Edward White’s column, Off Menu, serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
These days, British and American Christmases are by and large the same hodgepodge of tradition, with relatively minor variations. This Christmas Eve, for example, when millions of American kids put out cookies and milk for Santa, children in Britain will lay out the more adult combination of mince pies and brandy for the old man many of them know as Father Christmas. For the last hundred years or so, Father Christmas has been indistinguishable from the American character of Santa Claus; two interchangeable names for the same white-bearded pensioner garbed in Coca-Cola red, delivering presents in the dead of night. But the two characters have very different roots. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was given his role of nocturnal gift-giver in medieval Netherlands. Father Christmas, however, was no holy man, but a personification of Dionysian fun: dancing, eating, late-night drinking—and the subversion of societal norms.
The earliest recognizable iteration of Father Christmas probably came in 1616 when, referring to himself as “Captain Christmas,” he appeared as the main character in Ben Jonson’s Christmas, His Masque, performed at the royal court that festive season. Nattily dressed and rotund from indulgence, he embodied Christmas as an openhearted festival of feasts and frolics. But by the time he appeared on the front cover of John Taylor’s pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas, in 1652, Father Christmas had grown skinny, mournful, and lonely, depressed by the grim fate that had befallen the most magical time of year. The days of carol singing and merrymaking were over; for the past several years Christmas across Britain had been officially canceled. The island was living through a so-called Puritan Revolution, in which the most radical changes to daily life were being attempted. Even the institution of monarchy had been discarded. As a ballad of the time put it, this was “the world turned upside down.”
The prohibitions on Christmas dining would have particularly aggrieved Robert May. One of the most skilled chefs in the land, the English-born, French-trained chef cooked Christmas dinners fit for a king—a doubly unwelcome skill in a time of republicanism and puritanism. May connected the medieval traditions of English country cooking with the early innovations of urban French gastronomy, and was at the height of his powers when the Puritan Revolution took effect. During those years, he compiled The Accomplisht Cook, an English cookbook of distinction and importance that was eventually published in 1660. In more than a thousand recipes, May recorded not only the tastes and textures of a culinary tradition, but a cultural world that he feared was being obliterated—including the Christmas dinner, an evocative sensory experience that links the holiday of four centuries ago with that of today.
Pretty much the only things we know about Robert May come from the biographical section that introduces The Accomplisht Cook. According to that, May was born in Buckinghamshire, in the south of England, in 1588, during the reign of Elizabeth I. At the time of May’s birth, his father was cook to the Dormers, a prominent Catholic family closely connected to Spanish ruling elite. At the age of ten, May was sent to France where he performed a five-year apprenticeship in the best kitchens in Paris, before returning to England where he honed his skills cooking for a number of the most prominent Catholic families in the country. Since the days of Henry VIII, Catholics had been a persecuted minority in England, but the ascension of the Stuart dynasty when James I took the throne upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 heralded decades of relative tolerance. Wealthy Catholics were able to spend lavishly on food and entertainment, allowing May to thrive.
The young May’s experiences abroad hint at the changes occurring in English food culture of the time, especially among the social elite. During the late Tudor and Stuart eras, numerous foodstuffs, including potatoes, tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco, arrived from the Americas and established themselves as staples of the national diet. The Accomplisht Cook is replete with non-English influences, giving us a vivid idea of what new fashions entered his kitchen in the early 1600s. May drew heavily from Spanish and Italian recipes, and his book includes thirty-five dishes for eggs that he took from the pioneering French chef François Pierre La Varenne. Despite this, May’s food was quintessentially English. The Accomplisht Cook laments that French chefs “have bewitcht some of the Gallants of our Nation with Epigram Dishes” in favor of the sturdy traditions of English cooking. The Englishness of May’s approach is palpable in his suggestions for Christmas dinner, dominated by roast meats and featuring a mince pie. Today’s mince pies—a Christmas institution in Britain and Ireland—are filled with a sickly-sweet concoction of dried fruit, fortified wine, mixed spices, and mounds of brown sugar, but before the Victorian era they also contained meat. May suggests numerous cuts of beef (including tongue, buttock, and intestine) or hare, turkey, and mutton, among others. In his recipes for a veal-based mince pie, he recommends mixing it with more familiar ingredients such as dates, orange peel, nutmeg, and cinnamon, flavors that are still powerfully evocative of what many of us would consider a “traditional” Christmas.
May’s bill of fare for Christmas Day is huge: forty dishes split across two courses, with additional oysters and fruit. Partly this reflects the nature of May’s experience in the service of some of the wealthiest people in the country, and partly the Stuart approach to dining. The diaries of May’s contemporary Samuel Pepys detail the meat-heavy, gut-busting dinners he hosted each year on the anniversary of his kidney stone operation (that the procedure worked and didn’t kill him was, in the seventeenth century, truly a cause for celebration). For a party of six, Pepys once served a salmon, two carp, six roast chickens, ox tongue, and cheese. May’s Christmas dinner has a similar feel. For the first course the mince pie is served alongside nineteen other dishes, including a roast swan, sweetbreads, a boiled partridge, a roast turkey infused with cloves, mutton with anchovy sauce, and “a kid with a pudding in his belly.” As was customary for the era, these would arrive on the table in one grand exhibition of food, in an ostentatious display of hospitality; surely there was no expectation that all this food would be consumed. The historian Liza Picard sums it up bluntly: “everything got cold, and there was a shocking amount of wasted food at the end.”
The spirit of abundance, indulgence, and generosity communicated by May’s menu was the very cornerstone of Christmas at the start of the seventeenth century, a time of year that, then as now, was tied to food and drink. For the observant, there were three church services on Christmas Day. The first took place before dawn, immediately after which it was time to break the ritual abstemiousness of Advent with a breakfast rich with dairy and meat. This was the official start of twelve days in which the bounty of that year’s harvest was enjoyed to its fullest extent. For many the festive highlight was Twelfth Night, traditionally honored with very boozy parties and Twelfth-cake, a fruit cake made with liberal amounts of sherry.
The sorts of Christmas dinners cooked by Robert May were beyond the means of most families. Even acquiring the ingredients for a Twelfth-cake could be difficult and expensive. Pepys spent the costly sum of twenty shillings for the cake that his maid Jane baked for one of his Twelfth Night parties. And yet throughout the medieval and early modern period it was common for rich landowners to put on great spreads and entertainments for those in their community. For a few days each year, even many of the poorest people had the chance to eat rich, sweet, fatty foods, to drink plentifully, and to experience the exquisite pleasure of a warm fire in the depth of winter. This wasn’t seen as a charitable custom so much as a social obligation. Mirroring the moment in the Nativity when the three kings bowed down to a baby born in a stable, Christmas was a time when the usual repressive social order was, in brief but thrilling ways, flipped on its head. As the historian Diane Purkiss explains this was a season of “licensed openness with a careful structure.” It was universally understood that as soon as the magical twelve days of Christmas were over, the usual order would be restored.
In some towns and villages, a Lord of Misrule was appointed during Christmastide to direct the revelry, with freedom to cause irreligious havoc. There were also beloved traditions such as mumming, a sort of trick-or-treat ritual of costuming and performing, sometimes involving cross-dressing or mockery of important people. Similarly, wassailing involved groups of singers going to the doors of the rich in expectation of food and drink. Wassailing was not begging, but one half of an unspoken social contract; to withhold one’s hospitality would be an egregious breach that could result in violence. The remnants of wassailing, and the attitude that underpinned it, is still found in the carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” in which the faintly obnoxious verse of “We all like figgy pudding, so bring some out here” is followed by the unambiguously menacing “We won’t go until we’ve got some, so bring some out here.” This was not the Christmas of our post-Dickens world, a time associated with children and domestic coziness. To Robert May’s generation, Christmas was much more about the adult experience of the world—and it crackled with potential danger.
Throughout England and Scotland, there was a growing section of society who decried Christmas as popery. Such sentiments were common among Protestant zealots opposed to the injudicious rule of Charles I, who inherited the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1625, and who some suspected of wanting to re-establish Catholicism. The religious tensions metastasized into a political crisis. In 1642, civil war broke out in England between the Crown and Parliament, the start of horrendous bloodshed that swallowed most of the next decade. By and large, Catholics supported the royal cause, with the more radical Protestants on the side of the Parliamentarians. The main period of war raged for seven years, claiming roughly two hundred thousand lives, somewhere between two and three percent of the population. It seems that Robert May continued to work in the kitchens of wealthy homes, but as food became scarce and opportunities to prepare opulent meals dwindled, his income must surely have been diminished.
As the war raged, the religious extremists who controlled Parliament attempted drastic reforms of English life. First, the Puritans struck festivals and saints’ days from the calendar on the basis that they did not feature in the Bible. Then, in 1647, the observance of Christmas was officially banned. From now on, it was decreed, there were to be no special church services, all shops must remain open, and no special activities undertaken to acknowledge the date.
The ferocity of the public backlash was inevitable. Riots broke out in towns such as Canterbury and Ipswich in December 1647, and when apprentices marched in London the following spring shouting “Now for King Charles!” resentment over the abolition of Christmas was understood to be part of their grievance. By this point, Charles had been captured by Parliamentarian forces and was staring at humiliating defeat. His court had been famous for its Christmas indulgences. But during Christmas 1648, even his request for the simplest festive pleasures of mince pie and plum pottage were denied him. A month later, he was tried, convicted, and executed of crimes against his own people. Soon after, the monarchy was disbanded and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, a dictator in all but name. In these staggering circumstances, unthinkable just a few weeks earlier, the Puritan assault on tradition widened and accelerated. By the early 1650s, it seemed there was not a church open anywhere in England on December 25, and that Christmas had succumbed to an eternal winter.
This, at least, was the surface impression. As Ronald Hutton has shown, the Puritan Revolution managed only “to strip the festival of its public aspect and (ironically) much of its Christian content.” Cromwell’s regime could—and did—tear down community decorations, force shops to open and churches to shut, and puncture any merriment on the streets, but eradicating the rituals being observed within the home was far harder. So much of the meaning of Christmas was manifest in food and drink, and so Christmas was kept alive in kitchens throughout the land. It’s true that in London and other parts of the country, soldiers had the authority to enter premises where the cooking of celebratory food was suspected. But Cromwell’s regime had no chance of rooting out every mince pie, every bowl of plum pottage, or every Twelfth-cake being quietly enjoyed in ordinary homes.
Indeed, Hutton suggests that during Cromwell’s time in power the very wealthiest households still spent generously on Christmas food supplies and paid for the services of itinerant entertainers. It was in the homes of such rich and well-connected people that May continued to work throughout the 1650s. We know little of his experience of cooking in the thick of the Puritan Revolution but it’s likely that he carried on preparing Christmas meals, albeit in less joyous circumstances, and on a more modest scale. Ever since the Reformation, England’s recusant Catholics—the community in which May had learned his craft—had grown used to honoring their faith in quiet, discreet ritual. Now, along with all but the most zealous Protestants, each December they attempted to keep Christmas alive in their hearts by means of what they put in their bellies.
Had the ban on Christmas lasted for many more years it’s possible the festival would have permanently disappeared from British shores, and therefore from the lands of its burgeoning empire. As it was, the Puritan Revolution sputtered to an end when Cromwell died in September 1658. Absent its totemic strongman, the experiment in republican government collapsed. In 1660 the old king’s son, Charles II, was put on the throne.
The collapse of the monarchy had engendered a wave of nostalgia for the “good old days” before the war. During Cromwell’s tenure eight new cookbooks—a substantial number at the time—were published, tapping into a public fascination with the habits and customs of the old aristocracy. One of May’s former employers, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, was responsible for one such book, A True Gentlewomans Delight, in 1653. Another, The Queens Closet Opened, in 1655, promised to share the secrets of the old royal household, including its kitchen.
May’s own book, The Accomplisht Cook, was published in 1660, the year the monarchy was restored. It differed from previous English cookbooks in that it was aimed unapologetically at those who wished to be chefs at a grand establishment, more in keeping with books that were beginning to be seen on the continent. Yet, in his introduction May explained that this was also intended as a work of cultural continuity, a celebration not only of great cooking but of the exuberant hospitality that the war and the revolution had stymied—a time “before good House-keeping had left England” in his own wistful turn of phrase. He advises, with relish, on how to create a theatrical centerpiece of a stag made from pastry filled with claret, a nod to the old aristocratic pastime of hunting. He also instructs how to make joke pies full of live frogs and birds that will escape the very moment the crust is cut. He assures us that this never fails to “make the Ladies to skip and shreek,” and it’s for their amusement that he recommends removing the yolk and albumen from eggs and replacing them with rosewater, at which point the host should “let the Ladies take the egg-shells full of sweet waters and throw them at each other,” like water balloons.
The carnival antics might have played well at one of his Christmas banquets, replete with its exotic delicacies, mountains of rich meats, and dishes of sweet jellies, steaming pies, and creamy custards. His entry for Christmas food is only a small proportion of the thousand or so recipes, yet with knowledge of the times he lived through, its presence was a pointed reminder: the world was back on its axis; the new normal was, at last, the old normal.
It’s believed that Robert May died in 1664, at age seventy-two, by which point Christmas, with all its traditions, had returned, along with the other pleasures, such as the theater, that had been outlawed. Four years later, Samuel Pepys recorded the end of a delightful Twelfth Night at home with friends and family. With all of life’s great enjoyments returned to him, Pepys’s heart had space for nothing but gratitude: “Away to bed, weary and mightily pleased, and have the happiness to reflect upon it as I do sometimes on other things, as going to a play or the like, to be the greatest real comfort that I am to expect in the world, and that it is that that we do really labour in the hopes of.”
For further reading, the author recommends: The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, The English Civil War: A People’s History by Diane Purkiss, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, Restoration London: Everyday Life in London, 1660-1670 by Liza Picard, Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1660 by Trevor Royle, The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, and The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was The Lives of Others.