" For God's sake, how we beat our bodies to give a party, and other people give them a box of potato chips, a can of deviled ham and ten cents worth of sweet pickles. "
--James Beard, in a letter, after Christmas season 1954 *
Forty years after James Beard complained to Los Angeles cookbook writer Helen Evans Brown, most of us would be grateful for those chips and pickles--or their '90s equivalents (focaccia and olives?)--as long as they were presented in friendly company. That's how far the state of entertaining has fallen.
In these lean and mean times, we're so constrained by economical and nutritional concerns that it sometimes seems our entertaining is guided more by the gray and stern ghost of Fannie Farmer than the charmingly ebullient shade of James Beard, who used to laughingly refer to himself as "the butter boy."
One of America's greatest food writers, Beard, author of 22 cookbooks, died at the age of 82 on Jan. 23, 1985--10 years ago this holiday season. (Farmer, by the way, lived only to 43.) Reading through the recently published "Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles" (Arcade: 1994, $25.95), his collected letters to Brown, one wonders whether he ever did anything but entertain. And during the holidays, Beard was in especially fine form.
A 1953 letter written the week between Christmas and New Year describes a typical dinner party for 20: "The onions belle aurore were superb, and the finnan haddie made an even greater hit than before. I also did a big bowl of endive, cucumber and celery with ice--in a big new wheat-pattern ironstone I got for Christmas. Then I had the cassoulet made with fine flageolets I found in the market. Saturday night I had cooked a goose and I used that, mutton, pork and garlic sausage. Instead of sprinkling with crumbs, I used sesame seeds. It was really a dandy."
While that menu might exhaust most of us, for Beard it was just the start of a busy week.
"I have three more dinners to give, then finish," the letter continued.
From the time of his childhood in Portland, Ore., the Christmas season was a busy one for Beard. His mother ran a boarding house, largely by herself--his father was absent for long periods of time--and the holidays were filled with people and food.
"Few people have loved Christmas as (mother) did," he wrote in his memoir, "Delights and Prejudices." "Her great joy in the holiday season was infectious and for once in the year we were a united family."
The preparations began in early November, with the making of the mincemeat.
"Those days were a fascination to me," he wrote. "First there was the cooking of the meat for the mincemeat, which in our home was always beef and beef tongue. These were boiled, the stock was reserved for sauces and soups and stews, and the meat was finely cut or shredded and chopped by hand, then mixed with several kinds of raisins, currants and candied fruits and quantities of liquor. We never put apples in the mincemeat until we took it out of the crock to use it, because my mother felt it kept better this way.
"I remember that we would save bottles of liqueurs that had been sent to us as gifts but were not to our taste for after-dinner drinking, and they greatly enhanced the mincemeat while being themselves overpowered by the other flavors. My father always lifted the crust of hot mince pie and put a cube of butter and a piece of Roquefort cheese underneath, which I considered a horrendous mixture."
It was in post-Depression New York City that Beard--a frustrated actor--came to fame, establishing himself as a caterer and cooking teacher before finally publishing his first recipe collection, "Hors d'Oeuvres and Canapes," in 1940. His love for the holidays never wavered, even as his means of entertaining for them changed drastically.
"We were five for lunch yesterday and we did most of the cooking," he wrote of Thanksgiving 1954, spent at a friend's palazzo in Florence. "We stuffed the turkey with a collection of things. We had fresh truffles, which we slipped under the skin, and made a stuffing with parsley, onion, pureed chestnuts, bread crumbs, some rice pilaff left from the day before, mushroom stems, plenty of truffle slices and a little Madeira.
"We started with some beautiful foie gras , then the turkey and pureed potatoes, a salad of endive and beets, the pumpkin pie and cognac and coffee. It was a dreamy day, the sun beat in on us and we were very gay and happy, all five of us."
Christmas day was usually spent with family and a few intimate friends, with a menu centering around a nice thick Porterhouse steak fried in butter. Later, sometimes the main dish changed to a stew of salt cod, a grand poached Italian sausage called a zampone (in a letter, he described one as "looking for all the world like Mae West's thigh and leg"), and maybe a country ham.
One thing that was almost never served was cranberries, which Beard hated with a passion. There was one exception: a recipe for crystallized cranberries--more a garnish than a relish, really. "I liked them," he wrote. "They were rich, didn't taste like cranberries and were crisp, runny and gooey, which pleased my taste buds. Gino (Cofacci, his long-time roommate), who loves cranberries, didn't like them."
The main course was usually turkey, though, as a cookbook writer, he was not above dispensing a little gourmet hoo-haw regarding other meats. In one of his essays for American Way magazine (collected in "James Beard's Simple Foods" (MacMillan: 1993, $22.95)), he opined: "Being part English and brought up with a great many English traditions, I always associate Christmas with two very special foods. . . . I want a noble joint of beef . . . served with a golden puffy Yorkshire pudding. What a deliciously festive combination. Anglo-Saxon to the hilt. Indulge yourself with a really beautiful wine. A fine Bordeaux of a good vintage, such as Chateau Latour or a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, is magnificent and carries on the great British tradition of claret with beef."
If the royal purple prose wasn't enough to tip you off to this bit of Tory humbuggery, rest assured that in the dozen years of holidays covered in his letters, this menu is never mentioned.
In life, if not in art, Beard preferred to follow the good-hearted, essentially American style of holiday entertaining he learned at his mother's knee.
"There were never fewer than twenty guests and sometimes up to thirty or forty," he wrote of childhood Christmas Eves in "Delights and Prejudices." "We exchanged gifts with all these friends and with friends out of town as well. A wassail drink was served--eggnog or Tom and Jerry, and, during the era when it was available, Champagne."
(The wassail drink was Beard's father's contribution to the festivities and you get a sense of the tension between them, when 50 years later, in "Delights and Prejudices," he railed: "I take a very dim view of all punches. I know they are a necessary evil, but I myself don't wish to absorb any more of the evil than is required to be polite. I may have had to dispense a thousand different punch recipes in my day (indeed, there is a full chapter devoted to them in "Simple Foods"), but I haven't had to drink them, by God!")
Then, around 11 p.m., the opening of presents began. "In the midst of it, Let (the family's Chinese housekeeper) would climb to the upstairs porch, attach a large string of firecrackers to a post and light it--a sure Oriental touch."
Finally, at midnight, the food began: "There was a huge buffet and turkey and chicken salad, a vegetable salad, a variety of tiny sandwiches, usually a hot Olympia oyster stew and then a variety of sweets.
"The late buffet made it certain that guests would linger for hours. I often crept away upstairs without anyone's noticing and fell into my bed. Despite my fatigue, I can think of no better way to have been initiated into the world of Christmas than this one."
5 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 pints oysters and liquor
1 cup milk
2 cups whipping cream
Freshly ground pepper
Chopped parsley or paprika
Heat soup bowls. Add 1 large pat of butter to each bowl. Keep piping hot. Drain oysters. Then heat milk, cream and oyster liquor to boiling point in pan.
Add oysters and bring again to boiling point. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Ladle into hot bowls. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to taste. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
415 calories; 242 mg sodium; 160 mg cholesterol; 41 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.01 gram fiber.
1 (6- to 8-pound) turkey, boned
1 cup Cognac
2 pounds ground ham
1 pound ground veal
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 pound boiled tongue, 1/4-inch thick
1/4 pound ham slice, 1/4-inch thick
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped
1 quart chicken broth
Have butcher bone turkey, removing and reserving wings and drumsticks. Remove breast meat. In bowl marinate breast meat 1 hour in 1/2 cup Cognac, 1 teaspoon salt and dash of Quatre Epices.
Meanwhile in bowl mix ground ham and veal, garlic, 1/2 cup Cognac, eggs, 1/4 teaspoon Quatre Epices, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, pepper and thyme.
Spread out boned turkey, skin-side down, and cover evenly with meat mixture. Place breast meat in center. Cut tongue and ham in 1/4-inch strips and arrange around breast meat, pressing into ground meat. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios. Roll up turkey sausage-fashion, bring ends of skin together so ends overlap and sew with needle and thread. Roll in damp kitchen towel and tie ends, leaving lengths of thread. Also tie thread around middle.
Into covered pan just big enough to hold galantine, pour chicken broth to half full. Lower galantine into broth and tie thread at either end to handles of pan. Cover tightly with couple of layers of foil. Bring to simmer. Then steam 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on size of bird. Remove foil. Let turkey partially cool in broth, then transfer to dish, weight galantine down and continue to cool.
Refrigerate 36 hours. Remove cloth and thread. Arrange on platter or carving board. Carve in thin slices. Makes 12 to 14 servings.
Each serving contains about:
378 calories; 1,518 mg sodium; 179 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams protein; 0.12 gram fiber.
1 teaspoon ground bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon mace
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon ground rosemary
1 teaspoon dried basil
In small bowl, mix bay leaf, thyme, mace, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cayenne, pepper, rosemary and basil. Store in tightly sealed container. Makes about 1/4 cup.
2 cups fresh cranberries
4 cups sugar
1 cup water
Dash cream of tartar
Rinse cranberries and dry well. With thin skewer, pierce hole through each berry. Combine 3 cups sugar with water, cream of tartar and salt in 2- to 3-quart pan. Cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat until syrup boils. Continue boiling about 5 minutes or until temperature of 234 degrees is reached on candy thermometer. Remove from heat, add cranberries, and stir to coat with syrup. Let stand at least 12 hours or overnight at room temperature.
Drain berries over bowl and return syrup to saucepan. Bring to boil again and cook to 250 to 255 degrees. Remove from heat, add cranberries and stir to coat. Transfer berries with slotted spoon to wax paper. Arrange in single layer, not touching, and move individual berries to another spot if too much syrup accumulates. When berries are cool enough to handle, roll few at time in remaining sugar. Then transfer to clean piece of wax pepper to set and cool. Makes 10 servings.
Each serving contains about:
317 calories; 27 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 82 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.23 gram fiber.
3 cups sifted flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 egg yolk
In bowl mix flour, sugar and butter together, either by hand or in electric mixer. Add egg yolk and knead in well.
Divide mixture into 4 parts and roll each into square or circle about 1/2-inch thick. Mark pattern in crust by lightly tapping with tip of fork. Cut each circle into 8 triangles or each square into 8 smaller squares. Place pieces on lightly buttered and floured baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake 30 minutes more, until shortbread is delicate light brown. Makes 32 shortbreads.
Each shortbread contains about:
104 calories; 59 mg sodium; 24 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.03 gram fiber.
PUMPKIN CUSTARD PIE
2 cups Hubbard squash puree
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Dash ground cloves
1/3 cup Cognac
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 to 1/2 cup finely cut candied ginger
2 (7-inch) prepared pie shells, prebaked at 400 degrees 10 minutes
Beat together puree, eggs, cream, cinnamon, cloves, mace, Cognac and sugar in bowl. Fold in ginger.
Pour into prebaked pie shells and bake at 375 degrees 25 to 30 minutes, or until pies are just set. Serve warm. Makes 12 servings.
Each serving contains about:
384 calories; 157 mg sodium; 183 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.35 gram fiber.
MINCEMEAT AND APPLE FLAN
6 apples, peeled, cored and cut in sixths
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups Fabulously Good Mincemeat
2 (7-inch) prepared pie shells or 1 (9x9-inch) prepared flan shell
Cook apples with butter and vanilla in covered pan over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Do not let apples get mushy. Cool apples slightly. Place in pie shells. Cover with mincemeat. Bake at 375 degrees about 25 to 30 minutes, until crust is baked and well-browned. Cool flan. Glaze with Apricot Glaze. Makes 12 servings.
Each serving contains about:
414 calories; 174 mg sodium; 27 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.98 gram fiber.
Fabulously Good Mincemeat
1 pound lean beef brisket or rump roast
1 pound fresh tongue
1/2 pound beef suet, finely chopped
2/3 pound raisins
2/3 pound golden raisins
2/3 pound currants
2 tablespoons diced shredded citron
2 tablespoons pound chopped shredded orange zest
1 tablespoon pound diced shredded lemon zest
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup strawberry preserves
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
Dash ground cloves
2 cups Sherry
2 cups Cognac
In pan boil brisket and tongue in water until tender. Cool meat and put through coarse grinder or chop by hand.
Combine in crock with suet, raisins, golden raisins, currants, citron, orange and lemon zests, sugar, strawberry preserves, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, mace and cloves. Pour Sherry and Cognac over to make fairly loose mixture. Stir well. Let stand 1 month before using, checking every week to see whether to add more Sherry and Cognac. Makes about 6 cups.
1 cup apricot preserves
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Heat preserves in small saucepan. Add lemon juice. Push through fine strainer into bowl.
China in galantine and oyster stew photo on the cover is by Jean Louis Coquet "Louxor" pattern from the Kasl Co. at the L.A. Mart.