Rachel Laudan

The Wonder of Christmas Food Past

 

It seems almost impossible to believe now. The first supermarket I ever encountered was Sainsbury’s in Coventry, England in 1966 when I was in my early 20s. Although by today’s standards it was small, to me it was dazzling. In a single store you could  buy meat, bread, fruit and vegetables and you could even pick and choose from the shelves without waiting to be served.

Supermarkets began to appear in larger British cities around 1950.

In smaller towns they were unknown. Instead women set out most days of the week, basket over their arm, going from grocer to baker to greengrocer to butcher.

Out in the country, with limited access to transport, women like my mother depended on deliveries: bread on Tuesdays and Fridays, meat on Fridays, and groceries on Wednesdays.

Occasionally I went with my mother when she settled up with Mr Howell the grocer about once a month. We sat at the counter on bentwood chairs. Large canisters of different teas lined the shelves behind the counter and a few special items–perhaps an especially good cheese or a jar of crystallized violets–were displayed on the counter.  Everything else was in the back room. I usually had a taste of one of the specialities as my mother and Mr Howell chatted about the quality of the cheese and the bacon.

In between these visits, my mother simply phoned her order in on Tuesday. So never did I see shelves piled with groceries.

A couple of months before Christmas, my mother, like all English mothers in the 1950s, would add one or another Christmas specialty to her order, stockpiling them in a hidden place in the pantry.

On an early December evening, she bought out the first of these rarities, raisins, sultanas, and currants, when we settled down to make mincemeat for little pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding.

A few days before Christmas, it was time to wrap the cake in almond paste, so unutterably delicious, cover it with royal icing, add ornaments on top, and finish with a specially-bought Christmas frill.

Christmas cake covered with almond paste and royal icing. James Petts. CC Attribution Share Alike 2.0

On Christmas Eve, the rest of the treats appeared on a table in the sitting room.

A chipboard box, its lid illustrated with palms, camels, and stars, lined with doily paper, held dates still on the stem and even came with little two-pronged plastic forks to remove the dates.

Boxes of dates on the stem. Our forks were functional, no seductive ladies.

A round box held dried figs packed in neat circles, leathery and crunchy when you bit into them. Where dates and figs came from was a mystery.

Dried figs

 

Sugared almonds were my mother’s favorite, piled in a glass dish.

Sugared Almonds. Evan Ammo. CC Attribution Share Alike 3.00

A wooden bowl held nuts, always walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and brazils, released from the net bags in which they were sold and all ready to be cracked.

Walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and brazils. Wen95. CC Attribution Share Alike 3.0

Funny how we always thought of dried fruits and nuts as separate categories when in Spanish, I have since learned, they are grouped together under the one term frutos secos.

And finally, there was always a bowl of tangerines.

On Christmas Day we could finally begin tucking in to these treats. The first, early in the morning, was one of the tangerines, the very last item in the toe of our stockings hanging at the bottom of the bed.

Tangerine. Darwin Bell. CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

At midday dinner time, following the roast pheasant came the Christmas pudding with cream and a spoonful of brandy even for the children, extraordinary since at that period my parents did not drink except for an occasional bottle of cider on a picnic.

At tea, the ribbon was unwrapped from the Christmas cake and everyone had a slice even though we were all pretty full.

At long last, in the evening, often when other family members had arrived to visit, we could start on the rest. Walnut shells were saved to make into little boats. One or two brazils always had to be lit as we watched a food that could burn all by itself. The dates were dug out of the box with the fork, the leathery skin and the crunchy seeds of the figs commented on. Sucking on the sugared almonds, I wondered however the coating could be so even and so smooth.

Wonder.  It’s not something I ever thought about at the time. Not until years later when I was working on a book in the history of science did it ever occur to me to ask what wonder was. Then when I turned to Adam Smith’s Lectures on the History of Astronomy (yes, that Adam Smith), I found he opened his history of astronomy by defining the sentiments of surprise, admiration, and wonder. Why he did so, I won’t bother you with here, though I will say that the lectures are themselves both surprising and admirable.

“We wonder,” said Smith, “at all extraordinary and uncommon objects, at all the rarer phaenomena of nature, at meteors, comets eclipses, at singular plants and animals, and at every thing, in short, with which we have before been either little or not at all acquainted.”

Extraordinary and uncommon, things with which we had been little or not at all acquainted: those Christmas foods past were foods of wonder.

Wonder is far from gone from children’s Christmases. Trees, decorations, presents wrapped in paper, all spark wonder.

Is it possible, though, for children in contemporary Britain or America to wonder at food in quite the same way that British children of the 1950s did?

With the cornucopia in every supermarket, with tangerine-like fruits available year round, with nuts ready cracked and salted in plastic packets and jars, there is little with which any but the poorest are not acquainted.

If food is now so plentiful in the rich world that it’s no longer to be wondered at, that’s probably a good thing. Wonder was the other side of the coin from scarcity.

Pretty amazing, though, how food has changed in just one lifetime.

__________

 

Apologies. I realize as I read comments that many take this to be a comparison of Britain and the US. Not at all, though it was originally phrased that way just because I grew up in Britain and moved to the US. It’s a comparison of the food system in the mid twentieth century and now.

 

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21 thoughts on “The Wonder of Christmas Food Past

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    No question, we are awash with food of greater variety and quality than before.

    I wonder, so to speak, whether it’s really changed that much, though: holidays still feature particularly elaborate and tradition-laden and rich foods, and treats unpermitted during the rest of the year; there are still foods that we eat rarely due to their seasonal nature or distance and cost; there are still cuisines that are distant enough from our customary fare as to qualify as exotic.

    Most people still eat habitually. More varied than the pottage humble cuisines, but with a consistency that allows us to experience significant variations as adventures and wondrous events.

      1. Jonathan Dresner

        It’s not the food that evokes wonder, it’s the person who experiences it.

        Tomorrow we have planned two wondrous meals, both fairly simple in conception but laden with literary and cultural and family history to make them special events: a “Narnia Breakfast” (based on a line in one of Lewis’s later books in which dwarves were cooking mushrooms and bacon and eggs) that evokes childhood reading and family time; Chanukah Latkes (a bit delayed due to scheduling) which is a religious cultural tradition that hardly any Jewish family doesn’t have personal stories and customs around (I’m convinced that almost every Jewish family has their own recipe which is superior to every other recipe. I know ours is.)

        In a few days, we’ll drive up to St. Louis, and halfway between there and here is Dowd’s, the only place we eat catfish (except at home), a food that none of us particularly treasured before moving to this Ozark-adjacent region.

        We probably won’t have time this visit, but St. Louis is a place where we experience all kinds of wonder foods we can’t get around here: dim sum, Indian food (there’s a restaurant/bakery almost literally around the corner from my in-laws that is a hidden treasure), and fresh Fitz’s root beer.

        Is any of that wondrous food? I don’t know, but they’re special, rare, meaningful experiences.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          What a lovely response, Jon. I would love to be there for the Narnia breakfast or for the Chanukah latkes. And I think you have formulated one response to recent criticism of the term “ethnic” for restaurants as simply meaning cheap. When I first came across them in the 60s and 70s it was the delight of discovering other cuisines that I had not even imagined existed that led me to group them together as ethnic.

  2. mdwordsmith

    Maybe we Americans did not wonder in the 1950s (though not all were as comfortable as I was), but my parents generation certainly did in the 1930s. Every Christmas my mother reminded us of the wonder of an orange in the toe of her stocking in1930s Kansas, when refrigerated rail cars were new. Daddy remarked on getting a silver dollar in his stocking the first Christmas after his father died (Daddy was 11). He had a throng of Irish bachelor “uncles” who looked after him and my Grandmother, and they spoiled him a bit. The tree was my source of wonder, then and now.

  3. Bala

    Rachel,

    An example of a food that made me experience a sense of wonder when I first came to America (and to an extent even now) is the sticky toffee pudding that I discovered at a wonderful store in Chapel Hill, NC; I’d never tasted it in India with all the colonial influence. I can relate to the fruit cake wrapped in the “unutterably delicious” almond paste and royal icing; many in my family still love it with a distinct sense of wonder.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for that comment Bala. I had never tasted sticky toffee pudding in Britain either. It dates from the 1970s!

  4. Vanda J Pollard

    You have describe almost exactly our Christmas foods in a little Sussex village, the only difference is we made the Christmas puds and cake in October and then kept saturating them in alcohol every month. I’d forgotten about the dates with their own unique fork but who can forget the tangerine in the toe of your stocking? Thank you for the wonderful memories and Merry Christmas.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for commenting. I have been amazed how universal that Christmas line up was in Britain.

  5. Jacqui Newling

    Thank you for this thought provoking and nostalgic post Rachel. I wonder too, at the loss of wonder, and indeed, value, in these traditional foods which weren’t simply things to eat but time honoured practices and pastimes. (It staggers me that chocolate Easter eggs are still an entity when children have chocolate almost anytime; it can only be the colored foil or whimsy from the ‘bunny’).
    I love that the dried fruit pudding, the figs and dates once considered so exotic, (we can still buy them here in Australia the way you describe them) tie Christmas to its Middle Eastern origins, uniting us with our Arabic cousins.
    In Australia it is the American turkey and cranberry sauce that reigns over pheasant or goose, with the ubiquitous ham or roast pork, although many of us now choose seafood as a concession to the summer heat. But the pudding still
    prevails, alongside pavlova or trifle!

    On a more playful note, thank you for rekindling the memory of walnut shell boats. We also used them as ‘mangers’ or cribs, lined with cotton wool for those little pink plastic babies! Such simple joys.
    Happy Christmas, Jacqui

  6. ganna ise

    In the USSR of the 1980s, Wonder Food was bananas (green, from Cuba, sold once a year, people formed queues going thrice around a city block) and olives (black, unpitted, canned, sold in Moscow only).

    My hometown Tallinn hosted the sailing events during the infamous Moscow Olympics. For one brief summer there were wonders like sliced bacon, Pepsi Cola, juices in tiny packages, and chewing gum. Gum revered from bubblies to peppermint flavour suits all, Pepsi and Fanta stayed but the rest vanished without trace as soon as the foreigners were gone.

    By 1990, the food situation was somewhere between a crisis and a disaster. In 1992, at my fathers 60th birthday, I had the most wonderful food ever , shashlyk, pork marinated with onions and vinegar and grilled on skewers over a bonfire. I had not eaten meat for some half a year, there just was no meat to buy. So I sat there stuffing myself and ignored the contractions as long as humanly possible. By the time my daughter was born early next morning, however, I had vomited out all that meat. Bye bye cleverness and gluttony LOL. At the time I had never seen a pineapple, a parsnip, a can of tuna, a pheasant, a cob of corn, or a jar of peanut butter. I had seen a kiwi twice, and once someone returning from abroad brought us oh yes those dates with a little plastic fork! We sliced them really thin and ate them on festive occasions for a year and half! And then someone else, coming from Parts Foreign, gave me a taste of (and for) maple syrup!

    As for Christmas, officially the Soviets were Atheists. To ensure this, any New Year stuff from tangerines to tinsel to fir trees was never sold before Dec 27th.

    For the aforementioned Olympic Regatta they built the Goods Hall. To show we have supermarkets, too. OMG that was pure grotesque. However, we had ‘one queue paying at the counter’ style groceries while the Russian style, as I witnessed in Yeliseevs of St.Petersburg as late as 1995 went like this, you queue up to the counter and ask the fat lady for what you want, she gives you a paper slip, you queue to present it to the cashier and pay, the cashier gives you a paper slip confirming you have paid, you queue back to the counter, the fat lady behind it grunts and wraps up your purchases. If I had to invent a system to waste as much time as possible that would be the principle.

  7. Margot

    What a gorgeous description and meditation on food and wonder.

    I think the only experience I’ve had that might be comparable is having the tasting menu at WD-40. Hugely labor-intensive, and designed to amuse and surprise and delight, from the punny “pho gras” with foie in an aromatic broth to “peas and carrots” in one dish where the peas were carrot spheres dusted in pea powder and the carrots some kind of cubed pea essence to something that looked like a toasted marshmallow but was actually some kind of ice cream? Marshmallow something somewhere else on the plate. Missing the ritual aspects of an annual tradition, but similarly distant from the foods anyone encounters everyday.

    Although I do think the artificial flavors and powdered cheese and ranch that flavor “junk foods” are pretty miraculous and not so different from the foams and powders characteristic of “molecular gastronomy,” those are so ubiquitous they don’t often spark wonder.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, I think I had something a little similar at El Celar de Can Roca, my one visit to a really high end restaurant. And thanks for emphasizing the amazing transformations wrought by cooking. Quite extraordinary and we are numbed to them.

  8. Robyn

    Encountering unfamiliar foods while traveling can evoke wonder. My first taste of prickly ash in China at 21 years, of fresh anchovies in my mid-40s on the Black Sea (and the realization that this amazing food was no big deal to locals), of coconut palm sugar in Malaysia a few years before that. Wonder that spurred obsession and research. If you werent aware of a food’s existence, or were only peripherally aware of it, and try it for the first time (and like it) …. I think there is a world of wonder out there for those lucky enough to take advantage of it. I look forward to experiencing wonder in 2018 and, hopefully, beyond.
    A really lovely piece Rachel. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for the thoughts, Robyn. Yes, you are right, there are lots of foods that have never found their way to the western supermarkets and can still evoke wonder. Happy New Year to the two of you too and I hope that leg is improving fast.

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  10. Claudia Kinmonth

    That was an enjoyable and evocative acccount that reminded me of the separate greengrocer and butcher shops in (now super smart) Holland Park in London. The latter where sawdust was strewn on the floor and dogs were still allowed in. Until my mother objected to the dogs. I’m struggling to recall the first supermarkets but here in Ireland the selection in the local village shop (selling everything you needed from the cradle to the grave) was poor. My mother complained they sold only carrots or cabbage, rarely both on the same day. However they had snuff, China, hardware that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, and parrafin lamps, and operated as the only landline for miles, all on credit… CK

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello Claudia. Yes, even in places like Holland Park which was still cheap enough when I was in university to spend summers there camping out in the flats of school friends there were these sawdust strewn butchers with whole carcasses with the cattle show rosette proudly displayed. At their best these shops were excellent, at their worst, well . . . Happy New Year to you.


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