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”.
My sisters and I conveniently have different and complementary areas of Christmas specialisation. One makes delicate chocolate-covered peppermint creams. One is particularly good at wrapping up. One prefers food to be, as she says, “fast, delicious, no faffing”, and gets bored if something is going to take longer than half an hour. I tend towards hoarding and preserving, and like to make things which can quietly sit in the fridge or freezer until they are needed.
Here are some of the cooking projects I will probably have going over the Christmas period: gravadlax (nothing could be easier: bury a slab of salmon in dill, salt and sugar, and leave for a few days); cheaty, very simple florentines (an Ottolenghi recipe: flaked almonds, egg white, icing sugar, orange zest); fruit liqueurs (from raspberries picked in the summer and frozen); sharp refreshing ices (cranberry granita, clementine sorbet) which can be brought out at a moment’s notice when an amuse-bouche feels appropriate. We have homemade elderflower cordial and raspberry shrub syrup left from the summer.
I also (most of my family think this is revolting) reserve the grease which comes out of the turkey, stick it in a sterilised Kilner jar, and use it for confiting things later in the year — or for semi-experimental cooking which might not result in a meal. It keeps perfectly well but disconcertingly doesn’t set in the fridge.
None of us likes decorating the tree: it’s prickly, time-consuming, and something always gets broken. Going outside into the woods with secateurs and little saws to collect greenery is much more fun. Ivy grows in straight lines on tree trunks and can be pulled down easily. A great achievement is finding mistletoe growing at a level you can actually pick, not in the unreachable treetops. (Old apple trees are a good place to look.) And we view decorating the table for breakfast on Christmas morning as a great creative opportunity: last year we made a tableau of plastic Tintin characters (Christmas presents from many years ago) attempting to flee a toy Orangina van, but hemmed in by pink plastic flamingos (props from a short film by one of my sisters) and tangerines. One year we made our own Christmas crackers. I would not recommend it except as an opportunity for pranks. We filled them with any small objects we could find: Cheerios, individually wrapped sugar cubes, picture hooks, last year’s cracker gifts which we found still lingering in a drawer, illuminating the essential truth that no one really wants what is inside a cracker; the cracker is a Sphinx without a secret.
To my mind the only really stressful piece of cooking is making the gravy, because it has to happen at the last minute, and because everyone cares about it too much. As Florence White says, quoting Henry Thompson’s 1879 Food and Feeding: “The Englishman . . . cares not how little of ‘sauce’ is supplied, he demands only ‘gravy’.” Even this seems like minimal toil, compared to the medieval cook with her open fire and spit, pounding loaves of sugar and whole almonds into marchpane. But fortunately if I don’t want to do it I can always tag out.