Being of Italian descent, I can't think of holidays--any holidays--without thinking of food. My protagonist, Pat Montella, has a similar background. In her opening scene in POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, she's stuck in traffic on her way to Williamsburg on Christmas eve, pondering how she'd normally be at one of her aunt's houses eating seven fishes or sausage, with cannolis, pizzelles, and ricotta pie for dessert. Other times in the book she mentions Sicilian advent biscottis and a family reunion with a big pork roast and tomato pie on New Year's Eve.
Pat's experiences were all taken from my experiences. So you can imagine the culture shock to both of us when I plopped her into a Christmas setting where dinner would be in the American colonial style.
In the 18th century, assuming you had the money to afford it and your religion didn’t forbid the extravagance, big dinners were enormously important to the celebration of the Yuletide. The poor ate whatever was usual for them—most likely somewhere between gruel and a pottage (a stew). Middling folk, like Mrs. Carson in the historic part of POISON, may have tried to add a few special items to the menu that time of year: mince pies (made with apples and currants unless you could afford a bit of meat too), pease pudding (peas—the last saved from the harvest --boiled, mashed and whipped with butter), a punch of some sort (probably with hard cider or wine gotten locally or made yourself). Perhaps a pheasant or wild turkey brought back from a hunt if you were lucky. Or like Mrs. Carson, you made a bit of bacon and a few squabs go as far as you could.
But much of what we know of early American meals comes from the diaries and letters of the more wealthy—men like John Adams, who once wrote in great detail about a dinner party he attended while he was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. These lavish parties (at any time of year) were usually 4 courses, and not the courses (soup, salad, etc.) that we think of today. Imagine a long table set with 30, 40, 50 platters of food, arranged in perfect symmetry, each one presented with artistry. No whole turkeys in the center, no sir—the slicing would have been done in the kitchen and all sorts of edible garnishments added. And no one entree. You might have roast beef at one end, baked ham at the other, boiled beef to one side, turkey to the other, oysters, eggs, venison pie, pheasant, plus a variety of fancy vegetables (imagine beets cuts into the shapes of fishes), breads, relishes...well, you get the idea.
And that’s only the 1st course. Then came the “remove”—when guests would follow their host to another room for some sort of entertainment (a short concert or play perhaps). The servants, meantime, would remove the 1st course and reset the table for the 2nd. A different symmetry of platters, but just as many. Perhaps some of the same foods (the ham this time might be cooked with cabbage, the turkey stewed with a rich gravy) or, depending what was available, different offerings—turtle, veal, lamb, shad roe.
Another “remove” and then the first dessert course. Yes, I said the FIRST.
One cake? A couple of pies? Don’t be silly. Like the opening courses, you’d have variety. Desserts using alcohol and whipped cream were popular. Syllabubs were sort of a parfait made with cider or wine. A floating island was rounds of crusty bread, layered with jellies, floating in a bowl of liquored whipped cream. You might also have sweet omelettes (Pat helps to make one—an apple tansy, one of my favorite desserts—a link for the recipe is below), cookies and small cakes, ices (like sherbet), fresh and dried fruit (depending on the season or if you had enough money to import in wintertime), candied flowers and fruits, nuts. And naturally, dessert wines. George Washington, for instance, was very fond of Madeira.
A 3rd “remove” and another dessert course (my kind of dinner!). These parties, alternating dinner and entertainment, usually began in the afternoon and went on for many, many hours.
Even my Italian holiday feasts couldn't top them.
For the Apple Tansy recipe, go to: