisht Cook
In the 17th century, cookbooks were written by the wealthy for the wealthy. In this case, Robert May, a French-trained English chef, put together his collection of “an exact account of all Dishes for Seasons of the Year, with other A-la-mode Curiosities.” Fancy! Here we take a look at the 5th (posthumous) edition of his The Accomplisht Cook, from 1685. This book was most likely found in very posh houses on both sides of the pond, though some substitutions would have been required in the colonies.
For Christmas, he put together quite the spread:
This is a carnivore’s dream table! The not-meat options are: a grand sallet [salad] (may have also had meat in it), a custard, oranges and lemons (decorative or to eat?), quince pye [pie], warden [type of pear] pie , fruit tart, and possibly the jellies, depending on what’s in them. Only fruit would be vegan.
Sweet-breads are deceptive for Americans: they are actually organ meats, not tasty brioche. And the “made dish” could be anything put into puff pastry. So perhaps an opportunity to sneak in a few veggies?
It is possible there were standing assumptions about the side dishes. For example, there may have been standard vegetables or breads that went with these dishes. Or, given the time of year, maybe you used whatever you had access to and rolled with it?
So. Much. Food.
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It also appears that all of this was presumed to be served at one meal! This was published 140 years after Henry VIII, but I think he would have approved. The sheer number of animals listed, especially poultry, is amazing. We have a much more limited diet now!
Happily, most of the dishes on the menu have accompanying recipes in the cookbook. You can check out a transcribed copy of The Accomplisht Cook on the Gutenberg Project or purchase a facsimile copy here [affiliate link].
What about your family? Have you been able to trace them back to the 1680s? Would they have been able to afford such a meal? Would they have even celebrated Christmas? Some of mine definitely didn’t celebrate–Puritans were not down with the Christmas.
1877: Buckeye Cookery
Moving forward almost two hundred years, we have the Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping by Estelle Woods Wilcox. A native of Ohio (the Buckeye State), she had already moved to Minneapolis by the time the original edition was published in 1876. It was thankfully a modest success. So she and her husband, who was in the newspaper business, ran with it.
Our edition–the second, published in 1877–launched their publishing empire. Per Michigan State University, Estelle and her husband oversaw 32 editions of Buckeye Cookery, a southern-themed The Dixie Cookbook, several other book titles, and a long running domestic advice magazine called The Housekeeper. Not bad!
Buckeye Cookery also has an inspirational dedication to “plucky” housewives:
Estelle keeping it real, 1876 style. Sadly, I’m fairly certain the dust bunnies are actually in charge in my house. 😐
A Buckeye Christmas
What was recommended for Christmas 1877? The suggested bill of fare was more modest, with much more familiar foods:
While less impressive than the 1685 fare, this is still quite the meal! However, unlike Robert May, Estelle does allow the cook some leeway:
“These bills of fare are suggestions to assist the housekeeper in providing what is seasonable for daily fare and for extra occasions, rather than arbitrary rules. They may be varied, divided, or subdivided to suit tastes, purses, and events.”
Whew! Also, I want to start using “pease” for the plural of pea going forward. Anyone with me? 😄
We once again see the relative importance of poultry on the menu. Before mass chicken production, poultry was an expensive dish. Except for the old, tough rooster when his time came, according to my mom. She was not a fan. Apparently coq au vin had not made its way to 1940s rural Indiana!
Like The Accomplisht Cook, we have several options to explore the full Buckeye menu. There is a facsimile print available on Amazon [affiliate link] and, for the frugal housekeeper, a scanned copy is available on Google Books.
Which menu would you want to try? Were there any no-go foods? For me, it’s sweet-breads. That’s a hard no. But I would love to try some of the (non-organ meat!) pastry dishes from both menus, savory or sweet. I’m a sucker for food wrapped in dough.
For Your Viewing Pleasure
It wouldn’t be a GC food post without some videos!
We begin with the famous Christmas Pudding! Here is the Townsends’ take on the historic dish (with fire!):
For a version in a modern kitchen, check out Max Miller’s recipe.
For more Max goodness, he recently tackled historic mincemeat–the kind with actual meat in it! And yes, I had that question every year eating my aunt’s mincemeat treats. But I was scared to ask!
To take us into the 20th century, the late, great Clara Cannucciari of Great Depression Cooking shared her mother’s Chocolate Almond Biscotti recipe:
And if you would like to dive deeper into a Victorian Christmas with English Heritage and Mrs. Crocombe, check out their annual video and activity idea collection.
Now that you are hungry and hopefully in the mood to cook, what are your holiday food traditions? Will you add any historical recipes to the menu this year? Swan pye, perhaps? 😉
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy Researching Everyone!
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Header Image: Created using Canva, ©Michelle Keel 2021
Christmas Vacation GIF: From Imgur.
1685 Bill of Fare: Excerpt taken from the The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, 1685. Facsimile reproduction by Project Gutenberg, EBook #22790. Public Domain.
17th Century Food Still Life: de Heem, Jan Davidsz.; Still Life with Lobster; The Wallace Collection; Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Plucky Housewife: Except taken from Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping by Estelle Woods Wilcox, 1877, from scanned copy on Google Books. Public Domain.
1877 Menu: Food list taken from Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping by Estelle Woods Wilcox, 1877. Graphic created by the author, ©Michelle Keel 2021