Museum Without Walls

By Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades on places and the people that make them

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Christmas dinner with an excess of trimmings

As it's nearly Christmas I thought I'd get you all in the festive spirit with some musings on the horror that is Christmas dinner.

"All The Trimmings" is among the most dispiriting constructions in the English language. It recalls Kingsley Amis's despised "red or white?", a phrase which evokes bonhomie dissembling meanness, banality posing as blokeish largesse, coy bluster, seasonal ennui. In The Pickwick Papers Charles Dickens mentions "a boiled leg of mutton with The Usual Trimmings". That is among the earliest written instances denoting Trimmings' migration from the haberdashery to the butchers, from nécessaire to kitchen. Yet the word retains the conjoined meanings it had possessed since the 16th century: an accessory, an adornment, an add-on that is not integral to the work whatever medium that work may be in. Adolf Loos's confusion of ornament and degeneracy is perhaps more an indicator of his own dodgy pathology than a tenable aesthetic position but the endurance of the accretive urge does, after a century of modernism, seem coarse though hardly puzzling.

The British, specifically English, Christmas dinner is of course not a dinner but a late lunch, and what it has to do with a tired, 2,000-year-old birth myth is moot. It is a winter celebration – an approximate word – that occurs in a loud overheated room in a northern country. Its participants are drunk, dribbling, burping, mutually loathing people wearing novelty hats the colour and texture of lavatory paper who, by dusk, will have very likely vomited or soiled themselves. It was once a necessary feast, a welcome exception to the cold climate frugality most of our forbears endured most of their life. At some point in the recent past that exceptional status dissipated under the weight of affluence and it became a recriminatory caricature of the other rare meals that we sit down to together: the "traditional" Sunday lunch and its like and, less predictably, restaurant meals of virtually every level of ambition. A blow-out is not even peptic masochism when surfeit is our norm, when being stuffed and legless is an everyday state. Masochism is meant to be enjoyed. The insensate and comatose are as incapable of enjoyment as they are of any other reaction.

Excess is blunting, dull. It is born of a fear of privation – a fear bereft of reason, that is atavistic, that belongs to some sort of inchoate folk memory. For, notwithstanding the grotesque inequalities fostered by New Labour's Social Thatcherism and ably continued by the Coalition of Trustocrats, few citizens of these islands are likely to experience privation. But we eat as though the plate is about to be grabbed from us, never to be returned; we drink as though the glass is going to be confiscated forever. That is figurative: we seldom eat off plates and habitually drink from the bottle, but you get the picture. The reeking snack we are about to consume may be our last. So make it extra, whopper, jumbo, mega. And add mayo, ketchup, mustard, brown sauce, sauce sauce. Add plenty of plenty.

Plenty. British cooking – which wasn't as awful as its retrospective reputation ignorantly suggests and isn't as good today as it is xenophobically bruited – has at its core a timorous suspicion of anything that might be construed as straightforward or unadorned. Value is added by the multiplication of ingredients, by a palate that is restlessly kaleidoscopic. This applies to the humblest grease caff and to the sniffiest gastronomic temple: hydrogenated veg oil, bacon, egg, fried bread, mushrooms, tomatoes, chips, beans, slices in the one; and colza oil, sweetbreads, chapelure, cream, morels, shallots, garlic, asparagus, sorrel, ratte potatoes, goose fat, ceps, poitrine seche and so on, ad nauseam ad vomitum, in the latter. Like our horizontal towns and cities, our cooking is centrifugal. The centre is tiny. Even when the centre is a turkey the size of a bustard, the centre is overwhelmed by the Trimmings, All The Trimmings – the burbs, so to speak, where the interest lies, where life is led. This is in contrast to the cooking of our closest neighbour Flanders, whose climate and terrain south-east England shares and whose autonomous, self-dependent, localised, sustainable gastronomy south-east England regards with cosmopolitan disdain. Indeed it is in contrast to the simple, vernacular kitchens of most of Europe where professional chefs are a caste apart, who are no more imitated in the home than renal surgeons are, not least because in the home there are rarely squads of stove-navvies (or nurses). British homecooks, gristle-stressed by the sub-cultural demands of All The Trimmings, will, on Saturday, be attempting to fry off condoms stuffed with the richest abattoir slurry (aka chipolatas), bake off pretty scraps of operation waste (bacon rolls), overboil parsnips (the root vegetable from hell) and carrots, juggle the timing and temperature of the oven when the forgotten-to-parboil potatoes go in, turn the turkey in fat that scalds. Get real. Get a takeaway.

Jonathan Meades

The Guardian, Friday 24 December 2010


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