What is traditional Christmas cooking? Well, that depends on you and your family. Tradition is something you make up as you go along. A traditional Christmas is what is traditional in your home. It may be a recipe handed down from your great grandmother or it may be something you thought of in a desperate hurry last Christmas Eve. Anything can become a tradition. What makes something traditional depends on how we feel about it.
That said, once something becomes traditional then you change it at your peril. If your children expect to come home to stir the Christmas pudding and put in the family favors then you had better not change it. They may be away at college or carving out a big career for themselves in the city but they will still expect Christmas to be the Christmas they remember. Christmas cooking is a big part, maybe the biggest part, of the way we remember Christmas.
Every part of Christmas is accompanied by food of one sort or another. The tastes and smells of that food fixes the memory of Christmas in our minds. That smell of cinnamon or hot sugar. If we catch a hint of it anywhere at anytime we are transported instantly back in time to a Christmas kitchen of our childhood. That is the power of traditional Christmas cooking.
I remember how when my mother-in-law was alive and would come to us for Christmas dinner, I had to cook a big traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Turkey seemed a very dry meat to me so I looked through one of my cookery books and found a recipe that involved glazing the turkey with apricot jam for the last 15 minutes of cooking. As a “proper” cook I was appalled, but it seemed to work, so every year I poured a pot of apricot jam over my turkey and, I have to confess, it was delicious.
When my mother-in-law died I saw the opportunity to change our family’s traditional Christmas cooking routine. At last my culinary skills would find true expression in a Christmas dinner that would be original and exciting. No more apricot jam for me. I would amaze family and friends with my creations. But no matter what I tried in subsequent years nothing was quite as good as the old turkey recipe with its apricot jam. It had become part of our family’s traditional Christmas cooking. So I gave in and everyone was much happier, even me.
However good a cook you are and whatever new recipes you may attempt in the rest of the year Christmas is a time to come back to traditional Christmas cooking whatever that might be for you and your family. There is a profound wisdom in that which cooks too easily forget. When we cook we are engaging in one of the great acts of social ritual. We are not just cooking for ourselves we are cooking for other people. Our Christmas dinner table expresses not just our skill but our human relationships. Traditional Christmas cooking encapsulates all those relationships, gathered over the years, with people still living and people long since dead that go into making us what we are. At Christmas ghosts sit down at out tables. Traditional Christmas cooking makes sure they are happy ones.