There were tears. Absolutely. And a mood of disbelief. It was the year Auntie Ena dissed our Christmas spread because it was the year we went cold.
Living in Melbourne in the 1970s you could get stinking hot Decembers and after a spate of them Mum decided we’d take our cue from our northern Australian friends and have a cold spread.
Mum was an avid magazine reader and planned our daring change with utter delight. There were tear-outs on the kitchen bench featuring potato salads with spring onions, bacon and real mayonnaise. She had crazy thoughts of popping red and green capsicum in her rice salad, you know for that “festive touch”. And the pièce de résistance: plum pudding ice-cream. Yes, it was quite the departure. But it was the cold roast turkey that really did Ena in.
I remember piling juicy pieces of turkey breast from the special chilled platter onto my plate, squeezing them in next to my cold sliced ham and salads and feeling like we were terribly bohemian. Then it started.
“Oh, are we really going to eat this cold? Is there even any gravy?”
“No love, it’s too hot for gravy.”
“And where are the roast potatoes?” Mum now started to look a bit anxious.
“Here try this potato salad, it’s bloody delicious,” said Dad, who would happily eat a frozen fish finger if it meant we all got together for Christmas.
“No, thank you,” she sighed. “I’ll just wait for pudding.”
Auntie Ena had made a stand. She tried to lead a mutiny but we were a happy bunch and loved our summertime feast. That was, until Mum heard The Phone Call.
Ena excused herself to call a distant cousin.
(I suppose she needed to blow off steam.) “Can you believe it? She served cold Christmas lunch. I know. It was terrible. What was she thinking?”
What a bag. Mum was so upset, and my heart (and stomach) dropped because I knew that this would be the end of being groovy and we’d be back to traditional roasts with stuffing and hot kitchens and over-filling our bellies forevermore.
That was more than 30 years ago and dear old Ena has long since passed.
These days, my own family (that’s me, my husband and our five kids) travel as a mountain anywhere we go and it’s tipped our once manageable Christmas Day lunch into a bit of a circus. So for the past few years I’ve asked the family to come to ours, a Mohammed-to-the-mountain kind of thing. My mum, my sister and my auntie Val all pitch in with the cooking.
We’ve also been going a bit lighter for the past few years and even though I miss the sight of Dad nodding off into his bowl of pud from being full as a goog, I rather like the fact he’s still happily holding himself upright at 4pm with his Christmas hat perfectly in place. And the thing is, in this new non-boombah world (a phrase I coined when I wrote my first cookbook in 2009; a world where flavour isn’t compromised and is enjoyed, but where food is fresh and light), preparing the big feast is far less stressful.
We don’t go berserk with lots of canapés and nibbles, for example. Plum pudding is replaced with big, ripe strawberries. And I don’t feel pressure any more to serve 14 different types of vegies and salads with the main course. In the early years of cooking Christmas lunch, I remember freaking out about how we’d keep the beans hot and the peas warm. And how were we going to fit the potatoes and pumpkin and parsnip and onions in the oven with the turkey? And what about the carrots?
So here’s my stress-free, crowd-pleasing Christmas Day menu for this year, and guess what: it’s a mix of hot and cold. I’ll start with prawn cocktails served in baby cos lettuce cups, then we’ll go on to cold carved leg ham with a hot English mustard, horseradish and yoghurt cream and a hot roast turkey breast. Sides will consist of spicy roast pumpkin with chilli, salt, cumin, coriander and nigella seeds along with a crisp iceberg salad with radish and toasted sesame seeds and a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. And for dessert? My sister’s warm strawberries with balsamic vinegar and ice-cream. (Okay, I concede, mum will bring plum pudding for the traditionalists.) Either way, hot or cold, I hope you have a merry, non-boombah Christmas.
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
This article is from the December 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.