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Let’s start this by admitting that everything we assume about what everyone else does on Christmas Day is probably wrong. And certainly within the field of Christmas dinner, in Britain as in America, There are traditions, and there are people who don’t adhere to them. And then there are people who like to bend the rules, and then there are innovators, and between that lot is some kind of map that says “In this general area is some food, some of the ingredients may not be what you expect.”
I, for example, never had a pickled walnut until I was in my twenties. I didn’t even know they existed. And yet for some families these are as much as part of Christmas as that pleasant 11am glow when most of the presents are open and you’ve found all the batteries. On the other hand, I would venture that a Christmas dinner without sprouts is no Christmas dinner at all, and yet they remain such a controversial foodstuff that some families opt out of serving them at all.
So, with that in mind, here’s a brief guide as to what to expect if you’re ever invited to a British household for Christmas dinner.
There’s a tradition that the starter is something with seafood in it, like a shrimp cocktail or something similar. If I sound vague on this point it’s just because this is one of those things not every family does, and when there’s this enormous a pile of food on the way, with dessert and cheeses to follow, avoiding the starter is possibly no bad thing.
So, assuming you’re not too freaked out by shrimp (we call them prawns, that’s all you need to know), let’s move on to the main course.
The first and most important thing to note is that the dinner is basically the same as an American thanksgiving turkey roast. Except we don’t mash the potatoes, we roast them in oil, so they’re like golden hooves. We also don’t candy our yams. Or even buy them. What is a candied yam anyway? It doesn’t sound nice. Is it nice?
It used to be traditional to eat goose for Christmas, which people still do. And duck too, but in the main it’s turkey, roasted and served with stuffing. And then a bunch of vegetables, most commonly carrots (sliced and boiled), parsnips (sliced and roasted), turnip/swede (mashed), and of course, the dreaded sprouts. Some people do a sweetened red cabbage dish, others plump for asparagus tips or shallots or cabbage or cauliflower or broccoli. Some even make a special cauliflower cheese, which sits awkwardly amid the gravy like a dollop of sherry trifle in a chili, but is actually rather nice.
On the meat platter, ready to receive the carved turkey, it’s common to add mini-sausages, or mini-sausages wrapped in bacon (which are called pigs in blankets). It’s strange to think of sausages as a garnish, but that’s essentially how they’re used, to add a salty flavor to the relatively bland turkey meat. Other garnishes on offer include cranberry sauce and bread sauce, and even if you only have a small amount of each of these things, you’re going to be eating a LOT of food.
Now, opinion is divided as to when the right time to pull the Christmas crackers may be. Some say before the starter course, some prefer to do it while the turkey is being carved, and some wait until everyone is too full to eat dessert and use them as an enforced buffer in the shoveling-in of food.
But once the jokes have been told and the paper hats put on heads. it’s time for Christmas pudding, traditionally served on fire. And once again, opinion is divided as to what makes a perfect garnish. Whatever it is, it’s probably boozy: brandy butter (exactly what you think it is) or brandy sauce (white custard with brandy in it). Single cream is also available, and I have heard of people using natural yogurt or crème fraîche instead, but you can’t really escape the booze, as that is the thing that was on fire in the first place.
After this, it’s time to collapse in front of the TV, only to emerge a few hours later to lay out a cheese board, some mince pies and maybe even put together a turkey, stuffing and ham sandwich, if you’re feeling peckish.
Whatever you do, it won’t reduce the mountain of food significantly, which will eventually lead to the creation of Christmas soup from all the leftovers, but that’s another story for another day.
Boxing day, to be precise…
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic