Holidays : It’s a Big Meat World


Ever since Nouvelle Cuisine, meat has been coming to us in little thin slices. But for a really big occasion, such as a major holiday, nothing says celebration like a great big piece of roasted meat.

This is true just about everywhere. In Polynesia they have their pigs roasted in a pit. In Central Asia it’s a whole sheep. In “Indian Food: A Historical Companion,” K.T. Achaya mentions an ancient Indian ceremony at which a horse was roasted whole, with the right thigh going to the priest who recited the mantras.

The theme of size recurs over and over. In South Africa, it’s traditional to serve a roast ox head: “If the head happens to be that of an Afrikaner ox,” one writer observes, “the horns appear to stretch the whole length of the dining table.”

In fact, one animal may not be enough. In various times and places, cooks have had the idea of stuffing animals of various sizes inside each other and then roasting them in a solid unit. Typical is Antal, a Hungarian chef during the Renaissance, who roasted an entire ox stuffed with a sheep, stuffed with a calf, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a pigeon.


Celebratory servings of meat just put people in a good mood. For this reason, Emperor Wen Ti considered roast meat a part of China’s defense arsenal. In 169 BC, he proposed setting up restaurants at China’s borders in order to defuse the threat of the Hsiung-nu (the nomad warriors later known in the West as the Huns). “When the Hsiung-nu have developed a craving for our cooked rice, keng stew, roasted meats and wine,” he optimistically figured, “this will have become their fatal weakness.”

In the Bible, the prodigal son was welcomed back with the roasting of a fatted calf. In the Odyssey, when wandering Ulysses had returned to his home island disguised as a vagrant, he stopped at an isolated farm owned by a swineherd named Eumaeus, who immediately took two piglets and roasted them on spits (the spit of the Homeric period was essentially a spear; when the meat was done, you could conveniently stash it aside while you were setting the table by standing the spear upright). “Stranger,” said Eumaeus, “it would not be right for me, even if one worse off than you should come, to slight a stranger; before Zeus, everyone is a stranger and a beggar.”

In the Near East, where hospitality is a cult, a special occasion is always synonymous with lavish servings of meat. One of the celebrated characters of ancient Arabia, Hatim al-Tai, was famous for having slaughtered a whole herd of camels just to feed some casual dropper-inners. When his father took him to task for this, Hatim defended himself by saying that by doing this he had won immortal fame. His father was unimpressed, but it turned out Hatim knew what he was doing. The guests were poets, and they did such a PR job for him that his name is still a household word in the Near East.

As a result of the Crusades, as everybody knows, European knights brought back to Europe a taste for the sophisticated life of the Saracens. The influence also ran the other direction, because the Crusaders roasted meat in bigger portions than the Arabs did. A 13th-Century cookbook entitled “The Link to the Beloved” gives a recipe for “European-style shish kebab” ( shiwa faranji ). It’s the same as the usual Arab shish kebab of the time, basted with sesame oil and rose water, with one difference. Instead of cutting the meat small and putting it on little skewers, in the age-old Near Eastern way, the lamb was roasted whole: “Spit it in one piece on a long lance,” the recipe says, “so that it passes under the lamb, clear of the fire, and watch it well.” The result is described as “fine and novel.”

In medieval England, the head of a wild boar was a symbol of Christmas. Some modern English boar’s head dinners have a tradition going back centuries. The most famous is held at the Queens College, Oxford.

According to the story, this dinner originated in the 14th Century. A student at the Queens College was walking out in Shotover Forest at Christmastide, reading a volume of Aristotle, when he was charged by a wild boar. Crying, “Swallow that, if you can!” he thrust the book into the jaws of the beast (“choking the savage with the sage,” they like to say). The boar’s head was brought back in triumph with the book still between the jaws.


These days the menu at the Queens College boar’s head dinner no longer features an actual boar’s head. In fact, even during the Middle Ages it was common to set the head aside, roast the rest of the boar, chop it up and arrange the chopped meat in the shape of a head. There was always a fruit, such as a lemon or an apple, in its mouth, possibly representing a book of Greek philosophy.

The aristocrats served stupendous amounts of meat at their feasts; at a feast given for Richard II in 1387, 111 pigs were served, along with 210 geese and 96 rabbits. One of the reasons why Americans eat so much meat may be a subliminal memory of the fact that their ancestors weren’t permitted to. At various times the European nobility passed laws forbidding common people to buy or consume various luxuries.

In 1318, for instance, Edward II of England issued a proclamation declaring “by the outrageous and excessive multitude of meats and dishes, which the great men of the kingdom used in their castles, and by persons of inferior rank imitating their example, beyond what their stations required and their circumstances could afford, many great evils had come upon the kingdom.” The American attitude is: Don’t tell us what our social stations require.

Whatever the reason, big meat feeds have been an American tradition. Practically from the time the Constitution was ratified, political electioneering was based around barbecues, as it still is in Texas.

So in this holiday season, remember this line from the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam: “Here, with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,/ a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou,” and bear this in mind: In the original Persian, that second line actually reads “a flask of wine, a leg of lamb and thou.” A book of verse would be nice too, of course, but let’s keep our priorities straight.