In the 1990s, Christmas had just about started seeping into our consciousness—the markets had started stocking grotesque Santa figurines, schools would have special assemblies leading up to the day, and children would exchange knick-knacks. My grandfather would get a cake from the neighbourhood sweet shop, laden with tutti-frutti currants and ghee, that left the tongue rubbery and clammy. It was so different from all the feasts in the books by Enid Blyton , Charles Dickens and other classics. Every Christmas, I would revisit the parts that referred to roasts, pies, mashes, biscuits...
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was a favourite. When the ghost of Christmas present takes Ebenezer Scrooge to his own room, I got lost in the descriptions of holly, mistletoe and bright, shiny lights. “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, long wreaths of sausage, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam,” Dickens wrote. At that very moment, I decided that someday I would make every single dish I had read about in these literary feasts.
During the winter break in class XI, my cousin and I decided to make gingerbread cookies inspired by The Gingerbread Man. Our baking experience was limited to chilli cheese toast “that didn’t burn around the edges”. You couldn’t google the recipes, we found one in those recipe books that accompanied ovens. Our sole focus was on getting the shape and the eyes right, so how did it matter if we substituted atta for all-purpose flour (couldn’t compromise on health, could we?) and white sugar for brown (what difference could it really make?). All the while, we kept dreaming of beautiful brown cookies with hints of spice. What we got was boulders. My mother still blames us for a loose tooth. Thereafter, I settled for Christmas goodies from the market.
Also read: A taste of Calcutta in a Christmas plum cake
Till 2016. Reading How The Grinch Stole Christmas! and Little Matchgirl together, my daughter remarked, “When I grow up, someday I will cook parts of these feasts.” On every Christmas since, we have tried to cook dishes inspired by literary feasts. Of course, we started with Enid Blyton. In 2017, we came across Enid Blyton: Jolly Good Food by Allegra McEvedy, a children’s cookbook inspired by the author’s stories. It was like a treasure chest of recipes inspired by picnics, midnight feasts and more, from The Naughtiest Girl, The Famous Five and The Folk Of The Faraway Tree.
We decided to start modestly, with dippy eggs. All we needed were four eggs, a dash of vinegar, a timer and voilà, we had firm eggs with gooey yolks. As accompaniments, we made platoons of soldiers with bread, butter, cold cuts and cheddar cheese. And rainbow veg skewers. The veggies pretty much had to cook themselves. What could go wrong? Well, I hadn’t anticipated what cooking with an enthusiastic five-year-old would be like.
Balsamic vinegar was splashed across the white cupboards and lemon squeezed all over the floor. I called it a day with Aunt Fanny’s chicken and egg salad from The Famous Five, perfectly relating to the lady’s ordeal of having to deal with a scatterbrained scientist husband, four hyper-active detective kids and a dog.
The early years of my daughter’s childhood featured glossy books with beautiful illustrations. How The Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss continued to be a favourite for many years. “Then the Whos, young and old, would sit down to a feast. And they’d feast! And they’d feast! And they’d feast! FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!” read the description of the Christmas feast in Whoville. The illustration showed a long winding table, populated with hungry Whos. “They would feast on Who-pudding and rare Who-roast-beast, which was something the Grinch couldn’t stand in the least,” wrote the author.
Where could we get a recipe for Who-roast-beast? I turned to The Essential Kerala Cookbook by Vijayan Kannampilly, published by Penguin, for inspiration. The main criteria: There shouldn’t be anything to juice, squeeze or splash. We came across a recipe for the Irachi Varatiathu, or meat with ground coconut, which fit the bill. Kannampilly wrote that this dish is featured in the Christmas lunch of Latin Christians in Kerala, along with appam and beef mappas, duck curry, fish fry, thoran, pappadam, pickles, curd and halva. It was dry and fiery enough to please the child, and the recipe wasn’t that complicated. Christmas meal that year passed without incident.
Two years ago, my daughter entered the “revolting is good” phase, playing with slime and chortling at ridiculous food combinations: jam and chicken, chocolate and fish. Roald Dahl came to the rescue. In The Roald Dahl Treasury, the story of The Enormous Crocodile has a section on revolting recipes (what luck!) with a baguette for the shape, whole blanched animals for teeth, chopped spinach for the body, artichokes for scales, icing, hard-boiled eggs for eyes, sausage for legs and gherkins for toes. We couldn’t get gherkins, so we used thin cucumber sticks. Our crocodile looked like it had emaciated floppy legs, and the spinach got so blanched that it gave our poor beast a sickly green look. But it was fun.
This year, our Christmas spread seems to be more about gratitude for having made it through the year, and remembering those who are no longer with us. We have thought of a meal inspired by Little Women, creating small packages for those we love. “Merry Christmas, daughters. I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far from here is a woman named Mrs Hummel and her baby and six children. They are suffering from hunger and cold. Will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas gift?” Marmee tells her daughters in the book. My much thumbed black and white edition doesn’t have a detailed image of the food but presents a picture of warmth. We are putting together warm roasted cauliflower soup, baked potato wedges and veggies, sourdough and chicken/pumpkin dusted with sumac as small platters.
Perhaps the last word ought to belong to Dr Seuss, who wrote in How The Grinch Stole Christmas!: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Truer words have not been spoken!
Also read: This Christmas, bring the feast home