Season's Eatings in December 1913: Memories of Christmas Past

As a Victorianist, I'm often nostalgic for a past I've never experienced. The material trappings of the late 19th century and early 20th century fascinate me, and while I certainly don't want to return to a time of corsets and cholera epidemics, I still long for some of the culinary traditions of yesteryear.

If I had been alive this month 100 years ago and lived in a family of some financial means, I probably would have been celebrating the season by enjoying rich repasts. (In other words, chowing down much like I've been doing this December.) And the components of these holiday feasts are surprisingly similar to those often found on 21st-century tables. In A Calendar of Dinners with 1615 Recipes (1913), early 20th-century domestic goddess and author Marion Harris Neil described a 'typical' Christmas dinner menu as containing "Oysters, Mangoes, Celery, Stuffed Olives, Tomato Soup, Roast Turkey, Cranberry Jelly, Roast Sweet Potatoes, Mashed Turnips, Brussels Sprouts, Orange and Celery Salad, Vanilla Blanc-mange, English Plum Pudding, Fruit, Coffee."

Clearly, Americans were enamored of an overflowing spread even 100 years ago. Vestiges of our colonial ties to England are represented in the plum pudding and blanc-mange, while the liberal mention of oysters is testament to the reality that bivalves (like lobsters) were highly affordable as well as available around the turn of the century. Not really sure, by the way, what's going on with the mangoes. Oranges in 1913 were expensive, and something imported like mangoes would have been very costly. This "typical" menu may therefore be more aspirational.

Seasonal meals in restaurants could be even more elaborate and expensive. A 1913 holiday menu archived at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas describes a multi-course dinner that includes, among other items: oxtail soup, prime rib with Yorkshire puddings, lemon meringue pie, plum pudding (see a trend?), almond pound cake, assorted fruits, cider, frozen egg nog, coffee and tea.

Then and now, the ability to offer and enjoy bountiful food and drink during the holidays was a marker of wealth and achievement. And as America prospered, the concept of leisure as a necessary and important part of the season became more widespread. Delightful evidence of this burgeoning cultural value can be seen in the development of the crossword puzzle, which, incidentally, made its American debut on December 21, 1913, in the New York World.

Lest nostalgia overwhelm reality, it is important to remember that not everyone's Christmas in 1913 was so merry. Consider what happened to the poor mining folks who attended a lively Christmas party on December 24, 1913. Yeah, that's why yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater is actually that bad.

This Christmas, I'm grateful to be living in 2013 for many, many reasons,* but that doesn't mean I won't look over my shoulder with an envious eye to turn-of-the-century Christmas comestibles. Perhaps it's time I learn how to make my own plum puddings.

*Including, but not limited to, the passage of Roe v. Wade, the ubiquitous presence of Oreos, the acceptability of women wearing pants all the freakin' time, the development of the flu vaccine, the demise of these god-awful bathing suits and the existence of Alec Baldwin.

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