Tuesday, December 16, 2014

5000 hours and about as many potatoes for Christmas dinner

I'm lucky as far as holiday food prep is concerned. I just have to show up at my in-laws' house with the treats that I'd want to make anyway, regardless of whether anyone asked me to make them: cookies and dinner rolls. It's just handy that I have someone else to eat them because I'm pretty sure I'm wired to make cookies and dinner rolls on Christmas Eve regardless of the circumstances. If we had robot overlords, I'd have to make them cookies and dinner rolls even though I'd hate the damn robots and they couldn't eat anyway.

I somehow doubt that many home cooks in the 1890s felt a similar affection for holiday cooking, at least based on what I see of the expectations placed on them in my 1996 reprint of the 1896 Fannie Farmer Cook Book. The menu looks a bit, shall we say, complicated:

Okay, some items would be a little easier than others. Even though the apple sauce would be homemade, it could be ready waaay in advance. But with 20 items on this list (more if you count individual components put together like lettuce, dressing, and cheese straws), this is a to-do list that would make me want to hide under the bed until, say, April.

Let's start with the first big component: roast goose with potato stuffing.

Even from the beginning, this does not look promising. Cooks have to start with the whole goose: remove pinfeathers and draw out the innards before even getting around to the stuffing, trussing, and roasting.

I hadn't heard of potato stuffing before, but it sounds interesting: a hybrid of regular bread stuffing and mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are awesome and so is stuffing, so this might be super-awesome. Or it might be pretty soggy, and heavy to go with such a big meal. Hard to tell.

Whoever put this menu together must really have loved mashed potatoes, too. If you look closely, you'll see the potato-stuffed goose is supposed to be garnished with watercress, cranberries, and potato apples. You may well wonder what potato apples are. Well, they are extra work that wasn't even officially listed on the menu:

They are essentially cheesy mashed potatoes shaped into apples and fried. If I were a guest at this dinner, I might just try to steal all the potato apples while ignoring the consomme and celery and applesauce and cream of Lima beans. I don't think I'd be the only one to feel that way, either. Some of the sides don't take much time or effort and they fill out the table so it looks impressive. I get that. Nobody wants celery, but it doesn't take much effort and everybody knows it's only there for decoration anyway. But cream of Lima beans? That starts with dried beans and takes hours while 5000 other things also need the cook's attention. And nobody will touch it anyway, not with potato apples (or duchess potatoes-- did I mention the author seems to have a potato fixation?) on the table.

More seasoned mashed potatoes made into fancy shapes, although these are baked instead of fried.

I always thought of croquettes as something to make to use up leftovers rather than as part of the main attraction, but just in case there weren't enough dishes (and enough busywork), this menu calls for the special occasion croquettes:

As if cleaning and dressing the goose wasn't enough, this recipe starts with cleaning and dressing a chicken. Then it has to be cooked, chopped up, mixed with a thick sauce, seasoned, shaped, fried, and served with green peas and sauce or wine jelly.

And we haven't even gotten to the desserts yet. For the traditionalists:

A pudding full of finely chopped fruits (and suet! I know it used to be pretty common in recipes, but I can't think of anything except feeding the birds when I see it. Might as well add millet and sunflower seeds while we're at it...) that has to be steamed for six hours.

Those who like their puddings on the cold and extra boozy side could choose one of these:

A frozen dessert might sound easy and reasonable enough until we remember that nobody had an electric freezer in 1896. Even in cold weather, cooks had to pack this in ice themselves and probably keep checking to make sure it was actually freezing. The end result would be this glorious dessert...

...which kind of looks like a package of frozen chicken breasts piled on a fancy plate in this rendition.

Plus assorted cakes and bonbons (homemade fondant candies).

So, yeah. Days and days of work for a spread that is probably only going to be half-appreciated. I wonder how many 1890s cooks just decided to hide under the bed until April or made a double batch of potato apples and called it a day.

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