A Look At Life: Food Feuds

14th December 2012

Christmas is here, and the goose is getting cooked…

Kathy Miller

Christmas is here and while I don’t know what peccadilloes you indulge in on dark evenings, as a gesture of goodwill, I’ll tell you mine; this is the time of year when on any given night you could catch me in bed with Jamie or Nigel. Or Gary or Raymond. Even Nigella or Mary.

By December, my bedside table groans under a pile of cookery books. Perhaps I need to get out more, but my secret pleasure is that each evening I pick a different volume and bookmark it with yellow stickies in my efforts to find something new with which to wow the relatives at Christmas.

Last year for instance, after trawling through several recipes, I served not one but two roast ducks on Christmas Day, the first à l’orange, the other with Delia’s morello cherry sauce.

On Boxing Day, rather than throwing together a risotto with the scraps, I made Josceline Dimbleby’s Pork and Ham roulade and Cordon Bleu’s Mont Blanc with chestnut cream. On Christmas Eve I’d dressed a salmon with homemade mayonnaise, courtesy of Marguerite Patten. I hope you’re impressed.

But I’ll come clean and admit that there is more to my generosity than a straightforward desire to please my guests. You see, I have several sisters-in-law, aunts and cousins whose homes are immaculate and whose children have impeccable manners, but whose food I wouldn’t give to a dog and, quite simply, Christmas is my one chance to outshine them all.

(When Oscar Wilde said ‘after a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives’ he clearly hadn’t eaten Christmas lunch with some of mine).

Of course, I gamely join in the mock-ironic chorus of ‘I don’t know how you do it’ when I see my cousin ‘distressing’ supermarket mince pies into looking homemade, but really I’m smirking at her ready-mix stuffing and the concrete slab of powdered custard in her trifle.

Come tea time, when my brother-in-law will be producing leftover ‘turkey ping’ from the microwave and passing round a box of last year’s jellied fruits, I bask in the knowledge that my guests will be enjoying homemade fish mousse and chocolate log.

While my rellies may pay homage to that patron of lazy cooks, St Michael, some little internal devil seduces me every December into trying to trounce them all with my cuisine. It’s a sort of seasonal affective disorder.

Here’s food for thought: my culinary efforts conceal, perhaps, a sneaky form of point-scoring, showing-off under the guise of showing largesse – what the psychobabble industry probably calls passive aggression; apparently it afflicts many women at Christmas.

In March, we are perfectly content to serve pasta with sauce from a jar; in October we happily unwrap a pizza for Sunday supper, or rustle up leftovers that bear no resemblance to the original meal. In fact, for eleven months of the year, our families get two choices: Take It or Leave It… so why, at Christmas, do so many people go overboard and allow food to dominate in this way?

I remember one childhood Christmas spoiled by a ham so expensive that my grandmother literally kept it under lock and key – and when she did bring it out, bearing it like a trophy, we children were made to eat as much fat as lean, so as to get ‘value for money’; a piece of self-defeating logic if ever I heard one.

This unpalatable competitiveness is perhaps aroused by two days of being cooped up with a brace of truculent teenage nephews or a squiffy elderly uncle or two and knowing that January will be spent queuing to return Aunt Enid’s jumpers – and therefore feeling that lovingly prepared food is the only consolation. Maybe in some families, feasting together is the only way to lay grievances aside, at least until after the Queen’s Speech.

But, if it’s your in-laws’ turn to host this Christmas, do remember your table manners. A wise man (or woman) accepts that we can’t all be a legend at our own lunch party. Suggesting that your mother-in-law’s efforts in the kitchen might be improved by spending a night with Michel Roux or Nick Nairn will not do much for family harmony.

If you are the sort of host or hostess who feels compelled every Christmas to avoid any food that has a logo while your aunt chooses the Safeway (think about it…), don’t be a dog in the manger. I’m sure your relations don’t deliberately sabotage their food in order to cause you grief or indigestion in the bleak midwinter; no, not even your sister-in-law.

They just haven’t twigged that while good food makes Christmas special, it sometimes needs liberally seasoning with a dash of culinary oneupmanship. Discreetly, of course.

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