The Wonder of Christmas Food Past


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GUEST AUTHOR: Rachel Laudan | Food historian and author of the prizewinning Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History  || @rachellaudan

This essay previously appeared on the author’s blog. It appears here by permission of the author.

A Visit to the Grocer

It seems almost impossible to believe now. The first supermarket I ever encountered was Sainsbury’s in Coventry, England in 1966 when I was in my early 20s. Although by today’s standards it was small, to me it was dazzling. In a single store you could  buy meat, bread, fruit and vegetables and you could even pick and choose from the shelves without waiting to be served.

Supermarkets began to appear in larger British cities around 1950.

In smaller towns they were unknown. Instead women set out most days of the week, basket over their arm, going from grocer to baker to greengrocer to butcher.

Out in the country, with limited access to transport, women like my mother depended on deliveries: bread on Tuesdays and Fridays, meat on Fridays, and groceries on Wednesdays.

Occasionally I went with my mother when she settled up with Mr Howell the grocer about once a month. We sat at the counter on bentwood chairs. Large canisters of different teas lined the shelves behind the counter and a few special items–perhaps an especially good cheese or a jar of crystallized violets–were displayed on the counter.  Everything else was in the back room. I usually had a taste of one of the specialities as my mother and Mr Howell chatted about the quality of the cheese and the bacon.

In between these visits, my mother simply phoned her order in on Tuesday. So never did I see shelves piled with groceries.

A couple of months before Christmas, my mother, like all English mothers in the 1950s, would add one or another Christmas specialty to her order, stockpiling them in a hidden place in the pantry.

Christmas cake covered with almond paste and royal icing. James Petts. CC Attribution Share Alike 2.0

A Cornucopia of Rare Treats

On an early December evening, she bought out the first of these rarities, raisins, sultanas, and currants, when we settled down to make mincemeat for little pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding.

A few days before Christmas, it was time to wrap the cake in almond paste, so unutterably delicious, cover it with royal icing, add ornaments on top, and finish with a specially-bought Christmas frill.

Boxes of dates on the stem. Our forks were functional, no seductive ladies.

On Christmas Eve, the rest of the treats appeared on a table in the sitting room.

A chipboard box, its lid illustrated with palms, camels, and stars, lined with doily paper, held dates still on the stem and even came with little two-pronged plastic forks to remove the dates.

A round box held dried figs packed in neat circles, leathery and crunchy when you bit into them. Where dates and figs came from was a mystery.

Dried figs

Sugared almonds were my mother’s favorite, piled in a glass dish.

A wooden bowl held nuts, always walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and Brazil nuts, released from the net bags in which they were sold and all ready to be cracked.

Funny how we always thought of dried fruits and nuts as separate categories, I have since learned that in Spanish they are grouped together under the one term frutos secos.


Sugared Almonds. Evan Ammo. CC Attribution Share Alike 3.00


Walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and Brazil nuts. Wen95. CC Attribution Share Alike 3.0


And finally, there was always a bowl of tangerines.

On Christmas Day we could finally begin tucking in to these treats. The first, early in the morning, was one of the tangerines, the very last item in the toe of our stockings hanging at the bottom of the bed.

At midday dinner time, following the roast pheasant came the Christmas pudding with cream and a spoonful of brandy even for the children, extraordinary since at that period my parents did not drink except for an occasional bottle of cider on a picnic.

At tea, the ribbon was unwrapped from the Christmas cake and everyone had a slice even though we were all pretty full.

Tangerine. Darwin Bell. CC Attribution 2.0 Generic



At long last, in the evening, often when other family members had arrived to visit, we could start on the rest. Walnut shells were saved to make into little boats. One or two Brazil nuts always had to be lit as we watched a food that could burn all by itself. The dates were dug out of the box with the fork, the leathery skin and the crunchy seeds of the figs commented on. Sucking on the sugared almonds, I wondered however the coating could be so even and so smooth.

A Sense of Wonder

Adam Smith, Scottish philosopher and economist. (1723-1790)

Wonder.  It’s not something I ever thought about at the time. Not until years later when I was working on a book in the history of science did it ever occur to me to ask what wonder was. Then when I turned to Adam Smith’s Lectures on the History of Astronomy (yes, that Adam Smith), I found he opened his history of astronomy by defining the sentiments of surprise, admiration, and wonder. Why he did so, I won’t bother you with here, though I will say that the lectures are themselves both surprising and admirable.

“We wonder,” said Smith, “at all extraordinary and uncommon objects, at all the rarer phenomena of nature, at meteors, comets eclipses, at singular plants and animals, and at every thing, in short, with which we have before been either little or not at all acquainted.”

Extraordinary and uncommon, things with which we had been little or not at all acquainted: those Christmas foods past were foods of wonder.

Wonder is far from gone from children’s Christmases. Trees, decorations, presents wrapped in paper, all spark wonder.

Is it possible, though, for children in contemporary Britain or America to wonder at food in quite the same way that the children of the 1950s did?

With the cornucopia in every supermarket, with tangerine-like fruits available year round, with nuts ready cracked and salted in plastic packets and jars, there is little with which any but the poorest are not acquainted.

If food is now so plentiful in the rich world that it’s no longer to be wondered at, that’s probably a good thing. Wonder was the other side of the coin from scarcity.

Pretty amazing, though, how food has changed in just one lifetime.

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