Charles Dickens was a genius, and possibly clairvoyant. In the heaving, exciting, exhausting two-month run-up to a modern-day Christmas lunch — selecting recipes, planning menus, choosing which celebrity chef to emulate — what better description than this: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .”
Popular cookery now seems diametrically confused. We have retro-austerity, and elaborate aspirational cuisine; eco-awareness, and junk food eaten by the ton; while impish molecular gastronomists add to the confusion by turning cookery into art, science or both.
No wonder increasing numbers of us turn to pizza or cornflakes while watching Jamie or Nigella on the box. But even they, with their graters and blenders, ovens and pans and things that need washing-up, are coming to seem labour-intensive compared to simply switching on the microwave.
From this perspective, Christmas lunch is a culinary nightmare. You can’t roast a turkey in a microwave. Ordering in is not an option. The pressure to conform is immense, expectations non-negotiable, and practical experience limited. The hapless cook is trapped between a rock and a roasting tin.
The irony is that, far from being complicated, Christmas lunch is a relic of a simpler diet. It belongs to a tradition of cheap, healthy, meat & two veg meals: food that many retailers and manufacturers really don’t want us to enjoy. A plateful of stuffed poultry, potatoes roasted in butter, bright green sprouts & toothsome chestnuts does the average human nothing but good. It’s ironic that this meal, once glorified for its aura of excess, increasingly seems an excellent nutritional choice.
Let’s reclaim Christmas lunch. Polish the glasses, roast a slightly large fowl, steam a foolishly large pudding, and then focus on the main objects: friendly human relationships, and something greater than our personal wants.
Good luck, everybody