Newsletter - December 2014
Our Christmas Social Event
One hundred and forty members and guests enjoyed Gail Dicker’s excellent catering at our 2014 Social Event, and the mulled wine flowed freely, putting everyone in the mood for Christmas, and indeed for the following lecture. The lecture was also very well attended, and judging by the number of questions asked at the end, the audience really enjoyed Annie’s entertaining talk.
Food, Glorious Food!
Annie Gray introduced herself by describing her mid Victorian dress, with its voluminous skirt and whalebone, that gave her a perfect hourglass figure and upright deportment. At the end of the lecture, having seen the amount of food traditionally consumed at the festive season, it made one think that the Victorian hostess would have to retire to loosen her corsets!
There was no surprise in that the lecture entitled ‘Mrs Beeton’s Christmas’ would be largely about the pleasures of feasting at this time of the year. We went back to the time when Christmas was about getting through the winter, the festivities were something to give you hope for the coming spring and also a good excuse to have a party. Christmas celebrations would have started on Christmas Eve (an idea that twenty-first century shoppers might like to see reinstated), but the preparations would have started before. The feasting was about hospitality, but also about subverting the natural order. All this was done away with by Oliver Cromwell who banned the trappings of Christmas; all days were equally sacred to the Puritans, and anyhow, Christmas was to them a pagan feast.
Later Father Christmas became a symbol of Christmas and presents started to be given. In Georgian times Hogarth portrayed Christmas celebrations as unfashionable, rustic, and chaotic. The traditional meal was roast beef with the steamed plum pudding, served together with gravy and vegetables.
Christmas is hardly mentioned by Jane Austen, but when Dickens published The Christmas Carol in 1843 it had a huge impact; the idea of charity appealed and Dickens tapped into nostalgia for the kind of Christmas that never really existed.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree into fashion; they were portrayed as a normal middle-class family in 1848 with their artificial tree standing on a table, surrounded by their children. This was the time of Christmas crackers and parlour games.
Isabella Beeton published The Book of Household Management in 1860 aged 24. She had married a widower with children who was a publisher and had written articles for her husband’s magazines. The title page credits her with ‘edited by’ and nothing that Mrs Beeton did was original; what was new was that it was all compiled into one volume and aimed to give the new middle-class or aspiring young wife the confidence to run her household. It covers cooking and entertaining, child care and the management of servants among many other subjects. It contained over 1,000 pages and sold 60,000 copies in its first year of publication.
Isabella died at the age of 46 after an infection following childbirth, but the book continued to live on, being updated and added to through many editions.
Annie gave us various examples of a Victorian 4-course Christmas dinner, including roast goose, boar’s head, hare and larks on a stick! Boar’s head and hare would take hours and hours of preparation and the boar’s head would be served elaborately decorated if it was for a grand house, perhaps with the coat of arms on its forehead. Menus might be printed in French with an English translation alongside (plus ça change) but although they seem incredibly long menus, the diners would select from each course, so that the preparation required to cover all choices must have been huge, more like running a hotel than a home. (Surely the corset lacings would still have needed loosening at the end of the dinner!)
When Annie described what she was cooking for her Christmas dinner, there was a general feeling that we would love to be present at her festivities.