The Mountain Eagle
Whitesburg KY

What’s at Tiny Tim’s table for Christmas?


What’s on Tiny Tim’s table?

Despite the Cratchits’ blistering poverty, a feast not dissimilar to those that will grace many tables this holiday season. A roasted goose stuffed to bursting, mashed potatoes, gravy, applesauce, and of course plum pudding.

It’s a portrait of celebration — first cast by Charles Dickens during the mid-1800s in his now ubiquitous “A Christmas Carol” — so appealing, and so lovingly crafted, it’s as if Dickens invented the holiday himself.

He didn’t, of course. But his words wielded considerable influence over how people celebrated during his era — and ours.

“That image of everyone sitting around the table with a great big goose — this is when it comes about, in the 1830s and 1840s,” says Alex Werner, a senior curator of social and working history at the Museum of London.

During the early part of the 19th century, Christmas was a ho-hum holiday. But Victorianera conservatives became enamored with a longing for simpler, more ordered times.

Dickens’ tale of Scrooge, the Cratchits and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future helped fuel the phenomenon.

First published on Dec. 17, 1843, the work “A Christmas Carol, In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” sold over 5,000 copies by Christmas Eve. Reprints followed. So did stage productions and movies.

Many of the ideas now associated with Christmas started during that era, Werner says. Family members scattered for work in the newly industrial era travel home. Chestnuts roast. Greeting cards are dispatched.

Even the Christmas tree, long a staple in German households, took off in Britain after a print appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848 showing Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around one.

“An awful lot of things we’re living with are legacies of the Victorian era,” says Valerie Mars, an honorary research fellow and social historian at University College London’s anthropology department. “It’s the recent old. It’s accessible old.”

And of course, there’s the feast, usually anchored by a big bird supplemented with side dishes and spiced up with exotic offerings from other lands — currants, Madeira — then newly accessible because of improvements in transportation.

Dickens loved writing about food. He goes on at length about the people and offerings of Scrooge’s world. There are parties and feasts, young boys sent to fetch monstrous turkeys, and loving descriptions of the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner.

Dickens’ characters seem equally enamored with food. He describes Mrs. Cratchit’s nerves as her expectant family waited to see if the plum pudding (dessert) had cooked properly.

She entered the room, flushed “but smiling proudly; with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in a half-a-quartern of ignited brandy and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

Bob Cratchit is in love.

“He regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage,” Dickens wrote.

Those culinary traditions fascinate contemporary chefs such as Steven Kitchen, who is anxious to preserve the Victorian era’s legacies. Kitchen, the executive chef at the Novelli Academy cookery school, researched pudding — he wanted to get it right. Traditional offerings were made on “Stir Up Sunday,” the Sunday after Pentecost. That was well in advance of the holiday, allowing the flavors to meld.

“It needs time,” he said.

There also was great ceremony in the making of it: It had to be stirred from east to west in honor of the Three Kings who visit Jesus after his birth in the manger. Everyone in the family stirred it once, making a wish.

But the whole pudding thing baffled Susan M. Rossi-Wilcox, author of “Dinner for Dickens: The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens’s Menu Books.”

Rossi-Wilcox, studied the menu books Dickens’ wife, Catherine, compiled under the pseudonym, Lady Maria Clutterbuck. She studied menu after menu — and only found a fried version of the dessert in an early edition of the slim volume. The recipe was later dropped.

Dickens’ wife didn’t have a Christmas menu in her book, but did have menus for large gatherings. Rossi-Wilcox believes a big feast like Christmas might have included a white soup of almond base and perhaps a green pea soup, together with a fish course, like turbot, and a meat dish, such as rabbit curry. The main course — turkey or goose, for example — would be served with sides such as spinach, broccoli or peas. Sweets would include shimmering gelatin molded desserts or ice pudding, which is similar to ice cream.

Dickens might have eaten plum pudding, but it would have been the equivalent of a comfort food — certainly not something for Christmas.

“He’s going to be having these very large jellies that glisten in the candlelight,” Rossi- Wilcox said.

The last course in Victorian times was often savory — which is to say that Dickens might have wrapped up his feast with a nice lobster salad or, maybe, potted anchovies.

Leave a Reply