What’s For Holiday Dinner?

What’s For Holiday Dinner?

Holiday Feast

Holiday Feast

There are a number of traditional holiday dinner favorites, ranging from green bean casserole in the Upper Midwest to Waldorf salad to candied yams. Other historic or regional favorites descend from a pioneer menu that included whatever was edible and growing. In the late 1800’s, one might have sat down to duck or beef (or ham) instead of turkey. Also available were dried foods like raisins and plums (which made excellent bread pudding and plum pudding), nuts, and various fruit pies like peach, apple and cherry.

Add to that list sweetbreads, which were variously thymus glands of calves and lambs, and “Rocky Mountain oysters” (or bull’s testicles, and they are delicious). And don’t forget to call it “dressing” instead of stuffing if you’re down South. Which is curious, since the stuffing goes on the inside, and dressing (clothing) goes on the outside. Oh, well.

Down South is also where cooks spend the most time fussing over dinner; up to three days in advance. In the West this time is reduced to less than a day, possibly as a result of the fact that Westerners tend to come bearing food, at least a side dish. In the Northeast, the kitchen belongs to one individual, and God help you if you get in her way!

Way down South is the origin of the turducken, a duck stuffed in a chicken inside a turkey – a formula for food poisoning in my book, as I wonder if the duck way inside ever gets cooked well enough.

Far enough below the 35th parallel, you might also get dressing made of grits, and why not, since that food, with gravy is a Southern staple for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As to what are grits, they are typically hominy bits and pieces (originally corn bits and pieces) and rumor has it Native American tribes from the Iroquois to the Cherokee invented it.

In the Atlantic Seaboard, or New England states, nor’easters may serve you stuffing made from oysters. Alternatively, you may be served oyster stew, or clam chowder, even though these two shellfish are much scarcer now than they were in the 1800s. In fact, even a hundred years ago shellfish (and lobsters) were “poor man’s meat” from Maine to Rhode Island.

This area is also the origin of mince pie, largely because the settlers were more or less directly from England. Most people today don’t realize that mince is made with meat. Real meat, and usually from venison or some similar game food. I had some about a decade ago, and except for better spices (that undoubtedly hid every trace of gaminess) it was almost the same as the product in the jar. In Maine, it is even a breakfast food; in pie, of course.

Down south, but closer to our neighbor Mexico, expect appetizers like salsa and corn chips (blue corn for chip connoisseurs), grilled potato quesadillas or enchiladas with mole sauce. Did you know mole sauce can be made with chocolate? Go figure. Stuffing may include chorizo, the very spicy Mexican sausage, or cornbread.

For those in the Corn Belt (Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa, etc.) everything goes better with fresh roasted or boiled ears of sweet corn. In Wusconsin (which is the way Minnesotans  spell it, thanks to the Green Bay packers), expect cranberry sauce, cranberry stuffing, cranberry pudding, even cranberry pie or upside-down cake. Between their awesome red and their tart flavor, cranberries not only spice up the turkey but are very, very healthy food. To make up for all the junk food you ate before dinner.


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