Christmas Day Dinner - The Joy of Leftovers

The Joy of Leftovers

So what are you eating this St Stephen’s Day? Let’s take a wild guess … Leftovers! Before you unfurl the tinfoil from the turkey or slide the dish of sprouts out from the fridge, take a moment to read this piece by food historian, cook, broadcaster and writer Annie Gray who in her new book At Christmas We Feast, takes a delectable trip through time, from the earliest gluttonous meals at Christmas to the trappings and traditions of the present day. It’s stuffed full of recipes, doused with history and tradition and sprinkled with the joy of the feasts of Christmas past …

The post-Christmas leftover feast is as much a part of many people’s Christmas as Christmas dinner itself. Turkey curry is a mainstay, but a smorgasbord of cold cuts pepped up with Christmas chutney is hardly a rarity. It is, perhaps, the one time of the year when leftovers are celebrated, rather than regarded as sad sloppy seconds.

Attitudes have changed. With meat at a premium, leftovers were previously an important part of household meal planning. In wealthy households anything uneaten from the top tables was fair game for the servants. Both ideal and real menus from houses with staff show that by the Victorian period, at least, they were integrated into menus, rather than left for a free-for-all. CreFydd’s Family Fare, from 1865, includes the usual roast beef, boiled fowl and plum pudding on its Christmas Day menu for the family, along with roast goose and plum pudding for the servants. On the 26th upstairs are on cold beef, and minced fowl, and on the 27th, beef in ‘acid sauce’ and croquettes of fowl (essentially breadcrumbed meatballs made with minced cooked meat). Downstairs finish up their own goose and then move on to the beef joint which is still hanging around from upstairs. Nearly a century later, staff menus from the household of Winston Churchill include numerous references such as ‘2 pieces of fish from dining room luncheon’. Until the Second World War, in the richest households, anything still left would be parcelled up to be distributed to the poor.

However, not every establishment had staff, and many of those that did only employed one or two young girls. By the Victorian era ‘cold meat cookery’ had become an established section in recipe books. The Georgians had relied on hashes, which were usually thick slices of meat reheated gently in a strongly savoury gravy, enhanced with mushroom catsup (or ketchup – a condiment not unlike Worcestershire sauce), anchovies or lemon. Potted meat was also popular, seasoned with mace, pepper and brandy, and topped with clarified butter. Or there were salads or jellied meats, such as the evocatively named ‘to congeal a turkey’ from 1661. By the 1860s hash was becoming a dirty word, the dish name adapted to mean reheated ideas, and the dish itself associated with unimaginative cookery.

Beef was easy to deal with, served cold for breakfast or in sandwiches. Further down the line it could be added to toad-in-the-hole or Irish stew. Poultry was harder. The main Victorian solution was to mince it, mix it with butter, flour and egg, shape it, breadcrumb it and fry it. Rissoles, croquettes and turkey cutlets were all based on this principle (one book suggested adding a piece of pasta at the pointy end of the latter, to resemble a bone, which the diner then presumably removed). Blanquettes and stews were common as well, including a? la Bretonne (it sounded better in French), which was browned onions, haricot beans and gravy. By the 1870s leftover cookery was termed ‘re?chauffe?’ or ‘second dressing’, just to add a bit of glamour to proceedings. Visual flair was important, and, as ever, moulds were pressed into service, particularly for making ‘meat shape’. Recipes for this are as ghastly as they sound; meat, egg, suet and rather minimal seasoning all steamed in a mould and turned out. One variation (which at least includes curry powder), instructs the cook to make it in a decorative ring mould, the centre then filled with cold boiled vegetables covered in salad dressing.

It is, perhaps, the one time of the year when leftovers are celebrated, rather than regarded as sad sloppy seconds.

There were solutions proposed, as well, for the various extras – cold potatoes could be used for pastry, or fried in slices or cakes (to be hollowed out and stuffed with a hash, in one case). Absolutely anything could be devilled, by dint of adding cayenne, mustard and relishes and frying it – one writer listed ‘bones, biscuits, meat and fish’. Cooked vegetables (plus apple and cucumber) formed the basis for an excellent vegetable curry for Katherine Mellish in 1901. And fried sliced plum pudding was a standard sweet leading up to the New Year.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Christmas leftovers became a cause for celebration, linked in part to the codification of Christmas dinner and subsequent abandonment of many of its foods at any other time of the year. Curries, in vogue for using up cold meat since the mid-19th century (earlier recipes used fresh meat), were perennially popular, but there were other, more esoteric suggestions from writers keen to showcase their inventiveness. Style did sometimes triumph over substance. Fanny Cradock covered leftovers in 1967’s Problem Cooking, adhering firmly to the belief that a good name is always a solid start. Hence ‘Pitt-y-pana’, made of minced cold meat, stale breadcrumbs and cold cooked potato, all fried up with an onion, piled in a bowl and served with an egg yolk on the half shell pressed into the centre. The diner mixed the yolk into the rest, and apparently it cooked and made a sauce at the same time. She also suggested ‘sad, stale’ sandwiches could be battered and deep-fried and served with deep-fried sprouts, which sounds a tad more toothsome.

The euphoria of the post-war culinary scene didn’t always lead to such novelties, though. Marguerite Patten opted for a much more conservative turkey casserole with savoury dumplings or a quickly made pie with potato crust. Still, a heap of leftovers does seem to unleash something within some writers. Readers of Microwave Know-How in 1985 would learn how to make an Eastern-spiced turkey, whose main requirements were peppers, onions, two tins of tomatoes and a tin of ‘mango, apricot or peach slices, drained’. The same year, Good Housekeeping’s rather token section on Boxing Day sustenance in their ‘Cooking for Christmas’ book included turkey, pineapple and pasta salad, which starts as you’d expect, before veering alarmingly off to include horseradish, tomato puree, celery – and a topping of salted peanuts. In for a few leftovers, in for the whole lot.

At Christmas We Feast by Annie Gray, published by Profile, €15, is out now.

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