Goose, elk, and Pepys’ Christmas dinner

By Bob Hicks

“How do you feel about elk meat for Christmas dinner?” Mr. Scatter casually asked the Older Educated Daughter over the phone.

The long hesitant pause, coupled with the complication that several of us no longer eat any sort of mammal or fowl, anyway, suggested that a nice fat slab of salmon should be added to the oven on the 25th. But we’ll also be cooking up those thick elk steaks, which wandered into our freezer via one of Mrs. Scatter’s fabled pickle swaps.

Randolph Caldecott, illustration of "The Christmas Dinner" from "The Sketch Book" by Washington Irving; 1876.Here at Chez Scatter, the arrival of Christmas always includes a good deal of flutter over food. How many people will we be this year? Who eats meat and who doesn’t? What recipes have we been longing to try? How traditional and how daring are we going to be?

A few things are non-negotiable: the good cheeses, the platters of pickles, the mounds of mashed potatoes, the cranberry-orange sauce with a dash of port. A dressing is essential: this year we’re leaning toward a mixed-mushroom and cornbread version.

The Brussels sprouts will be roasted with cauliflower and carrots, sprinkled liberally with chile powder. The red wine, we’re thinking, will be a private blend obtained, to our great good fortune, in yet another pickle swap, and there’ll be a dutiful nod to some fresh greens. A couple of other pickle-swap scores will find their way to the groaning-table, too: homemade sauerkraut to go with the elk, and homemade pesto for the top of the roasted vegetables. Pies of various persuasions, Mr. Scatter is given to understand, are in the offing.

All right, then: more traditional than daring, but very good.

Of course, when it comes to Christmas feasting, tradition goes back a very long way, and the Scatters are highly unlikely to ever make a holiday meal from peacock or swan or eel or wild boar. Lulled into foolishness by sentiment and Charles Dickens (“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.”) one year they roasted a goose. Mr. Scatter did the honors, and knowing nothing about goose-cooking, he handled the bird the way he would have a capon or a turkey: he made little incisions in the skin and inserted slabs of butter, just to make sure the meat wouldn’t dry out. The modern goose, as it turns out, is a creature consisting of roughly 103 percent fat, and what emerged from the oven was a bird swimming in enough melted grease to satisfy the pomading requirements of a hundred Elvis impersonators for a solid week.

However things turn out, we’re looking forward to a merrier time than the great diarist Samuel Pepys endured on December 25, 1661, at least in the earlier hours of his day. Mr. Scatter keeps a copy of a volume called The Shorter Pepys (shorter, not short; it’s still almost 1,100 pages, although that’s considerably briefer than the full eleven volumes) atop the bookshelf near his bed, handy for an occasional nighttime dip. It was looking into Pepys, in fact, that reminded Mr. Scatter of those dark years in which Oliver Cromwell and the English Puritans banned all Christmas celebrations, a tale we recounted here. In 1661 Charles II had reclaimed the throne and the ban was over, but only recently so. Pepys always had a good appetite, but doesn’t appear to have got back into the full swing of the Christmas feast yet:

In the morning to church, where at the door of our pew I was fain to stay, because that the sexton had not opened the door. A good sermon of Mr. Mills. Dined at home all alone, and taking occasion from some fault in the meat to complain of my maid’s sluttery, my wife and I fell out, and I up to my chamber in a discontent. After dinner my wife comes up to me and all friends again, and she and I to walk upon the leads, and there Sir W. Pen called us, and we went to his house and supped with him, but before supper Captain Cock came to us half drunk, and began to talk, but Sir W. Pen knowing his humour and that there was no end of his talking, drinks four great glasses of wine to him, one after another, healths to the king, and by that means made him drunk, and so he went away, and so we sat down to supper, and were merry, and so after supper home and to bed.

We know what you mean, Sam. We have the same trouble with our domestic help. And let this be a warning to any so-called friends who drop in unexpectedly half-drunk on Christmas day: We will ruthlessly pour wine down your throats.


ILLUSTRATION: Randolph Caldecott, “The Christmas Dinner,” from “The Sketch Book” by Washington Irving; 1876. Wikimedia Commons.