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Pudding and roast beast:  A New Year’s feast c.1412, from “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, a book of hours

I have a relatively Grinchy attitude towards Christmas and I have found a kindred spirit in Elizabeth David, who fantasises, in a 1959 article for Vogue (reprinted in Is There A Nutmeg In The House?, Penguin, £12.99) about a “lovely selfish anti-gorging” Christmas: “an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine.” If you cook every day, or nearly, and try to do it well, it seems almost insulting to be so preoccupied with feasting for such a short time. And yet, as Elizabeth David says, fatalistically: “The grisly orgy of spending and cooking and anxiety has to be faced.” Every year my heart shrivels, until like the Grinch’s it is “two sizes too small” (this year it happened at about 6pm on November 5, when I realised the Oxford Street Christmas lights were already up), but I come from a large family (three younger sisters, many cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents), and it’s what we do, and when the time comes you have to be incredibly determined to resist it.

Elizabeth David believed her dream “must be shared by thousands of women” and I feel sure that women are still disproportionately taking on the work of Christmas. My mother describes it as “the maternal role to end all maternal roles. And for anything more than five people it’s not a one-woman job.” But when I read out Elizabeth David’s complaints — of spending days “peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming” — she protested that for her that never happens.

Here we come to our family’s not-very-secret weapon: offspring who all care quite a lot about food. (We’ve also all worked at a farm shop and restaurant, in north Norfolk, in which our parents are partners.) A large family means more work but also means you can tag in and tag out as required; if you need to escape for a couple of hours (and everyone has to do this at some point), there are enough people that you won’t be missed. We take turns as sous-chef, commis-chef, and plongeur. The chef de cuisine still needs to be in charge of timing and of assigning tasks but if all goes well we are as efficient as the lobby-boys in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Crises are rare and nothing in an emergency is irreplaceable: in the days of post-rationing economy my great-grandmother made not brandy butter (both brandy and butter being unavailable) but whisky margarine. (I suggest Standpoint readers make this thrifty substitution.)

A roast beast is one of the easier ways of feeding a large number of people. Even if you fantasise (as I sometimes do) about a fully Tudor or even medieval Christmas (frumenty, marchpane subtleties, soused trotters) there is inescapably at the centre of English Christmas a roast: goose, cygnet, boar’s head. Florence White’s 1932 Good Things In England (reprinted by Persephone Books, £12) devotes an entire chapter to “The Roast Meat Of Old England”. A correspondent laments that “good cooking in England went out when closed kitchen ranges and stoves were introduced”, and rather forcefully claims that roasting on a spit over an open fire was “the perfect method”.

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