These are the Christmas menus that made history
PUBLISHED: 12:24 14 December 2020 | UPDATED: 15:44 15 December 2020
Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Eating is at the heart of Christmas Day, writes St Albans author Alex Johnson, but history shows what we have on our festive plates can reflect hopes, dreams and even desperation
Goose, Gravy, Sage and onion stuffing, Mashed potatoes, Apple sauce, Christmas pudding, Apples, Oranges, Roast chestnuts, Hot gin and lemons
This is the kind of Christmas fare that's comfortably familiar to 21st century menu planners. In fact, it's what the Cratchit family sat down to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol first published on December 19, 1843. But not all Christmas feasts are quite so appealing.
Take Captain Scott and his fellow polar explorers, for example, who staggered 15 miles on foot before a Christmas dinner in their tents in 1911. Outside, it was around -25°C, so they were delighted to dig in to their main course, a concentrate of fat and ground dried horsemeat called pemmican, flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit - the taste, apparently, is not unlike biting into a candle. They followed this up with an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit 'hoosh' (a thick stew), two and a half square inches of plum pudding, then four small pieces of caramel and ginger. For a special festive treat, they added a couple of raisins to their cocoa.
Not only does the explorers' menu lack a certain appeal, it also underlined a fatal flaw in Scott's planning - instead of their high-protein diet, they should have been on a high-fat one with additional calories. As they slowly starved, on the rival Amundsen expedition, the explorers tucked in to seal, special brown bread and berry preserves. The result? As Christmas Day ended, Scott and his men remained around 300 miles from the south pole while Amundsen had already planted the Norwegian flag there and was on his way back.
In Menus That Made History, my new book co-written with my St Albans neighbour Vincent Franklin, we look at these menus and others like them, focusing on the stories behind them.
'If we are what we eat, lists of what people eat should tell us a lot about them,' says Vince, who was brought up in the Brontë Café in Haworth, West Yorkshire. 'Menus are brilliant lists that have been around in one form or another for centuries. So we feature the man who travelled half way around the world to open Britain's first Indian restaurant and ended up working for two kings.
And we look at what The Hindenburg's last flight menu reveals about what a powerful propaganda tool the Hindenburg was for the Nazis.'
Menus are certainly very revealing. Here's the rather alarming one at arguably Paris' fanciest restaurant, Voisin, on December 25, 1870:
Hors-d'Oevure - Tête d'âne farcie (Stuffed donkey head)
Potages - Consommé d'éléphant (Elephant soup)
Entrées - Le chameau rôti à l'Anglaise (Roast camel); Le civet de Kangourou (Kangaroo stew); Côtes d'ours rôties sauce poivrade (Bear chops)
Rots - Cuissot de loup, sauce chevreuil (Wolf haunch in deer sauce); Le chat flanqué de rats (Cat fringed with rats); La terrine d'antilope aux truffes (Antelope terrine)
This was not the result of a maverick head chef who had been at the Christmas sherry. Rather, the city had been under siege from Prussian soldiers for several months and the citizens were running very low on food. By this point, dogs, cats and rats were all making regular appearances on menus throughout the city (a single goldfish cost $4) and it reached the point where people began eating the occupants of Paris' zoo at the Jardin des Plantes. Everything was fair game.
Well, not quite everything. Nobody knew how to cook hippos so they were safe, everybody was too scared to go for the lions, and eating monkeys felt a little too close to cannibalism. But Voisin's head chef Alexandre Étienne Choron did not feel remotely sentimental about the zoo's two elephants Castor and Pollux. They were popular attractions pre-siege, with people paying handsomely to ride on their backs, but now they provided diners with dishes such as elephant bourguignon.
Living in restricted conditions did not always mean a terrible Christmas offering. The famous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary prison just off the coast of San Francisco provided the best menus in the entire country's prison service, offering America's most dangerous criminals items such as jambalaya, raspberry buns and a creamed split-pea-tomato soup. This is the menu for Christmas 1954:
Stuffed celery, Ripe olives, Roast Tom turkey, Oyster dressing, Giblet gravy, Snowflake potatoes, Buttered peas, Cranberry sauce, Parker House rolls, Bread and oleo, Pumpkin pie, Fruitcake, Coffee
It doesn't require much decoding, except perhaps snowflake potatoes - white potatoes mashed with sour cream and cream cheese, while a Parker House roll is sweet bread made by flattening a dough ball into an oval and then folding it in half.
Your Christmas dinner will probably be more like the the Cratchits rather than Scott's ill fated explorers, besieged 19th century Parisians or lifers at Alcatraz, but if you're planning on something similar to Mrs Cratchit, spare a thought for the poor Victorian goose. Most were driven to London markets in large gaggles from Norfolk, with nothing but specially made little leather boots to protect their feet on the long march.
Menus That Made History: 100 Iconic Menus that Capture the History of Food by Alex Johnson and Vincent Franklin is published by Kyle Books