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Holiday Food Through History, Explained

Holiday food has always been special but how did we get our specific ideas about eating turkey at Thanksgiving or ham at Christmas? We trace the surprising history of some of the most familiar (and strange) seasonal dishes.

 
Every Thanksgiving we spend $2.4 billion on food for the day’s feast and manage to consume a full 20 percent of the U.S. turkey supply on a single day.

We drink 122 million pounds of eggnog from when it hits grocery store shelves in November and until it tapers off after New Year’s. We eat a day’s worth of food during both the Christmas and Thanksgiving meals and yet despite these gluttonous behaviors, many of the foods that show up on the holiday dinner table have more to do with tradition than serving up our favorites.

But where did these traditions come from? Some holiday centerpieces, like the Tofurky, are new additions to the seasonal food pantheon. Others, like a Cornish fish pie and the Christmas ham were likely stolen from pagan rituals of previous centuries. Here is a brief history of six such foods.


 

1. Yule Boar

Likely dates back to BCE

Much as Christmas itself has evolved from a debauched winter festival of boozing and merrymaking, the Christmas ham—centerpiece of many a meal—has fiercer origins. Before there was the unassuming round roast you could pick up the grocery store and serve with green beans and scalloped potatoes, there was boar.

Even today the wild boar is a dangerous animal to hunt. It has razor-sharp tusks, a thick hide, and can weigh up to 660 pounds. In ancient times the wild boar was even more feared. Mythology from around the world is full of heroes defeating monstrous boars and gods who ride the giant pigs into battle. In pagan Scandinavia, harvest festivals like Yule—which originally took place during the winter solstice—were marked with the sacrifice of a boar. When King Haakon introduced Christianity to Norway in the twelfth century, he had the traditional Yule celebration postponed a few days to coincide with Christmas.

Times changed, though, and wild boar populations in Britain, Europe, and Scandinavia dwindled nearly to extinction starting in the 1300s. That’s only a few hundred years after the pig was first domesticated. As animal agriculture grew and wild boars became harder to find, the traditional centerpiece got smaller—and less likely to be served with its head chopped off and an apple in its mouth.


 

2. Stargazy Pie

Originated in the 1600s

During one December in the 17th century, in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole (pronounced "mowzel"), people were starving. For weeks, storms thrashed the coast. It was a town where people relied on the ocean for food and income and, during the aquatic tumult, their supplies had dwindled to nearly nothing. The night before Christmas Eve, according to local tavern lore, a brave fisherman named Tom Bawcock dragged his small fishing boat to the shore and took to the seas. Somehow he managed to catch enough fish to feed his entire village.

It’s a fishy kind of Christmas miracle in more ways than one. It’s celebrated every December 23rd in Mousehole with a lantern parade that ends in a feast of stargazy pie. Though fish pie is a common dish throughout Britain, the stargazy pie is more artful than the average fish-and-potatoes mash. It was a winning dish on the BBC show Great British Menu in 2007, going on to become the main course for an Ambassadors' Dinner at the British embassy in Paris. The stargazy pie consists of oily silver pilchards which are arranged to allow their heads to peek out of the crust as though gazing up at the stars. Sometimes the tails are also used to make it look like there are whole fish leaping through the pastry waters. 

Yet like so many stories involving storms, unspecified dates, and folk heroes named Tom (the John Doe of folklore), it’s unclear whether any of this ever took place. One theory is that Tom Bawcock’s Eve is based off an even older fisherman’s festival. Italians still celebrate a Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and Catholics have traditionally avoided meat on holy days in favor of fish. There might be another, more practical reason for the tall tale: Until the mid-1500s, England was a Catholic country and it’s possible that the legend of Mr. Bawcock and his stargazy pie allowed Church of England-going Brits to continue eating fish on the holidays while separating it from Catholic traditions.


 

3. Eggnog

From the 1700s

Though eggnog’s spiritual ancestor, the British posset—a mixture of wine or ale, milk, spices, and sometimes egg or cream—dates back to medieval times, the custardy holiday beverage is more of an American tradition. In Britain, the ingredients used to make eggnog were all luxury items available only to aristocrats and monks. In the colonies, farms producing eggs and milk were plentiful, and New England was home to more than 140 rum distilleries by the late 1700s. The spicy flavor of rum likely helped eggnog maintain its original flavor even when imported spices were still too expensive for most colonialists to throw into beverages.

The Founding Fathers certainly partook in the New World craze. George Washington’s own eggnog recipe, served during the holidays at Mount Vernon, contained cream, milk, sugar, eggs, and a stiff helping of several forms of booze: brandy, whiskey, rum, and sherry. The last line of the recipe admonishes the mixer to “taste frequently.”

Evidently early American eggnog drinkers took this last bit of advice to heart. During an 1826 Christmas celebration at West Point, a riot broke out thanks to an attempted ban on eggnog. Cadets snuck out to surrounding taverns and smuggled roughly four gallons of various alcohol back to the academy. Attempts to reign in these inebriated future soldiers of America only made them more upset. The drunken cadets took up arms to defend themselves from a rumored onslaught of West Point commanders and artillerymen. Just for good measure, they smashed windows and furniture. One cadet even tried to shoot an officer but, thankfully, missed. To properly punish the revelers, West Point would have had to expel nearly the entire class. Instead only 19 cadets were told to pack their bags.

Though eggnog has probably been responsible for millions of emotional holiday outbursts since that riot, modern nog is less alcoholic and less eggy than its predecessor. Under FDA guidelines, “eggnog” only has to contain 1 percent “egg yolk solids, sweetener, and flavoring” and 6 percent “butterfat” to legally qualify. That’s likely why it’s increasingly hard to tell the spice-flavored milk-nog sold in grocery stores from vegan “nog” without any eggs or milk at all.


 

4. Maraschino Cherries

Hailing from the 1800s

In certain households, jars of maraschino cherries start turning up around the holidays. They have so many uses: the frighteningly red fruits do dot the center of pineapples tooth-picked to a ham. They go in cookies, in drinks, and in midcentury salads.  In their first iteration, marasca cherries which have been grown on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia since at least 1399 were soaked in a liqueur made from cherry juice, pits, and stems which gave it a slightly more bitter flavor than the syrupy sweet maraschinos of today.

These products were so popular as an expensive American import that it wasn’t long before imitators began making their own cheaper versions. Unfortunately, these were preserved with dangerous chemicals and dye that came from coal-byproducts. (No one appears to have been mortally impacted from the poisoning, thank goodness.) The outrage was so great that the FDA issued a proclamation in 1912 that defined the treats as “marasca cherries preserved in maraschino.”

During Prohibition, cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur were no longer allowed. Luckily, a less alcoholic cherry had already become popular. East Coast factories were producing them made from brined marasca cherries sent all the way from Europe.

Cherry growers of the Pacific Northwest wanted to profit from the craze but the East Coast maraschino makers complained that the U.S.-grown cherries were too squishy. An Oregon State University horticulturist Ernest Wiegand made it his mission to turn Oregon cherries into something resembling maraschinos. After six years, he discovered that using calcium salts to brine the cherries (rather than alcohol) would keep them firm.

By 1940 these chemical-soaked, sugared, flavored, and dyed cherries were so popular that the FDA changed its definition to reflect consumer preference.

Also? They've helped solve crime. Back in 2010, a few beekeepers in New York City noticed a problem with their hives. The honey was the color of cherry Kool Aid. After testing, the beekeepers determined that despite the proliferation of urban farms in the area, the bees were foraging from vats of maraschino cherries at a local factory.

It was a mild inconvenience to the beekeepers but a huge win for the District Attorney’s office. They’d been trying to investigate the maraschino cherry factory for a year, ever since they got a tip about a giant marijuana operation in the basement. The bees gave them an excuse to search the premises twice, eventually discovering a hidden staircase that led to a 2,500 square foot basement not included on the building’s official plans.


 

5. The TV dinner

Arrived in the 1950s

This Thanksgiving, let’s all agree to give thanks for the TV dinner. Without this holiday, Americans may never have developed the habit of eschewing the dinner table for foil-packed meals unwrapped and eaten in front of the television.

It all started with frozen food company Swanson & Sons. In 1953, the company vastly miscalculated American turkey demand and were left with 260 tons of leftovers. They were stuck shuttling the turkeys, packed on ten railroad cars, between the Midwest and East Coast to keep the birds cold in their refrigerated cars. Desperate, the company reached out to their employees for a solution.

Salesman Gary Thomas had become fascinated by the food of the skies—the pre-made in-flight foods served in neat trays. He suggested they try something similar and combine cornbread-stuffed turkey with sweet potatoes and peas. The first year of their production, 10 million turkey dinners were sold. Each dinner was packed in a box made to look like a television set.

The dinners were in the right place at the right time. In 1950 only 9 percent of Americans had their own television but by the first year of Swanson’s TV dinners, the number had jumped to 56 percent. Advertisements for the meals (which were originally heated in an oven) painted them as marriage-savers that would keep the wife from getting angry if her husband came home late for dinner or invited a horde of coworkers over unannounced. “She can have a swell dinner ready in just 25 minutes,” one commercial boasted. Happy Thanksgiving.


 

6. Tofurkey

Came to the public in 1995

Uninspiring to some, Thanksgiving miracle to others, the Tofurkey holiday roast was the result of years of trial and error by a man who lived in a treehouse.

Seth Tibbot was a teacher, hippie, and vegetarian living in Oregon when he decided to start his own tempeh-making company. While there are plenty of meat-substitutes on the market today, when Tibbot started his company in the 1980s mock meats were mostly purchased at the local health food store—if you were lucky enough to have one nearby.

Though there was tofu, tempeh, and—starting in the early 1980s—gardenburgers, vegetarians didn’t have a main course at Thanksgiving and had to fill their plates with green beans and mashed potatoes instead. First, Tibbot tried to make a stuffed pumpkin which collapsed in the oven. Then he made a product known only as a “gluten roast” which took eight hours to cook and then was harder to cut than an actual turkey (he supposed a chainsaw might have done the trick).

Finally, he debuted the Tofurky in 1995. It’s essentially a tofu roll filed with stuffing. The original roast came with tempeh drumsticks to help mimic a real turkey. In 2003, they removed the legs since the Tofurky was also meant to appeal to plant-based eaters who specifically avoided food that came with legs.

In 2014, the mayor of Seattle put a vegetarian spin on the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pardoning. “I, Mayor Murray, pardon Braeburn the Tofurky,” he announced. Braeburn and his pardoning partner Honeycrisp the Tofurky were both left to live out their days at the Rainer Valley Food Bank.

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