When in A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up after the three spirits have taken him on his nightmare journey through his past and future life, he is a changed man. Looking down at the street from his window he is hugely relieved to learn from a passing boy that only one night has passed and it’s Christmas Day
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they”ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck.”
“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
Luckily for Bob Cratchit in Victorian times shops were generally open on Christmas morning and he got his turkey and Scrooge began to make amends. It’s true that throughout the second half of the 19th century in more well-off homes turkey gradually began to take over from the more usual choices but it was very expensive compared with the alternatives. In the north of England that was very often roast beef, and in the south the favourite was goose (which was what the Cratchit family would have been planning to eat). The poorest families usually made do with rabbit.
It really wasn’t till after 1945 that turkey overtook goose as the most popular Christmas roast – partly due to the widespread adoption of the fridge in family homes. I have no childhood memory of when turkey replaced chicken at Christmas dinner, though since I always ate everything put in front of me it didn’t much matter to me. But I do remember one year in the early fifties that we had goose.
We were living in Germany at the time (dad was in the RAF) and the story has always been that our maid Josepha gave it to us. Most families living in married quarters had a local woman working for them. The German people were desperate for any work so soon after the war and I imagine a maid working for an RAF sergeant’s family earned very little. Thinking about it logically now it seems unlikely that we would have been given the goose as a present and probable that Josepha earned a few extra deutschmarks for Christmas out of the transaction. Mum never cooked goose after that so maybe it wasn’t a success.
What I do remember is the first time Angela and I cooked a turkey. In another post I’ve mentioned that we used to share Christmas with a couple who had children the same age as ours. The first year it was down to us to host the celebrations, but sharing the tasks and the costs. And so we had to buy and cook the turkey. Remember, there were four adults and (at the time) two five-year olds, and two three year-olds. Wanting to make sure everyone got enough to eat, we bought a 19lb turkey from the local butcher – maybe we asked his advice, I can’t recall. Today I learned that, allowing for big eaters and making sure there would be some left overs, that’s enough to feed at least 12 adults, probably several more! Maybe the butcher saw this novice young couple coming, and decided to shift an unsaleable bird?
In fact we didn’t find out how much it weighed until we set about trying to work out how long it would take to cook this mound of meat. We had a very serviceable Salter kitchen scale but it was too big to put on that. So we did the only thing possible. We put the monster into our daughter’s doll’s pram and wheeled it round the corner to the chemist’s shop.
Then I stood on the public weighing scale outside the shop – popped a penny in the slot and weighed myself. Angela handed me the turkey and we looked to see how much weight I’d miraculously gained. It turned out I was nineteen pounds heavier. That’s how we know how much our turkey weighed.
Bent double, I wheeled it home in its tiny pram (luckily our house was very near to the local shops) and sought advice from The Oxo Book of Meat Cookery (1970 edition) on how long it would take to cook. Seemed a long time, but because it would be stuffed we learned it could take up to five hours to roast. So the plan was to put it in the oven around nine o’clock on Christmas morning, and it should be done by two, and carved and ready to serve just after three o’clock. Easy…
In fact thanks to the dubious temperature produced by our vintage (i.e. ancient) Parkinson Cowan gas oven which we inherited when we bought our 1930s semi it was approaching 8pm that we all sat down to a traditional Christmas dinner. My memory of it is all a bit hazy – we had been drinking all afternoon. How did our small kids manage for all that time? Did anyone eat much of the dinner? I do know that I made a huge vat of sprout soup the next day which may be some sort of clue.
So much of this story seems to come from a different world. Working class English families employing foreign maids. Seeking advice from cookery books rather than the internet. Penny in the slot weighing machines outside chemists’ shops. Using a gas cooker over thirty years old and probably unsafe.
And the tale of the turkey being trundled to the chemist in its pram tells its own story of the kind of make-do-and-mend ingenuity which was part of living back then.