The family ritual of being the Christmas Day chef (with Nigella Lawson's help)
Eating the feast is a pleasure for everyone celebrating on the day, but for The Financial Times’ John Gapper, preparing it (using a celebrity chef's cookbook) is also something to relish.
From ceremonial banquets to dinner parties, feasts are important social and familial rituals. At our house, Christmas lunch is the most significant meal of all. But, as the anthropologist Chloe Nahum-Claudel has written, “a feast’s consummation is often rather transitory in contrast to the elaborate labours that lead up to it”.
I know this because some of those elaborate labours are performed by me – not so much table-setting and present-wrapping, but cooking lunch. To be more exact, cooking the main course while the puddings are handled by the bakers, my wife Rosie and our two daughters.
Each Christmas morning, when I rise early to infuse the milk for bread sauce with bay leaves, nutmeg and an onion with cloves, I feel the satisfaction that comes from having done the same for so many years. Eating Christmas lunch is a pleasure but preparing it is a reward.
If I am honest, it is an annual sport in which I compete against myself, trying to beat past records for juicy breast meat, fragrant sauce and correctly cooked vegetables. Perhaps, a psychiatrist might say, I strive to match the standard set by my late mother in bringing all the elements to fruition at once.
Her sprouts are on my mind as I shed the outer leaves and store them in a bowl: She used to cut a cross in each base but I do not bother. I also recall my childhood as I press cloves into the onion – the day when my thumb throbbed from studding cloves into oranges for a church stall.
Age has its drawbacks but there is something profound about reliving this ritual time after time, year after year. Each meal somehow has a flavour of all those that came before, with parents passing on, children growing older, in-laws appearing, but the feast constant.
Our last generational transition came after our first daughter was born in 1998, the year Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat: The Pleasures And Principles Of Good Food appeared. As she grew up, and we took Nigella’s advice to buy a superior Bronze turkey from Borough Market, our mothers happily accepted the invitation to have Christmas lunch made for them instead.
Both are gone now, yet we continue. Our irregular circle of guests has widened – sisters, brothers, nephews, cousins. I have not advanced far from How To Eat; after making a cup of tea, I open a dog-eared and food-stained copy of Nigella’s Feast At The Christmas pages. I once tried brining a large turkey in spiced water, as she recommends, but I got wet while the turkey remained dry.
No matter, for this year we will have a cockerel from our local butcher; that will be enough for four of us in a pandemic year. Milk infusing in a pan, I start to peel my way through piles of vegetables: Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sprouts. The familial debate over which should be boiled and which roasted extends across years.
None of it demands great skill; the challenge is to coordinate everything, melting goose fat for potatoes before roasting them; tearing up bread for the sauce (having forgotten once again to leave it out to go stale – sorry, Nigella); timing trays of vegetables; basting the bird and taking its temperature.
It is all so straightforward and I have practised it so many times that I should not be tense. But I know the reviews will be exacting if the sprouts are mushy or the sauce is salty (it was once unforgivably so). It is late morning before I let myself relax a little.
We open presents, then the kitchen fills with other activity: stuffings being mixed and placed in trays, a trifle whipped up. I open some champagne for a tipple and peer into the oven, hoping all is working out as it usually does.
I carve, we sit. Family and guests pile plates with meat and vegetables, spoon cranberry sauce (from a jar) and pour gravy. There is a pregnant pause before collective judgment of whether the feast is up to scratch. To gain high marks, for everyone to tuck in, is delicious relief.
Later, there will be a post-mortem as we mull over the meal and wonder what elements might be tweaked the following year. It is part of the digestive process. “I think there should have been two boats of gravy,” Rosie observed one year, reducing us both to helpless laughter.
“Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honoured guests,” the anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote. This is the ritual that means the most. One day, I hope that Christmas lunch will be cooked for us by our daughters; for now, I will carry on.
By John Gapper © 2020 The Financial Times