December 21, 2014
Having spent most of the last week recovering from the Feast of St. Cholestra, I’m looking forward to some highly seasonal food. That’s seasonal, not highly seasoned, food. I eat highly seasoned food at every season of the year. This week I’m talking (well, singing, actually) about those special foods that people haul out to enjoy especially at Christmas time. You know, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, plum pudding, a soul a soul cake (please, good Mrs., a soul cake). Later we’ll have some pumpkin pie and we’ll do some caroling. That sort of thing.
Of course it’s doubtful that very many readers of the Thornapple Blog have plum pudding or soul cake. Those are decidedly British holiday foods. Plum pudding (also known fondly as “the pud”) is made from dried fruits and suet. (Oooh, yummy!) Sounds like one of those fruitcakes that famously get re-gifted year after year after year. It’s been years since we had any fruitcake around my house. Actually, I kind of miss it.
And it’s also not clear why soul cakes even get mentioned at Christmas, since the authentic tradition is to hand them out to kids who ring your doorbell instead of tiny little candy bars during the Hallowmas season. The idea that this has something to do with Christmas probably comes from the fact that Peter, Paul and Mary stuck some verses of the traditional begging song that children sang when going door to door for soul cakes into a medley with “Hey Ho Nobody Home,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Those are proper Christmas carols, but they don’t mention any food items. “Hey Ho” mentions meat and drink, but points out that the singer has none, while “Merry Gentlemen” leaves us only with “tidings of comfort and joy”. Tidings never filled the stomach. What kind of a deal is that? I think it’s a good idea to stick some soul cakes in there in order to get ready for the proper spirit of the season, don’t you?
What about those chestnuts roasting on an open fire? I guess this is one that people of my age or older might have eaten. But a blight had all but eliminated the American chestnut tree even by the time I was born in 1951. I mainly associate chestnuts with New York City, where you can (or once could) get freshly roasted chestnuts from street venders who were cooking them over charcoal on their pushcarts. I’m not sure whether those came from an American chestnut or not. We do produce chestnuts here in Michigan. A quick web search tells me that you could have gotten them at Silver Bells in the City, so maybe this is not so passé as I think.
And then there is lutefisk. I’ve actually had some lutefisk once, but once again it’s not something that I would expect most readers of the Thornapple blog to have much direct experience with. We only know about this Norwegian delicacy (?) because Garrison Keillor makes jokes about it on Prairie Home Companion. I don’t personally know any lutefisk songs, but apparently there is one. Strange how these seasonal foods live on in popular culture more successfully than on our tables.
Pumpkin pie. Now THAT I’ve eaten.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University