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December 3, 2014

The perfect Christmas dinner

One of the most confusing aspects of Christmas is the beloved ritual of Christmas dinner. For those who celebrate the holiday, there is no doubt that a special family feast should occur on the most special day of the year, yet as a nation we have still not agreed upon what, exactly, we should serve.

The menus for Thanksgiving and even Easter are comparatively rigid: on Thanksgiving we cook turkey, and on Easter we get a choice of lamb or ham.

But on December 25th—that day upon which our behavior becomes incomparably formalized, governed by the heavy hand of yuletide tradition from the moment the first present is unwrapped—there is no firmly established custom for eating. Many of us have still not really figured out what to do about Christmas dinner (to say nothing of Christmas Eve).

One of the meal’s problems—maybe its central problem—is that those conventions that do surround it seem to have drifted over from Thanksgiving: they don’t give Christmas dinner its own distinct identity. Turkey probably is the most common centerpiece at the Christmas table, and indeed it’s presented as an integral part of the holiday in “A Christmas Story,” but who really wants to cook or eat it again only a month after Thanksgiving?

I don’t. I believe it’s commonly known that the sentimental value we’ve invested in our Thanksgiving turkeys is inversely proportional to their tastiness. Accordingly, other options are fairly popular on Christmas, because other options exist: roast beef, ham, prime rib, pork loin, and even goose for those going for a “Christmas Carol” vibe—although, at the end of the original tale, Scrooge actually buys a hefty turkey to replace the Cratchits’ meager goose, which Dickens obviously considered a lesser bird.

Goose now tends to be pretty expensive for some reason; comprised mostly or entirely of dark meat, it tastes better than turkey but not as good as duck. Meanwhile, in the (bad) movie “Christmas with the Kranks,” the pièce de résistance is a honey-glazed canned ham, an item the existence of which I previously was unaware but which apparently is a holiday tradition for some real-life people as well, although it looks like an enlarged can of Spam. (Of course, Spam is a fantastic product.)

In any case, the general idea of Christmas dinner seems to be that you’re supposed to have a huge hunk of meat or poultry inhabiting the middle of the table, and this meat is meant to be served “with all the trimmings,” which consist mostly of sides of the sort you already consumed at Thanksgiving.

I looked up Christmas dinner menus online and found recipes for “crispy potatoes with fennel,” “corn pudding,” “roasted Brussels sprouts,” “gingersnap sweet potatoes,” and “cranberry-roasted winter vegetables”—all of which sound almost exactly like the dishes I ate at Thanksgiving: heavily savory, conspicuously lacking any fresh or spicy elements, and “delicious” in the sense that you can stuff all of the different foods into your mouth at the same time and not be offended by any particular flavor.

Why this identity crisis for Christmas dinner? Well, even though we think of Christmas as a winter holiday and Thanksgiving as an autumn celebration, the distance between them is pretty small, and most of the same vegetables remain in season from November through December.

But there’s also a conceptual issue: to most Americans, a feast is defined by the animal product at its center, which—given our reverence for meat, both as a comestible and as a symbol of prosperity and power—exists ideally in an unsullied state: no dish assembled from multiple parts, like a salad or a soup, can occupy the focal point of a banquet table as nobly or as substantively as a roasted animal, even if that dish contains some animal parts.

You could sub in different vegetables, and the typical holiday meal would kind of feel the same, just as it does when you sub in a ham for the turkey: your plate still consists of a tall pile of rather unadorned meat, surrounded by unpretentious side dishes that were carefully designed not to steal the spotlight from their protein overlord. Thanksgiving and Christmas cooking operate within the same rubric. Here, turkey is the “ne plus ultra” simply because the bird—plumper than the other fowls—is nevertheless cooked whole; it is not a foodstuff but an identifiable creature over which we, the feasters, preside. The feast is a theatrical event as much as anything else.

Personally, I’ve taken to fasting on Christmas. It may sound strange, but it feels pretty good after the commercial and gastronomic gluttony of the preceding month.

To sit at the dinner table with an empty plate and a judgmental squint while others eat is so much more enjoyable than consuming another heavy meal.

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