Five Gold Rings
YESTERDAY, being March 18, we found ourselves serving Christmas dinner for thirteen fans. This necessitated a bit of rearranging, so we moved all the dining room furniture around and wrestled with Bernie Peek's trestle table of doom. But this house is much better suited to feeding large numbers than any I've previously lived in. I reckon that we could probably have about eighteen all sitting down at the dining table while still having enough space to eat their food here.
I cooked for seven hours. It all tasted pretty nice apart from the turkey, which was frankly appalling. I suspect that this is partly the turkey's fault; it was a rather poor quality branded frozen turkey. If Seattle jetlag hadn't prevented me from getting my act together, I'd have ordered a much better one from the butcher. Nevertheless, I can only blame the turkey a small amount. It would never have been delicious even if better treated, but I also overcooked it substantially. I haven't really got to grips with the oven yet. It doesn't run hot, exactly, but it is an electric fan-assisted oven, and is really very different from the gas AGA (or indeed the always running colder gas oven at Mike's house). The problem with turkey cooking is that undercooking the bird is fatal to lunch, whereas overcooking it is merely a bit of a waste, so it's best to aim on the safe side. My next 18lb turkey will be better.
In fact, we've invited both sets of parents for (real not fannish) Christmas this year, so basically, it had better be. This is the sort of occasion that turns perfectly happy, normal family cooks into raving loons. One of my staff was suffering near to Christmas because he and his wife had invited both sets of parents. And as Christmas came nearer, his wife drifted further and further towards delirium. On about the 22nd, he explained that she was so worked up about the dinner that she'd already rung the Turkey Panic Line twice. I expressed surprise at the concept of a turkey panic line. "They reassure you that yes, your turkey will fit in the oven, and no, you won't overcook it till it's dry as toast". I could have done with that. Sadly, they don't operate it in March, apparently. But I think that parental units are probably more panic-inducing than random friends can be. The average lunch-cooker believes that their mother is thinking "Goodness, how did she manage to grow up without learning the first thing about domestic management" and their mother-in-law is thinking "I always knew she was a slattern who wouldn't look after my son properly." (I should point out here that the average Christmas lunch-cooker is female, or at least 95% female. It's easier for men who cook, anyway; they believe that their mothers and mothers-in-law are both thinking "Goodness, he's terribly accomplished.") In reality, I suspect that mothers of all varieties are most likely to be thinking "Isn't it lovely to have a year off from cooking Christmas lunch?" And if you've been sufficiently solicitous with the Bucks Fizz, they may not even be thinking that.
But I digress. The stuffing failed, as well. Taking a clever ruse from my cookbook, I stuffed the bird between the skin and breast. I think this is theoretically a good idea; it insulates the breast, and if it works then when you carve you get beautiful slices of breast with a layer of stuffing at the top. But in practice the stuffing was desiccated along with the turkey. The other half of the stuffing was rolled into balls and placed alongside the turkey in the tin, where it promptly disintegrated and turned into stuffing soup.
Most of the other trimmings were fine. This was the "large amounts of butter and cream" school of culinary excellence. Cooking lunch consumed four packs of butter and eight pints of milk, along with a couple of bottles of wine and several large slugs of brandy. And that was just the chef. It's a good thing that Christmas only comes once a year. Whoops.
The flip side of the turkey being dry and inedible was that the gravy, made from the turkey juices (and stuffing soup) whizzed up with a stock made earlier from the giblets, some onion, and an entire bottle of cheap red wine, was completely delicious. Sadly, I don't have anything as grand as a gravy boat, so it got served in a teapot.
The Christmas puddings were provided by Brian Ameringen, who knows the sorts of places where you can get Christmas puddings very cheap in March, and were microwaved according to an old family recipe. Again, if I'd had my act together I'd have made some six weeks ago, or got someone who was making at Christmas to make me some extra. They were both all right, but I think the modern taste for vegetarian puddings that can be microwaved has led to slightly drier, less rich puddings with no silver charms in. Traditional puddings are made with good honest animal suet, and are so fatty that there have been cases of them catching fire in microwave ovens.
Speaking of microwaves, I have not the faintest idea how people coped with Christmas dinner before microwave ovens. For one thing, one of my rings would have been occupied throughout the critical part of the morning steaming a pudding. For another, the sprouts were part microwaved, and all the roast veg was parboiled in the microwave. One of the soups had its veg cooked in the microwave, thereby saving a pan. I suppose all these things could have been cooked the night before, so I could have traded my microwave for another marathon cooking session; this one after work. Ooh lovely. But the nuker also meant that I could warm things up at the last minute instead of frantically trying to keep them hot while other things were cooked.
Thirteen is a traditional number for these lunches, and in this case the thirteen were the three of us, Mike and Kathy Westhead & their children Peter & Karen (who I think of as sweet little toddlers but who are actually hulking great almost-grownups. There is a cognitive dissonance thing going on here), Brian Ameringen & Caroline Mullan (Caroline is now sufficiently gravid that she had to waddle off for a nap after lunch; mind you, we all felt like a nap but only Caroline had enough excuse to go and lie down. The rest of us just sat around drifting off from time to time), Steve Davies & Giulia De Cesare, Bernie Peek, and Pete Tyers. "You do know that Pete's vegetarian," said Brian cheerfully three hours before lunch. "Fuck fuck fuck" I replied. Luckily, I was reprieved; Pete is only vegetarian in that he doesn't like slabs of meat. He has no problem with soups made with meat stocks, gravy, stuffing, suet puddings, potatoes roasted in turkey fat, and so on, and was reasonably well fed on the trimmings from lunch. Whew. Peter Westhead had the best apparel; a Romanian tourist board "Watch the Skies" eclipse t-shirt. He regaled us with tales of warm weather, clear skies, reflections of the total eclipse on water, and wild bears. Brian and Caroline were charged with providing the drink, all of which was excellent, and remarked that these events are much less boozy than they once were. We're all getting old.
It was only thirteen because I'd been really dreadful about sorting out the arrangements. Although the date was fixed many months ago, I hadn't thought about it even once before leaving for Seattle. After I got back, all I could do for a few days was get to work without falling asleep too often. So when I finally got round to letting people know it was shockingly short notice. Which is probably not a bad thing in some ways. When Brian & Caroline combined organisational efficiency with the draw of Gary Farber as guest of honour, they ended up serving Christmas dinner to twenty-four. I think that would have destroyed me. This is not a meal that scales up easily in a domestic kitchen. I've served thirty people at once a few times, but always by filling an enormous great stockpot with a stew or curry of some kind.
After lunch we observed the traditional ritual of sitting around feeling bloated, and the other traditional ritual of opening the presents. Each participant is required to provide three presents, wrapped, costing less than £10 in total, which are then distributed according to an arcane ritual. If only we had remembered this when wandering around Archie McPhee -- probably the best source of peculiar presents at moderate prices on the entire planet. Visions of sarcastic eightballs danced in my head but alas, too late. To add a bit to the Christmas spirit, we had a large inflatable Christmas tree with artificial snow to array the presents beneath. Marianne liked the inflatable tree almost as much as the inflatable Wisconsin promotional Holstein.
The presents varied. Stars were probably the pushmi-pullyu two-headed neckwarmer, the stapleless stapler ("it's jammed", exclaimed everyone), the glow in the dark water balloons, the famous cats of art book ("Jackson Pollock's cat made the mistake of lying on the painting") and the Pokemon GameBoy bubble bath.