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

A peacock with its feathers fanned out.
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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

Oyster stew with an oyster on a spoon.
JJPaden/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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.

Graham Crackers Were Invented to Combat the Evils of Coffee, Alcohol, and Masturbation

tatniz/iStock via Getty Images
tatniz/iStock via Getty Images

Long before they were used to make s’mores or the tasty crust of a Key lime pie, graham crackers served a more puritanical purpose in 19th-century America. The cookies were invented by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister whose views on food, sex, alcohol, and nutrition would seem a bit extreme to today's cracker-snackers. Much like the mayor in the movie Chocolat, Graham and his thousands of followers—dubbed Grahamites—believed it was sinful to eat decadent foods. To combat this moral decay, Graham started a diet regimen of his own.

Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s that promoted a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. According to Refinery29, Graham's views ultimately inspired veganism in America as well as the “first anti-sugar crusade.” He condemned alcohol, tobacco, spices, seasoning, butter, and "tortured" refined flour. Caffeine was also a no-no. In fact, Graham believed that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium, or alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” However, the worst vice, in Graham's opinion, was overeating. “A drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” he once wrote.

Graham’s austere philosophy was informed by the underlying belief that eating habits affect people’s behaviors, and vice versa. He thought certain foods were "overstimulating" and led to impure thoughts and passions, including masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—which he believed to be an epidemic that caused both blindness and insanity.

Illustration of Sylvester Graham
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Graham's views directly influenced Victorian-era corn flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who was born a year after Graham died. Like his predecessor, Kellogg also believed that meat and some flavorful foods led to sexual impulses, so he advocated for the consumption of plain foods, like cereals and nuts, instead. (Unsurprisingly, the original recipes for both corn flakes and graham crackers were free of sinful sugar.)

In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to forbidden places if they avoided “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” This meant swearing off improper foods and substances like tobacco, caffeine, pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and peppermint. Even milk was banned because it was “too exciting and too oppressive.”

So what could Graham's followers eat? The core component of Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, unlike the refined white flour loaves that were sold in bakeries at that time. From this same flour emerged Graham's crackers and muffins, both of which were common breakfast foods. John Harvey Kellogg was known to have eaten the crackers and apples for breakfast, and one of his first attempts at making cereal involved soaking twice-baked cracker bits in milk overnight.

Slices of rye bread, a jug of milk, apples and ears of corn on sackcloth, wooden table
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However, Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, which began to fall out of favor in the 1840s. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, a Grahamite was hired in 1840 to strictly enforce the school’s meal plans. One professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and the hunger-stricken students organized a protest the following year, arguing that the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” Ultimately, the Grahamite and his tyrannical nutrition plan were kicked out.

Much like Kellogg’s corn flakes, someone else stepped in and corrupted Graham’s crackers, molding them into the edible form we now know—and, yes, love—today. In Graham’s case, it was the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco; the company started manufacturing graham crackers in the 1880s. But Graham would likely be rolling in his grave if he knew they contained sugar and white flour—and that they're often topped with marshmallows and chocolate for a truly decadent treat.

7 Tasty Facts About Tater Tots

bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2, iStock via Getty Images

Whether you associate them with your school cafeteria, your childhood home, or your local dive bar, tater tots are ubiquitous. Creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside, the bite-sized pellets rival French fries for the title of most delicious potato product. But they’re more than just a tasty side dish—they’re also an upcycling success story, a casserole ingredient, and one of the few foods that’s more popular frozen than fresh. Here are some more facts about tater tots you should know.

1. The first Tater Tots were made from French fry scraps.

Brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg founded the Oregon Frozen Foods Company, later known as Ore-Ida, in Ontario, Oregon, in 1952. One of their first items was frozen French fries, and after seeing all the potato scraps they had leftover, they came up with an idea. By chopping up the potato parts, seasoning them, and molding them into pellets, they were able to create a new product. With help from a thesaurus, they landed on the name tater tot and debuted their creation in 1954.

2. Tater Tots are the main ingredient in Hotdish casserole.

Hotdish casserole with tater tots.
ALLEKO, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are typically served as an appetizer or a side dish, but in certain states, they’re part of the main course. Hotdish follows the long Midwestern tradition of tossing whatever’s in the kitchen into a casserole. It’s made by mixing together ground beef and frozen vegetables and topping it with a layer of tater tots before baking the whole dish in the oven. It’s a hearty match for Midwestern winters, plus, it’s a way to sneak more tots into your diet.

3. The name Tater Tot is trademarked.

If the golden nugget of potato-y goodness you’re eating is not Ore-Ida brand, it’s not really a tater tot. The Grigg brothers trademarked the catchy name shortly after developing the product, and Ore-Ida still holds its trademark on tater tots today. This doesn’t stop people using it as a catch-all term for the generic version of the food. Ore-Ida tried to combat this in 2014 by running an ad campaign warning customers not to “be fooled by Imi-taters.”

4. Tater Tots have different names around the world.

The all-American tater tot has spread around the globe, but it’s usually sold under a different name abroad. Tot-lovers in New Zealand and Australia may refer to them as potato gems, potato royals, potato pom-poms, or hash bites. The food is so popular in New Zealand that Pizza Hut launched a pie with a hash bite crust there in 2016. In Canada, they’re called tasti taters or spud puppies, and they’ve been labeled oven crunchies in the UK.

5. Homemade tater tot recipes may not be worth it.

Tater tots on a plate served with ketchup.
MSPhotographic, iStock via Getty Images

Tater tots are the ultimate convenience food—unless you try making them from scratch at home. Recipes online involve peeling and grating pounds of potatoes, frying them once, chilling them overnight, and then shaping them into tots and frying them a second time. Without the streamlined method and equipment of a factory, the process can take 12 hours. Even fine restaurants that feature tater tots on their menus often prefer the taste (and convenience) of the frozen stuff.

6. Idaho praised Napoleon Dynamite for featuring Tater Tots.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in Idaho, and one of the ways the 2004 film pays tribute to the state is by prominently featuring the tot. The State of Idaho passed a resolution in 2005 commending the makers of the film, specifically thanking them for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.”

7. The birthplace of the Tater Tot is hosting a Tater Tot festival.

Nearly 70 years after tater tots were invented there, Ontario, Oregon, is honoring its patron potato product by dedicating an entire festival to it in August 2020. The Tater Tot Festival will feature games, food vendors, and a Ferris wheel, plus special events like a tater tot-eating contest and a tater tot-themed play. The fair will end with the crowning of the tater tot festival king and queen.

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