Where's the voice of moderation this holiday season? We've got the Martha Stewart and Co. on one side of the aisle calling for elaborate homemade holiday spreads. On the other side, Rachael Ray and her ilk are encouraging us to assemble "fake-out" holiday foods like a croquembouche made out of donut holes.
For those seeking a centrist's approach this holiday season, there's Elizabeth David's Christmas, one of our favorite collections of good advice for a sensible holiday gathering.
David, one of the most popular British food writers of post-World War II England, knew that Christmas "does tend to unbalance people, particularly those people responsible for the catering, the coking, the presents, the tree, the decorations."
Buy this book for David's holiday philosophy. "Don't overdo it," she says in many different ways. David encourages holiday hosts to honor the traditions that are important in their family's dining room, but she also asks people to consider both the long history of European holiday foods and the limited amount of time we have now to prepare these feasts.
For example, looking for refuge after rich Christmas dinners, she recommends a post-holiday meal "made up entirely of vegetables and fruit, or eggs and salads, without so much as a sniff of the turkey or ham leftovers." This concept sends readers to learn about vegetables grown for Christmas celebrations in an English country home around 1760 and then fast-forwards to a look into the modern kitchen: "I don't presume to tell readers how to cook Brussels sprouts, except just to put in a plea for undercooking rather than the reverse. Try steaming them."
Readers of this book may find a need to "translate" some parts of this book twice: once from British English and limited amounts of food French to our Americanized English, and again from a mid-century sensibility to a more contemporary one. Luckily, we get a lot of help here from editor Jill Norman who compiled this book from notes discovered after David died and had the book published in 2003.
The book is grouchy in parts, but this suggests an honest approach to being a holiday host. There are no "enforced jollifications" to be found here.
The has about 150 recipes for winter foods including Jerusalem Artichokes with Cream, Pumpkin and Tomato Gratin, The Good Daughter's Mincemeat Pudding ("may come in handy for those who don't want to make pastry"), two kinds of mushroom soup, and Spiced Prunes. The recipes may not be detailed enough for some cooks, but I find them to be helpful for inspiration and as historic gloss on why certain foods are a part of our holiday tables.
While this is not quite "the ultimate Christmas food book" that the jacket promises, it is a reminder to relax — rooted in food history from Britain and France. Elizabeth David invites us to "a glorious way to celebrate Christmas."
(Image credits: Schlesinger Library, Harvard University/via Amazon)