The Food that Saved Christmas

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My love of Christmas is far from logical. I don’t do God nor the well meaning ramblings of his son, yet I still get all warm and fuzzy come mid December. Such is the power of nostalgia I guess.  Although largely secular affairs, the Christmases of my childhood were always happy, food- filled days. The obligatory Christmas dinner was usually spent with my Dad’s family, a nice enough lot, save for the odd deranged aunt and an inordinate fondness for sherry. Food wasn’t a big motivation for them, but there was always plenty of it; and being one of the few children in their midst, I was much fussed over.  Christmas sans in-laws, grandparents, cousins et al was even better. The food was 100% Mum [a chef of formidable skill], so was unfailingly good and the mood generally jolly.

On the rare occasions that my mother’s family convened for Christmas, the food was quite extraordinary- thank God because it was the only thing that kept them civil.  Without the intervention of good food, the Evetts clan is prone to passive aggressive brawls. You know the kind- where nothing is said but everyone is violently seething.

Food is the only common ground that my mother’s people happily embrace as a group.  They [we] are all in their own ways utterly obsessive about food, and are all excellent cooks.  Hours can go by discussing the best way to make tuatua  soup, the best local cheese, even the best place to collect spring water, but Krishna  help you if you bring up the happenings at Uncle  so-and-so’s wedding 22 years ago. Yes, we are very different people, but around the dinner table, especially at Christmas, we have our own way of sharing the love. Well that’s probably going a bit far; let’s just say we get on as long as our mouths are full. 

I guess the point to this lengthy introduction is that most families have their simmering issues, gatherings are forced affairs and it’s the food, especially around Christmas that can be the best salve.

So I’ve made another list. Seems to be a bit of a habit of mine, I know  but lists are kind of apt at Christmas time don’t you think?  

The Food that saved [my family at] Christmas. 



The finest addition to any Christmas table and it’s worth the heinous expense of every succulent, fragrant, firm-fleshed mouthful. My mother would cook the halved tails very simply in butter, deglaze the pan with champagne and serve with a sprinkle of parsley. The carcas including all associated brown goo,  would be used to make crayfish oil and rich, creamy mornay. Shared among several of us, a tail or two never went far, but I think that only improved the flavour.   If a crayfish can’t keep your family from killing each other, nothing will.

Baked ham

Yes it’s a cliché, and it borders on being seasonally inappropriate for our sweltering southern Christmas, but even the fragrance of a well basted ham can calm the most irascible in-law.  And just try to tell me that hot sticky, clovey, jammy fat isn’t the finest thing you’ve eaten all year.   My mother and I usually form a conspiratorial huddle in the kitchen while the ham is cooking, keeping all the best bits to ourselves. Screw the rellys.  Blood may be thicker than water but it sure as hell ain’t thicker than Christmas ham fat.

Ham on the bone will always taste better than pressed and free range will afford you a little less guilt about eating the world’s most intelligent domestic animal.


Nanna’s Trifle

I can take or leave your pavlova at Christmas, but in my house, trifle is the definative dessert. My Sherry loving Nanna made a trifle of exceptional kiwi kitsch, and I mean that as a compliment. Watties tinned golden queens, Edmonds custard, Greggs jelly, lashings of cream from those small glass bottles and a near lethal measure of Corbans sherry, or ‘cream wine’ to be more precise. As the years passed Nanna gradually cut back on the alcohol content [of both her blood and the trifle] until the dish became a sadly virginal shadow of its former self. I prefer to recreate her trifle as I prefer to remember the dear lady herself. Drowning in drink.  

Smoked quail

An unlikely choice, but after all, Christmas dinner [or lunch as is our habit] is supposed to be about special food. The beauty of quail is that everyone can have their own bird, a big advantage if you have portion pigs in your midst and being conveniently thrush sized, they are can be smoked quickly and safely. Quail are best served cold to fully appreciate the sweetness of the meat and savoury smokiness of the skin. I would serve quail before turkey any day. I have a theory [in as much as I just made it up] that the almost universal dislike of turkey plays a big part in Christmas day hostilities.


I am a great advocate of farmed salmon. Your environmental arguements will hold no traction with me; commercial fishing is infinitely more destructive. Farmed Pacific salmon is affordable and loved by just about everyone, and  despite it now being cheaper than snapper, is still decidedly luxurious stuff. I’ve yet to find a way with salmon that doesn’t please the Christmas masses:  poached, it’s understated elegance; as gravlax it’s svelte and sexy and hot smoked is a guaranteed winner with even the coarsest of cousins. Leftover salmon makes great sandwiches, samosa and fish cakes  for subduing the throngs of family and friends who seem to crawl out of the woodwork on Boxing Day.


Finger Food

In my experience the general mood of your assembled clan will be mostly dictated by the finger food you serve. That long wait for the main attractions to roll out is when the worst disharmony  bubbles fourth,  especially if the whanau get stuck into the wine and cherry brandy to help pass the time. My mother has always been a master of such edible distractions. Lots of variety and plenty for everyone seems to be the secret. A big plate of cured meats looks fab and will probably tempt even that in-law who claims to be on some half baked pixie-dust diet. Tres passé it may be, but that Queen of the 70s, the vol au vent can be a fine thing. Filled with smoked kahawhai and bubbling cheese béchamel, mushroom, chorizo and cream and all manner of other delicious wickedness, they can be heaven [and 3rd degree burns] in a pastry pottle . Another retro throw back to the good old days of skewered snacks and ambrosia salad are devils on horseback. Salty, crispy bacon, sweet, luscious prunes. Pure bliss.


The obvious

There are certain elements of the Christmas menu you just can’t escape.  Leave these ones out and all your previous efforts at subduing the beast that is the forced family Christmas will be to no avail.

Mince pies- don’t skimp on these. Nothing cocks an eyebrow faster than a dodgy mince pie.

Christmas cake.  Little more than a table prop but you gotta have a cake. Don’t fuss too much about the quality as nobody will actually eat it. 

Christmas pudding. This steamed lump of fruit and fat is easily the most inappropriate of all the northern Christmas traditions we cling to.  If nothing else it makes  good entertainment for children if you slip a few coins into the mix. Especially if you don’t tell them. I actually like the pudd and find it makes an excellent breakfast, served hot and swimming in cream. Actually most things are improved by a pool of cream.


So that’s how we keep the peace and eat well on the big day in my house. What’s your strategy?

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3 thoughts on “The Food that Saved Christmas

  1. A lovely story Helen, i can imagine xmas morning you and your mother in the kitchen. Hope it was a happy day for you all. Stay away from the awful sherry, thank goodness we have much nicer things to indulge on now.

  2. Great story great memories Thank you
    My mother not being a cook never had xmas at our place thank goodness. We only ever ate roast chicken and I discovered coleslaw etc going to relatives places and grandmas house lol My mother hated cooking and was a fussy eater. My siblings and myself love all types of food and love to cook lol I wonder why!

  3. A late friend of ours’ comment on the kiwi Christmas: ‘With a tummy full of Kentucky Fried and Marque Vue no wonder there’s so much violence…’