December 18, 2011

Historic American Christmas dinners to inspire your own menu this year

Day 352 of Vintage 365

Without a doubt one of my favourite websites of all time is Combining my adoration for history with my lifelong passion for all things cookery related, this site is a tome and absolute labour of love devoted to preserving information about yesteryear foods. Clicking through the various pages of this richly knowledgeable hub, one can easily find themselves absorbed in gastronomic facts for hours on end.

Housing information pertaining to food that stretches back for millennia in some cases, centuries in others, and at the very least decades, it's impossible to spend time there and not walk away knowing more about the history behind what the world has been eating throughout time than when you arrived.

With Christmas a mere week away (I know, it feels like that can't possibly be the case!), I thought it would be lovely to take a peak at the Food Timeline's page devoted to historical American Christmas dinners.

Extracting menus from cookbooks reaching all the way back to 1685, this page is a beautiful overview of some of the meals that many in North America have enjoyed sitting down to on Christmas Day for the past 400+ years.

Fascinatingly, when one looks at the many items listed on that particular late 17th century menu, you encounter certain classics like roast turkey and beef, custard and jellies that are still with us today. Many of the other items have however (such as swan and sturgeon, for example), have fallen out of the modern Christmas meal repertoire .

As the decades and then centuries wore on, more and more familiar foods began to appear. In 1769 one encounters such beloved holiday classics as eggnog, Virginia ham, plum pudding, and mincemeat pie. By the 1840s a great number of vegetable dishes were making their way onto the feast table, with mashed potatoes, turnips and celery popping up amongst the generous bounty of meats, poultry, and savoury pies.

Just as one might expect during the Victorian and early Edwardian years, the menus provided on that page include a great many ornate, lavish foods that are rarely (if ever) seen at Christmas time any more, such as Timbale of Sweetbread, Consommé of Game, and Terapene au Madere.

At the same time though, one spots plenty of humbler foods as well, quite a few of which are still with us today, including roast goose, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts, cranberry jelly (sauce), chestnut stuffing, French peas, creamed parsnips (love!), and apple sauce.

As the 20th century barrelled onward all kinds of assorted dishes from Tuna Newberg to White Grape Salad with Guava Jelly spice up the menus of the 1910s and 20s. Not surprisingly, in the face of the Great Depression that ravaged the 30s, the holiday menus from those days were often considerably less ostentatious or elaborate than those of the preceding decades.

Hearty, relatively economical foods that could be stretched across more than one meal were common and included such classics as spinach, buttered onions, roast turkey and chicken, string beans, pork loin, riced potatoes, and coleslaw.

Even after the economy began to pick up at the end of the decade, Christmas diners remained relatively less elaborate affairs that more resemble the menus of today than those of the huge feast filled Edwardian era. Popular 1940s dinner choices included olives, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, oyster stuffing, buttered squash, giblet gravy, and good old-fashioned plum pudding.

{An immensely charming 1940s illustrated ad for Plymouth cars which shows a sweet grandmother basting her Christmas turkey, just as home cooks had done for generations before and certainly still do today. Image via clotho98 on Flickr.}

With WW2 behind them, people of the 1950s often had the means (and available foods, once war rationing ceased) to spend more on their Christmas dinners, yet meals were still often less about pomp and more about homey, delicious classics that the whole family looked forward to all year long.

Glazed ham was especially popular during the decade as an alternative (or alongside) turkey or goose, and on the veggie front foods such as broccoli, green salads, parsley potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, and almond green meals were frequent options.

The Christmas dinners that many of us enjoy each year today have roots stretching back for hundreds of years, though they generally draw more heavily from the menus that began to appear from the 1920s onward. A Christmas dinner from the 1950s could easily be swapped for a present day one (and vice versa) with nary a soul thinking anything was amiss.

Upholding traditions is one of the most important and beautiful aspects of the holiday season, and as the menus laid out by the Food Timeline attest, many of us happily carry on the time-honoured act of preparing a Christmas feast each year with roots reaching back to at least the mid-twentieth century.

I know that when I make my family's traditional Jell-o and fruit cocktail salad on December 25th, alongside many other recipes that were handed down to me from older family members, I'm definitely channelling some of (North) America's beloved Christmas dinners of the past – a fact that always adds to the joy of my holiday celebration.


  1. hi Jess..Merry Christmas! Thanks for the cool timeline site- love it! Best wishes for your continued good health and GREAT blogging for 2012!

  2. I love that picture and the saying. Guess I'm
    old fashion.

  3. What a fascinating post! I love food history. In our family it's not Christmas morning without fried oysters. We never eat them any other time. My sister and I also make sure that we have Aunt Clara's candied sweet potatoes and Grandmas Blackberry jello salad present at our Christmas Eve dinner!

    Merry Christmas!


  4. Love the image! It was interesting to read your descriptuions of Christmas dinners of the past century in North America, many of the foods and dishes I'm familiar with from my traditional English Christmas menus, other foods such as sweet potato and squash have never been part of an English menu. Trifle has always been a staple of Christmas afternoon tea in this country, my grandmother made a fantastic trifle every year to a secret recipe which regrettably died with her in 1960. I still have the glass dish that she used though. Lovely post.