Christmas is not only a time to overindulge in foods that you love, but also to confront foods that you spend most of year successfully avoiding.
To come up with the following patently unscientific survey of stomach-turning yuletide specialties, I polled a thoroughly unrepresentative sample of friends and colleagues.
First on many lists was, not surprisingly, fruitcake, with respondents’ comments ranging from “ick” to “yuck” to “blech.” This most-maligned confection, this baked bugaboo, this deathless loaf that launched a thousand stale jokes embodies many of the qualities detested in other yuletide horrors: excessive sweetness, sickly stickiness and the pervasiveness of dried and/or candied fruits.
True, fruitcake has its defenders. My friend Colin, a law professor, implored, “Don’t let them slam fruitcake! It’s great food.” (Colin, it should be noted, is the only person I know who willingly eats natto, a foul-smelling dish of fermented soybeans “enjoyed” for breakfast in Japan.)
But fruitcake is only the tip of the iceberg. The second-most-popular answer to the question “What Christmas food do you most dread?” was the steamed brown lump variously known as plum pudding, Christmas pudding, English pudding, or figgie pudding. “My English mother-in-law raved about her plum pudding,” said book-club pal Pat. “But I always thought it was repulsive. Raisins, candied fruits, pineapple, cherries, spices, suet and rum make for a very distasteful dessert. Just give me the rum.”
Yes, the Brits have a lot to answer for. Mincemeat, for another thing. “I don’t like the taste, don’t like the consistency, don’t like the smell, don’t like the sound of the name, and don’t like not knowing exactly what’s in it,” railed Gretchen, a publicist. “Is it really minced meat and if so, what kind?”
According to Peter Myers, proprietor of Manhattan’s British food purveyor Myers of Keswick, mincemeat once had meat in it, but now only has suet (beef fat). “It’s a similar mixture to plum pudding,” he said (great!!), “but it’s baked in individual pastry shells.”
And the Brits don’t stop with food. They’ve popularized two revolting beverages to wash down their meals.
Colin, defender of fruitcake, had no sympathy for that unholy marriage of raw eggs, whipped cream and spirits known as eggnog. “I loathe it,” he said. “Thinking of it makes me sick. It actually will make me walk away from a holiday table. I can’t even speak to someone at a party who’s drinking it. I hate that smell and that viscous consistency, and for years it put me off nutmeg altogether.”
Like mincemeat, wassail punch is something many people hate without knowing exactly what it is. You think eggnog sounds bad? Try warm punch made with beer, apples and rum.
But enough Brit-bashing. Apparently people of Nordic descent are subjected to turnips on Christmas. My friend Maria centers her Christmas dinner around tenderloin of beef with mushroom sauce. As dutiful a wife as she is a gifted cook, she also honors her husband’s Norwegian-German heritage with turnips.
“They love them,” she reported exasperatedly. “Me, not so much.” (Then again, turnips may profitably skew culinary preferences. John, a writer whose father was Swedish, dreaded turnips, but enjoyed plum pudding and mincemeat.)
The Scandinavians also force their young to eat lutefisk, lye-soaked and dried cod that has been reconstituted into a pungent, gelatinous mass.
Garrison Keillor has spoken feelingly about this “Scandinavian delicacy that is not permitted in populated areas, a fish that is buried in the dirt for a few months and dug up and covered with a sauce made of wallpaper paste and eaten.”
Actually, dried cod has infected the Christmas feasts of at least two distinct cultures. Middle-class and prosperous Italians hark back to their impoverished pasts in the Old Country by serving up baccala — salted and desiccated cod that must be soaked for days to desalinate it before being mashed, baked, fried or flaked and served in the fearsome baccala salad.
Fish is de rigueur for Italian Christmas Eve as families partake of la vigilia, the traditional piscatory feast that boasts seven or 12 seafood courses, depending on whether the family in question is honoring the number of sacraments or Apostles. Here is a meal veritably teeming with vile dishes.
Aside from the baccala, you might well find eel. Back in the old days, live eels were often kept in the family bathtub, scaring — and, no doubt, scarring — the children. On a more academic note, food historian Clifford A. Wright has written that the Venetian doge Andrea Gritti died at age 84 on Dec. 28, 1538, after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve.
Lou, who now runs an Italian food emporium, remembers his childhood Christmases fondly, especially how his sister Marie recoiled from the triumvirate of cephalopods in the frutti di mare salad. “She dreaded that salad, with the octopus and squid and cuttlefish,” he said. “I used to make a point of eating it in front of her — and also chasing her around with a lobster claw.”
Yes, Christmas can cause culinary missteps even among the Italians, acknowledged masters of the kitchen. Erica, a cookbook author, had much to say on the subject of struffoli, the Southern Italian confection in which little balls of fried dough are drenched in honey syrup and then covered with sprinkles and, sometimes, bits of candied fruit. (This same dessert, absent the candied fruit and going by the Yiddish name taiglach, plagues many Jewish New Year’s celebrations.)
Erica recalled that as a kid, “some neighborhood lady, now long dead, brought over a plate of struffoli. This woman was known to all to be a penny pincher, but we thanked her. The struffoli had an odd smell, but I ate a load of them anyway. About an hour later, I became violently sick and stayed ill all night and all day.”
Erica has come to believe that the culprit was the oil in which the struffoli was fried, oil that was old, rancid and possibly once used to fry fish.
Finally we come to our 12th bellyache of Christmas, candy canes. Perhaps not universally reviled, they were, nevertheless, singled out for their “disgusting taste” by a senior editor here at Newsday. (I always considered candy canes a decorative accent rather than an actual candy; criticizing their taste seems akin to faulting tree ornaments for being too crunchy, or complaining that felt stockings leave little fibers on your tongue.)
Whatever -- she hates them. And she has the right to, just as Colin has the right to defend fruitcake while assailing eggnog. That’s what Christmas is about.
No, wait a minute, that’s what the Bill of Rights is about. Christmas is about peace on Earth and goodwill to men. Try to keep that in mind the next time you are presented with a fruitcake.