7 Christmas Foods of Yesteryear

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the centuries, yuletide revelers have enjoyed far different culinary fare than we do today. Here are seven Christmas dishes of yesteryear that are sure to confuse—or tantalize—your taste buds.

1. Peacock

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During the Medieval ages, some wealthy Europeans dined on peacock at Christmas dinner. The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out.

Peacocks likely looked impressive on a banquet table, but the meat reportedly tasted terrible. “It was tough and coarse, and was criticized by physicians for being difficult to digest and for generating bad humors,” author Melitta Weiss Adamson writes in her book Food in Medieval Times. “To make the meat more easily digestible, it was recommended to hang the slaughtered bird overnight by its neck and weigh down the legs with stones.”

In addition to peacock, swans and geese were also on the Christmas menu. But by the 1520s, another roast delicacy—turkey—had been introduced to Great Britain. Explorer William Strickland is credited with bringing the turkey from the New World to England, and King Henry VIII was reportedly one of the first people to enjoy the new bird for Christmas dinner. Edward VII is said to have made the meal trendy.

2. Boar’s Head

In Medieval and Tudor England, wealthy parties celebrated Christmas by feasting on boar's head. The boar's head "formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal," writes Alison Sim, author of Food and Feast in Tudor England (as quoted by the Food Timeline). "It was garnished with rosemary and bay and evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head carols which still exist."

One English Christmas carol, dating back to the 15th century, is actually called the "Boar's Head Carol." Its lyrics include lines like "The boar's head, as I understand/Is the rarest dish in all this land/Which thus bedecked with a gay garland/Let us servire cantico (serve with a song)." You can listen to a version here.

3. Oyster Stew

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Today, oysters are a delicacy, but for early Americans who settled along the East Coast, they were a plentiful and nutritious food source. People enjoyed them in stuffing, roasts, and chowder—and 19th-century Irish-American immigrants used them to make a traditional Christmas Eve stew.

Most of these Irish transplants were Catholic, and their religious traditions required them to skip the meat on Christmas Eve. Instead, they enjoyed a soup made from dried ling cod—a common fish back in the Old Country—milk, butter, and pepper. But since Irish Americans couldn’t find dried ling cod in America, they substituted it with fresh, canned, pickled, or dried oysters.

4. Mincemeat Pies

Historians trace mincemeat pie (also called mince pie) back to the 11th century, when Crusaders returned from faraway lands with spices. These spices worked as a preservative, so they were baked into pies containing finely chopped meat, dried fruits, and other ingredients.

Mincemeat pies eventually became associated with Christmas. Bakers added three spices to their pies—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to represent the three gifts the Magi gave the baby Jesus. The pies were also baked into the shape of Jesus’s manger, and a model of the Christ Child was placed on top. People believed that eating a mincemeat pie on each of the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6) would bring them good luck.

Over the centuries, the pies grew smaller and rounder, and their filling became less meat heavy, containing ingredients including suet, spices, and dried and brandied fruit. Today, some people still eat mincemeat pie in England—and on December 15 some British scientists fired a meat pie into space—but it’s not commonly seen on Christmas dinner tables in the U.S.

5. Sugar Plums

As a child, you might have been inspired by one of ballet's most famous movements—The Nutcracker's “Dance Of The Sugarplum Fairy"—to wonder what a "sugarplum" actually is. The answer? A hard candy.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the term sugarplum was interchangeable with the words dragee or comfit. All referred to a hard, sugary layered candy. Often, the candy contained caraway, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, walnut, aniseed, and almond cores. It took time, skill, and special equipment to make these sweets, so they were originally quite expensive and eaten only by wealthy people. Later, innovations in manufacturing made both sugarplums and other candies cheaper, and available for consumption by the masses.

In addition to getting a shout-out in The Nutcracker, sugarplums are also famously mentioned in Clement Clark Moore's anonymously published 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" after its first line. But today, you're far less likely to see the candies mentioned in a ballet or poem; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sugarplum is now obsolete.

6. Posset

Long ago, the English enjoyed a predecessor to eggnog called posset, a kind of "wine custard" made from hot milk curdled with hot ale, wine, or sherry, and mixed with sugar and spices. The drink remained common from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century; over time, it disappeared from the culinary landscape.

Throughout the centuries, winter revelers enjoyed variations on the recipe, and eggs were eventually added to the mix. But since milk, eggs, and liquors like sherry and Madeira wine were either expensive or hard to come by, the drink’s popularity dwindled among the masses. Meanwhile, in America, early settlers created their own version of posset, which we today know as eggnog.

In the video above, you can watch Jonathan Townsend, host of YouTube living history channel Jas. Townsend and Son, cook his own version of posset, as adapted from an 18th-century cookbook. His posset has breadcrumbs.

7. Animal Crackers

Ever wondered why boxes of Barnum's Animal Crackers have a string attached to them? According to the most popular story, it was so they could be used as a Christmas ornament. Some doubt that version of events—instead, they say that the handle was there for ease of carrying—but by the 1920s at the latest, Nabisco was definitely advertising that the containers could be festively hung on branches.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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How Did Apple Pie Become an Iconic American Dessert?

Apple pie isn't as American as you may think.
Apple pie isn't as American as you may think.
Dilyara Garifullina via Unsplash

Many staples of American cuisine originated outside the United States. German immigrants brought over the modern hamburger, and Italians were the first to combine cheese with macaroni. Apple pie—a dish that commonly follows the words “American as”—has a reputation for being one of the rare dishes the country can fully claim. But as it turns out, the history of the iconic American dessert isn’t so simple.

The earliest known recipe for apple pie comes not from America, but from England. It dates from the late 1300s and lists multiple fruits as the ingredients, including figs, raisins, and pears, as well as apples. Unlike a modern pie, there was no added sugar, and it was baked in a “coffin” pastry crust meant to contain the filling rather than serve as an edible part of the dish. Though the first concoction resembling apple pie may have come from England, the recipe itself wasn’t wholly English. Its influences can be traced back to France, the Netherlands, and the Ottoman Empire.

Apple trees had only been cultivated in Britain for several centuries by this point. An early ancestor of the fruit originally sprouted up in the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan millions of years ago and was later cultivated in Central Asia before spreading across the globe. Before apple pie could take over America, someone first had to plant the right apple trees on the land. The only apples native to North America prior to British colonialism were crab apples. When colonists arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in the 17th century, they brought with them the Old World seeds and cuttings they needed to make cider, creating new varieties of American apples.

U.S. residents enjoyed apple pie throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but it didn’t gain its all-American status right away. The dessert’s transition from British import to American classic may have started during the Civil War. In his book Apple Pie: An American Story, author John T. Edge describes Union and Confederate soldiers scavenging for apples and raiding the hearths and flour bins on farms to make pies. The memory of the sweet treat during a time of national turmoil may have “fixed the taste of apple pie on the palate of generations to come,” Edge writes.

The patriotic symbolism surrounding apple pie was fully established in the early 20th century. A 1902 New York Times article kicked off a new era for the dish, dubbing it “the American synonym for prosperity.” The Times may also be responsible for creating the myth that apple pie is an American invention. A 1926 headline from the paper read: “The Tourist Apple Pie Hunt Is Ended: American Army Abroad Has Failed Again to Find in Europe ‘the Kind They Make at Home.’”

The dish's patriotic popularity continued to rise. A 1928 New York Times article called First Lady Lou Henry Hoover's homemaking skills “as American as apple pie.” Several years later, fighting “for mom and apple pie” became a common slogan among World War II soldiers. During the Second World War, apple pie was linked to a certain image of domesticity and the perfect American housewife.

Apple pie may not be 100 percent American in origin, but very few foods are. Many of the most iconic American dishes include contributions from various cultures and parts of the world. Apple pie—with its Asian apples, Middle Eastern wheat, and European recipe—is no exception.