Many Christmas menus this year include potato gratin, stewed pears and meat with red wine sauce. We return to these classic dishes year after year. How it works, tell two culinary experts who study the history of what we eat.
December parties have been around for centuries. But the tradition of turning Christmas dinner into a big feast is not far away: until the middle of the nineteenth century. “We in Europe and America were strongly influenced by the United Kingdom, particularly Queen Victoria,” says culinary historian Manon Henson.
We adopted many of the traditions of the British royal family, such as putting up a Christmas tree and having a lavish Christmas party. Before that, people gathered together. They went to church on Christmas Eve, but that was it.
“Christmas is traditionally a time to strengthen family ties and make sure we’re together,” says culinary journalist Claretje Scheepers. “It involves some family ritual, so you put it on the menu. It often means repetition: Mom, you’ll make your delicious stewed pears again, won’t you?”
Because of the rituals, the food at Christmas is less sensitive to trends than what we put on the table later in the year. “We don’t have to eat something too special. We like to go back to the classics, with or without a twist. In times of crisis, when our commitments are called into question, it’s even more so. You can also see The All kinds Over the years,” says Scheepers, who wrote a book about the seventy-year history of the well-known Albert Heine magazine and Dutch food culture.
Abundant wildlife in winter
We choose winter foods mainly at Christmas time. “Take, for example,” Henson says. “Historically, a lot of game is always eaten during the winter and especially during the holidays. If possible, we eat a little more extravagantly than usual. It’s always been that way.”
The elite ate game they shot themselves and the commoners ate beef instead of cheaper pork. “A more expensive and better cut of meat than a normal weekday,” says Henson. “Even normal people eat meat on holidays. He doesn’t eat it every day.”
Turkey is never broken in our country. You don’t see traditional Christmas puddings here very often.
Meat is still the basis of many Christmas menus. “Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, stewed fruit and winter vegetables like carrots and beetroot, meat with red wine sauce and potatoes are also on the table for many Dutch people at Christmas. Although we’ve started to cook more adventurously – and a lot more vegetarian – in recent years,” says Scheepers. “Festive winter dishes, mostly from our own Dutch kitchen. You don’t have easy rice at Christmas, but once upon a time the Chinese Christmas menu was on it. All kinds stopped.”
And yet we don’t know any real Christmas classics in the Netherlands, says Hensen. “This year, 70 per cent of Brits will have a stuffed turkey on the table for Christmas. Turkey has never done that in our country. And is traditional. Christmas pudding You don’t see that often around here.” Perhaps it’s because of our increased focus on Sinterklaas. “Families have been getting together to celebrate Sinterklaas since the seventeenth century. As a result, Christmas in our country is still smaller and surrounded by fewer traditions.”
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