The Holiday Table : Christmas in America: The Changeable Feast


In 1866, John Staily experienced a change of heart that left its mark on Christmas cooking for the next half-century. Without telling his family, he praised the Lord, closed the barroom of his Liverpool Inn in Liverpool, Pa., and emptied out all the liquor on the floor.

When his wife came in to get some whiskey for her baking, she was aghast--not so much at the sudden conversion but that “he should at least have spared her some liquor for the mince pies.” In the eyes of Christmas cooks like Mrs. Staily, mincemeat made without liquor thoroughly deserved the name it soon received, Humbug Pie.

It’s daunting to think of the changes the American Christmas has undergone in the last century and a quarter: temperance and its sister, the Non-Fermentation Movement, which promoted baking powders over yeast; the commercialization of desserts; cookie cutters mass-produced from tin; scrap pictures to decorate cookies and cakes; the Christmas tree as an American custom; Santa Claus. And the vast alterations in diet wrought by the Industrial Revolution, perhaps best measured by the doubling of the national per-capita consumption of meat and sugar, have altered the culinary meaning of the day. Sweets and fat-rich foods that formerly had been once- a-year indulgences for many people became readily available year-round. If they could visit our time, Colonial Americans would say that many of us now eat as though it were Christmas every day.

In the 18th Century, the meal itself was not nearly as important as the foods and customs associated with the day as a communal event. New England didn’t celebrate Christmas at all until well into the 19th Century.


For some Protestant denominations, Christmas Day was solely a time of prayer and meditation. For others, it meant bouts of heavy drinking (making “merry”); pork butchering, sausage making and serving up great vats of plum porridge to everyone in the neighborhood, rich or poor; “mumming” from house to house in comic costumes; singing carols for handouts of food; exchanging goose pies; or simply baking Yule Dows, little bread images of the Christ Child to give to children.

This Christmas feasting was an antidote to the lean diet of the rest of the year. In practical terms, overindulgence readied the body for a long, cold winter. But Victorian Americans, secure in their sense of progress, suspicious of the old village customs and scandalized by public drinking, did away with all this and shifted the emphasis from the village green to the family dining room.

The typical 19th-Century American Christmas dinner was short on fresh vegetables and fruit and long on root vegetables, with plenty of melted butter as “sauce.”

A typical dinner might include soup, fish, boiled ham, boiled turkey with oyster sauce, three roast ducks and satellite dishes of scalloped oysters, potatoes, parsnips, turnips and celery. Dessert might include a plum pudding; pastry, including cookies; fresh fruit, such as pears or apples; and bitter, black coffee, made by boiling the grounds for several days.


For the Victorian cook, the centerpiece was a whole roast turkey, clearly visible at one end of the table. It became not only the epitome of Christmas and affluence but also a symbol of something essentially American. Christmas menus of the period abound with pictures of wild turkeys in association with American flags. In short, serving turkey at Christmas dinner, as at Thanksgiving, became a symbol of acculturation, and as such it distinguished those who had become Americans from “new arrivals.”

There is an enormous quantity of old cookbook literature dealing with various methods of preparing Christmas turkey: boiling, a technique reserved for the less expensive, old birds; pulling the meat apart into shreds and serving it in cream sauce, and, of course, roasting. Roast turkey in the old sense of the word meant spit-roasting it before an open fire and then basting it with salted water and dusting it liberally with flour to give it a crisp skin.

From these historical gleanings, I set out to construct a holiday menu with traditional dishes cooked more to contemporary tastes. Butter and hefty glazings of bacon fat have been lopped from each dish, but otherwise the flavors are traditional. In this mini-buffet, small portions should be the rule. That’s how Victorians managed to wade through their immensely long menus.

Dinner begins with a vegetarian leek soup from Benjamin Smith Lyman’s “Vegetarian Diet” (1916). Lyman, who lived in Japan in the 1880s, was influential in the American Vegetarian Society during its formative years. The Turnip and Potato Casserole traces its American origins to the Pennsylvania Dutch schales , a species of gratin that had its roots in the Jewish cooking of the German Rhineland. It is a form of cholent , a dish left in the oven overnight on Friday to avoid cooking on the Sabbath.

The meatless, crustless, nonfat mincemeat included here--with the liquor restored--comes from the 19th-Century Philadelphia African-American caterer Peter Augustin. Born in Haiti, Augustin was famous in this country for his sophisticated cookery and Caribbean-style desserts. Working out of a primitive train-car kitchen, he catered parties as far away as Boston and Cincinnati.

While these dishes are representative of Christmas past, they will suit streamlined modern schedules. Most can be served hot or cold and made well in advance of the big day, reducing the work load on Christmas morning and avoiding a traffic jam at the stove.

This peppery-tasting vegetarian soup is an easy starter for Christmas feasting. It tastes even better when reheated.



2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon butter

2 1/2 cups thinly sliced leeks, white parts only

1/3 cup minced onion

2 large shallots, minced

5 cups peeled and diced potatoes

9 cups boiling water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt


1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons minced parsley

2 teaspoons minced fresh basil or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon or dash dried

Heat olive oil and butter in large saucepan or stockpot over low heat. Add leeks, onion and shallots and saute gently, stirring, 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Add potatoes, boiling water, salt and white pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, 15 to 25 minutes.

(Soup can be prepared up to 2 days ahead to this point, covered and refrigerated.) Just before serving, add parsley, basil and tarragon. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding more white pepper, if desired. Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

76 calories; 281 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 15 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram protein.

This recipe is loosely modeled on a popular Victorian entry in Jane C. Croly’s 1874 “American Cookery Book.” Steam-roasting keeps the bird moist without adding fat.



1 (16- to 20-pound) turkey, trimmed of fat


Freshly ground pepper

1 onion, quartered

2 slices lean bacon, optional, cut into quarters

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried



Rinse bird and wipe cavity dry. Season cavity to taste with salt and pepper and stuff with onion, bacon and thyme. Fasten neck skin to back with skewer. Tuck wings behind back and tie legs together.

Place turkey, breast side up, on lightly oiled rack in roasting pan. Pour 3 cups water into pan and roast at 325 degrees until juices run clear when thigh is pierced with skewer and internal temperature registers 165 degrees, 3 to 4 hours. Baste turkey often and replenish water as it evaporates from pan. Cover turkey with parchment paper or foil if it gets too brown. Transfer turkey to serving platter. Cover and keep warm while making Gravy. Reserve pan drippings for Gravy.

To serve, remove string, skewers and skin from turkey and carve. Pass Gravy separately. Makes 12 servings, with leftovers.

Each serving contains about:

221 calories; 88 mg sodium; 87 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 34 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrate.


Reserved turkey pan drippings

1 cup thinly sliced mushrooms

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup Madeira wine or dry Sherry

Freshly ground pepper

Pour drippings into bowl and place in freezer. Without washing roasting pan or adding fat, warm pan over medium heat. Add mushrooms, celery, onion and carrot and saute until lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Remove drippings from freezer. Using bulb baster, carefully remove 2 1/4 cups liquid from underneath layer of fat. (Add more turkey or chicken stock or water if necessary.) Use paper towel to remove any traces of fat from surface of liquid. Add defatted drippings and Madeira to roasting pan and bring to boil, stirring constantly. Simmer and stir until thickened, several minutes. Season to taste with pepper.

The tartness of this dish goes well not only with poultry but also with pork and veal. It can be served either hot or cold.



1 tablespoon olive oil

7 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup minced garlic

3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1/2 cup red-wine vinegar

2 pounds red cabbage, cored and shredded

1 cup dry red wine

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper


Heat oil and 3 tablespoons brown sugar in large non-aluminum pan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute 2 minutes. Add 2 cups cranberries and vinegar. Cover and cook until cranberries begin to burst, 4 to 6 minutes. Add cabbage and wine. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender, about 15 minutes.

Add remaining 4 tablespoons brown sugar and cayenne and mix well. Stir in remaining 1 cup cranberries. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand until cranberries are tender, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Serve hot or cold. (Dish can be prepared up to 2 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. If desired, reheat over low heat 10 to 12 minutes.) Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

87 calories; 378 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 17 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram protein.

This well-seasoned Pennsylvania Dutch dish is a welcome change from plain turnips. It can be reheated after the turkey is done; cover the turkey and keep it warm while the casserole cooks.



1 1/4 cups fresh bread crumbs

2 cups low-fat or nonfat milk

1 cup low-fat sour cream

3 large turnips or 1 small rutabaga, peeled and grated

2 large potatoes, peeled and grated

1 1/2 cups chopped green onions, including green tops

1/4 cup minced parsley or chervil

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Spread 1 cup bread crumbs on baking sheet and toast at 375 degrees until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Lightly oil shallow 3-quart baking dish and dust with remaining 1/4 cup untoasted bread crumbs. Whisk together low-fat milk and sour cream in large bowl. Add turnips and potatoes. Mix in green onions, parsley, salt and pepper.

Spoon mixture into prepared baking dish and smooth top. Scatter toasted bread crumbs over top. Bake on center rack at 375 degrees until vegetables are tender and top is golden brown, about 1 hour. (Casserole can be prepared up to 2 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Reheat, covered, at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes.) Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

124 calories; 406 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein.

Spelt flavored with saffron is one of the cornerstones of classic Pennsylvania Dutch cookery. This whole-grain dish may be served either hot or cold. Spelt, a variety of wheat, is available in most natural-food stores.



1 tablespoon salt

2 cups spelt groats or wheat berries, rinsed and drained

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled

4 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

2 large sweet red peppers, seeded and chopped

1 cup chopped green onions

6 tablespoons minced shallots

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

6 tablespoons garlic-flavored vinegar

2 tablespoons sunflower or other vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup minced Italian parsley

Bring 1 quart water and 1 teaspoon salt to boil in large saucepan. Add spelt groats and saffron and boil 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until almost all liquid has evaporated, about 1 hour if using spelt, or about 45 minutes if using wheat berries. (Do not stir or remove lid.) Add corn and cook, uncovered, about 5 minutes longer.

Place spelt mixture in large bowl. Add red peppers, green onions, shallots and cumin. Stir thoroughly and make well in center. Whisk together vinegar and remaining 2 teaspoons salt in small bowl. Whisk in oil and pepper. Pour vinegar mixture into well and stir from bottom. Garnish with parsley. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

179 calories; 360 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein.

Note : Garlic-flavored vinegar can be found in specialty food shops. To make your own, place 2 cloves peeled garlic in 1 cup red- or white-wine vinegar and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Discard garlic cloves.

Even meatless mincemeat pies can be deceptively rich in fats. This version gets its body from tapioca flour (found in health food stores and Asian markets) rather than from the fat in coconut milk, and the crust is omitted so the filling stands on its own as a compote. Coconut milk is high in fat, but the coconut water found in the center of a coconut is not. Pierce the coconut shell with an ice pick and drain the liquid into a bowl.



1 small fresh pineapple, peeled, cored and diced

1 large mango, peeled, pitted and diced

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup shredded fresh coconut

2 tablespoons peeled, minced ginger root

2 tablespoons Amaretto or other almond-flavored liqueur

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons tapioca flour

1 cup coconut water (from 2 coconuts)

Combine pineapple, mango, raisins, sugar, coconut, ginger root, liqueur, lime zest, nutmeg and cayenne in large bowl. Dissolve tapioca flour in coconut water in small bowl and combine with fruit mixture.

Transfer mixture to 2-quart baking dish and smooth top. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Uncover and continue baking 15 minutes longer. Serve cold or hot. (Mincemeat can be prepared up to 3 days ahead, covered and refrigerated. If desired, reheat in covered casserole at 350 degrees 10 minutes.) Makes 10 cups.

Each serving contains about:

95 calories; 14 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 22 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram protein.