If California has an emblematic Christmas feast, a holiday tradition that captures the spirit and history of this state of displaced people, it might well be the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee hotel.
Surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the West, the meal is, of all things, an elaborate, old English feast with “peacock pie” and plum pudding served by a cast dressed in velvets and satins and enough rhinestones to make Nashville envious.
In other words, like so much in this state, Bracebridge is a fantasy. But fantasies transplanted into the soil here tend to take root, eventually becoming as California as the Sierra. And after 76 years, Bracebridge has become the state’s most storied holiday celebration, a dinner Californians grow up hearing about but few ever get to attend.
The point of Bracebridge, says Andrea Fulton, the director of the dinner, has always been “to give people a sense of the wonderful feeling of the Christmas that never was but we all dream of.”
Seven courses are dictated in the original menu -- which was based on Christmas stories by Washington Irving -- starting with a plate of pickled relishes, followed by a hot soup, a fish course, the peacock pie, baron of beef and boar’s head, and a salad course. Dessert is always plum pudding and wassail.
But in the true tradition of California cooking, the Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Terry Sheehan, has reinterpreted that menu. Now it’s more like Alice Waters than Washington Irving, a meal that reflects the yearning so many of us have for the mythic Dickensian-style Christmas dinner, as well as the genuine appeal of West Coast seasonal cooking.
“I wanted to keep it natural, not over-manipulated, clean,” says Sheehan.
This year, when guests first sit down at their tables, they will find a relish plate with oil-cured California olives scented with oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. There will also be baby artichokes from Castroville poached in a court-bouillon and marinated in lemon vinaigrette with fresh fennel, coriander and oregano. They are served with a medley of gold, orange and red baby carrots.
Sheehan’s soup is a luxurious version of mulligatawny, a richly flavored puree of butternut squash with green apples and spiced with curry, ginger and lemon grass. It actually tastes celebratory.
The flavors, he says, “keep opening up with each spoonful. The seasonings and flavors build on each other.”
The old “baron of beef and boar’s head,” fortunately, has been updated to a very elegant roast beef tenderloin rolled in crunchy pistachios. It’s put over the top with a splash of bearnaise demi-glace that’s infused with plenty of tarragon.
“Beef doesn’t need to be over-cured, over-brined, over-spiced,” says Sheehan. “The simple toasted pistachios add a nice nutty flavor without doing anything else to the meat.”
Sheehan finishes the dish with stacked slices of white sweet potato seasoned lightly with allspice, ginger and nutmeg -- “It’s not a pumpkin pie; these are subtle flavors,” he says -- and an earthy side dish of beets cooked in an orange juice reduction tempered with clove.
Then it’s on to the “peacock pie” course.
For that, Sheehan plans a bit of culinary showmanship: veal sweetbreads, pheasant dumplings, and seared squab breast with a wild mushroom ragout and truffle sauce.
“This is the course with the most latitude,” says Sheehan. In other words, anything fowl.
His salad leans more toward a cheese and fruit plate than a tangle of garden greens. A soft, warm custard made with Mine Shaft Blue -- a blue cheese aged in the gold mines of Sonora -- accompanies a Chardonnay-poached pear accented with ginger, allspice and nutmeg.
The plum pudding and wassail, though, remain intact.
Over the years, the pudding has been tinkered with to create a gooier, sweeter dessert, but no Ahwahnee chef has ever dared trade it for a more contemporary one.
“It’s a dense, almost fruitcake, dessert that has been soaked in brandy syrup,” says Sheehan. He serves it with apricot sauce and, of course, the requisite hard sauce.
The recipe for the flaming wassail, more of a mulled wine than a traditional punch, has been passed down from chef to chef. Dried hibiscus, Sheehan says, is the secret ingredient -- “It gives it that dark burgundy color.” Apple cider, port wine, clove and cinnamon are the other ingredients.
Ansel Adams’ party
As set in tradition as it is, the Bracebridge dinner actually began as a whim, a trifle, the idea of a park administrator who wanted the Ahwahnee hotel’s first Christmas in 1927 to be memorable. The soaring ceiling of the new hotel’s dining hall reminded him of the mythical Bracebridge Hall in Washington Irving’s series of “Sketch Book” Christmas stories depicting 17th century England, providing an excuse for dressing up in medieval costumes to enjoy an evening of food, theater and song.
Ansel Adams, Yosemite’s great photographer, took over the show in 1929 and livened up the script to make it more than Irving’s nostalgic sop to Christmas in Britain.
“Ansel was totally visual; it was about the pageantry and the music,” says Fulton, the dinner director. In Adams’ version, Squire Bracebridge became a man of noblesse oblige, more the lord of the party than Irving’s mannered aristocrat.
Over the years, Adams’ whimsical spoof has been expanded, growing more rollicking and less reverential. For three hours, the singing, eating, laughing and drinking accompanied by an organ, a flute and a guitar move at a frenetic pace.
Adams directed Bracebridge for 44 years, retiring from the post in 1973, when he passed the baton to Eugene Fulton. Fulton’s daughter, Andrea, took over in 1978. The squire now is a prodigal son, and the pageant is the celebration of his return to Bracebridge Hall and the return of happier times. The story isn’t the only thing that has changed.
In Adams’ day, fruit compote was the first course, and the salad was always green. The soup was a simple consomme that most people just skipped. It was Middle American fare, with an emphasis on abundant portions of meat and potatoes.
Back then, and for most of its history, it was a gathering of regulars -- if you were lucky enough to get in during the pre-World War II years, your place was assured.
From 1977 until last year, however, everyone else had to rely on chance. People sent in their requests for tickets and then waited several months to see if they won the lottery-style drawing to be able to buy Bracebridge tickets.
As of 2002, it’s first-come, first-served.
For Carolyn Hause, like many of those who will attend this year’s dinner, Bracebridge is a tradition that goes back decades. Her great-aunt first took the family to the dinner in 1934 when Hause’s father, George, was 6 years old.
It’s still a formal affair that requires everyone to dress in their holiday finest, at minimum. More flamboyant types wear elaborate medieval costumes or full military regalia. There has even been the odd Scottish highlander in a breezy kilt.
Last year, the dinner was expanded to eight nights (originally it was just Christmas night). It still sells out, but it’s much more possible to get a seat at the table.
Today, Adams’ drama is a populist comedy punctuated by emotional reminders of the need for generosity ... with great production values. It’s as California as you get.