Traditions – 12 Days of Christmas and others

This year, I’ll be abstaining from my own family’s traditions. Not necessarily out of the sake of simplicity, though it is a factor, but more in a show of… I donno, respect and/or deference? They aren’t quite the words I need here, but we’ll go with them for the sake of argument.

I remember when the shoe was on the other foot and my family was the host of transplants; the oddest things that set me off of my normal that they would do, not out of any malicious intent, but it was just how they did things in their own families. None of it was bad or wrong, either, just different and that difference was what broke my brain. Remembering that, keeping those thoughts in mind, I’ve cordoned off as much as possible my own thoughts and expectations for the holiday season and will aim to play it by ear.

This time last year, I was waiting for that elusive FiancĂ© Visa to be approved and was doing temp work to keep the cash flow in the black. This year; I’ve caught every British virus and bug that dared culture itself first on my husband before morphing into something that could pin me down. I expected as much, to be honest. All things considered, I’ve gotten off easy; I’m a person in a new place with different mutations of bacteria – i.e. my otherwise robust American immune system had no idea what it was up against.

So, equipped with a chest cold, hoping that it doesn’t become pneumonia or whooping cough (because, guess what? I’m still not covered under NHS for a minimum of two more months), I’m trying to find where I put my holiday cheer; I might have forgotten to take it with me when I moved.

Honestly, that’s kind of where I am at emotionally. It doesn’t feel like the holidays to me. It hasn’t been nearly cold enough yet for me to warrant even taking out my wool coat. Snow where I am is something of a regional rarity this time of the year (it doesn’t come until later – if at all). With my own traditions firmly in locked storage, I have had nothing really to get me into the mood of things save Christmas music, which, to be very honest, I don’t much like even on a good day.

But yeah: it doesn’t feel like the holidays, there’s no way I’m getting into the spirit of things now; I’m not trying to humbug, but the cold has me channeling (intentionally or not is up for debate) my inner hag.

With nothing new yet from the Home Office, I’ve basically resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to hear a peep from them until 2014. Not that there is much left of 2013, mind, but there you have it.

But let’s talk about traditions. For my husband’s family the holidays are all about the feed; the unabashed gastronomical bust-fest. My Mother-in-law takes it upon herself to do all of the shopping and cooking for the holidays; and the first load of food she brought home contained no less than 20 bags worth. Seriously, I counted. I didn’t even bother counting the second load.

This would be all well and fine, if we were feeding an army and not only feeding 10 people, tops.

The kickoff to the seasonal festivities started the night before (the 24th of December – bear in mind that I am editing as the days progress to keep as accurate account as possible), on Christmas Eve where there was a buffet spread that I think I will forever remember as “the display of bread-covered meat.” Aside from pickled onions (homemade, mind, so they get a plus for that effort), cucumber slices and coleslaw (of which seems to be a bit of a family staple, as most events to date have had it as part of the meal), there were no other vegetables to be seen. This was only emphasised by the quote of my mother-in-law when she was apologetic to me over the selection: “This is standard British fare, I’m afraid,” indicating to the sausage rolls (sausage meat wrapped in a puff pastry), meat pies, crackers, bread with spreads… you get the idea.

Not to be too misleading, there were gluten-free options; some GF crackers and bread were purchased ahead of time, there were also some GF mince pies (though, to be honest, as it isn’t part of my sub-culture, I haven’t really built of a taste for them as of yet; they don’t taste bad – in my opinion – but it’s just not pumpkin pie, if you understand what I mean…), the meats, cheese, vegetables were all safe when I got to them, so I was very thankful that they let me go through first, as it limited the chances of cross-contamination on my plate.

Let it be said that unless you like the Kettle Chip brand of potato chips – in the UK, if you’re a Coeliac, you’re more or less out of luck. Every other brand that I’ve inspected has been in a facility that is cross-contaminated and when they say that it might be, they’re severely understating it; my personal experience has been, when they issue a caution in regards to allergens, they actually mean that the food has all but mated (you’re welcome for the mental image, bytheway) with said undesirable other (in this case, Gluten).

A part of me was somewhat perplexed by the 24th spread, I was trying to understand why it existed, though I didn’t bother to ask. Some questions are just argument starters and, as I have already said, I’ve been a crabby-arse, and the chances of it coming out right were even less likely (see: snowball’s chance in H-e-double-lipstick) than usual.

Best as I can figure; it was like the signal-gun for the gauntlet to come. Translation: the turkey went into the oven that night before bed.

Today (the 25th), we started the day with a round of starters. Tradition in my husband’s family is that his mother runs the house like her own restaurant where she is both chef and waitress; taking orders off of a list from everyone and then preparing the dishes in the kitchen while we all go about our own business – or at least that’s how it was for the starters.

So we gathered around the poly-carb slab covered with a table cloth (the only solution to not having a big enough table: take two small ones and slap a board over the top of them), seated as indicated and the starters were brought out first. We dined on those along with bread rolls and butter, cleared the dishes from that away, washed up quickly while the main course was finished being readied.

The main course, was as follows:

Meats – Turkey; Pork; beef roast; sausages wrapped in bacon

Potatoes fried in goose fat (apparently it is the “to do” of british family gatherings); bread stuffing (I didn’t try it, so I can’t speak to it at all)

Sprouts with parma ham and roasted chestnuts; broccoli/cauliflower; steamed carrots

Then, for sauces, we had gravy; two different types of cranberry sauce; horseradish (left unopened, but it was there throughout the whole meal).

Let me say this so people can wail and blow their minds over it now: I don’t like gravy. If it’s GF, to me it has the consistency of snot and that’s not good eats in my world. If I have gravy at all, it goes only on my mashed potatoes and that is it. No mash, no gravy; no problem.

Much like the starters, we ate, cleared the dishes away and washed them while the deserts were put out buffet-style on the kitchen counter. This year, I think we have partially my husband to thank for the large desert spread. He purchased five different types of cake, which were joined by Trifle; that almost-infamous Christmas Pudding (there was a GF option for that, which I tried and found I rather liked, despite the bad reputation); custard; a type of wine sauce (it and the custard could be used to co with the aforementioned Christmas Pudding. I tried both, I didn’t mind the wine sauce, but I’ll likely have to give it another go before I make any sort of verdict on my opinion of it); an assorted cheese board with crackers; and then, last but not least (and more for my benefit, as they were GF and apparently forking expensive) these ornament-shaped chocolate mousse orb-things – which were quite decadent.

Throughout all of the courses, there was an endless flow of wines (white, red and sparkling, if you must know), which I had far more than I thought was decent, for which I solidly blame the cold that I’m nursing, since it helped to keep my screaming-sore throat numb to the abuse I was putting it through (it is horse now, thanks for asking).

Needless to say, come the close of the evening I was the polar extreme of hungry. Despite this, I still pushed on to have a cup of coffee and a bit of chocolate when it was presented at the close of the evening. I tried a bit of everything that I could (okay, not for you guys, or for science, but because I’m a true glutton and what glut does not like their brand of torture flirting with regret?) and as of this morning (more like afternoon but who’s keeping track anymore?), the 26th of December, I am still full.

Which has me worried at this point, because I know that there are still things in that cupboard that haven’t been used yet and appear to have been intentionally left out. Come this evening, though it has not been explicitly stated, my bets are on another binge.

A part of me wonders how long this will keep up. Apparently, tradition in the household dictates that the decorations for Christmas stay up twelve nights (as to take them down before or after that is considered to be bad luck, or so I’ve been told); does this mean that the partying lasts just as long? There are certainly enough leftovers to do the job, if that is the case – you can probably guess on your own how little of a dent was actually made in the meat portions of the meal.

I’ll also have to review labels again, after all of this: somewhere in this mess, something ended up on my plate that wasn’t actually safe, and I’m trying to figure out where. The reaction is minor, so it’s probably something just cross-contaminated. That, or the throat lozenges are giving me a false positive (which can happen in the states with the sugar-free variety, due to a charming ingredient called Isomalt. Strangely enough, I have noticed that I have a similar response to large quantities of Glucose Syrup – which is often found here in processed foods of the sweet variety in the same way that, in the States, High Fructose Corn Syrup shows up.

Which makes sense (yes, I did only just look up how it is derived just now, d’oh! Sucking on one of the lozenges at that…) when you look at it. Ffffssssssskkkk. Who said you’re too old to learn something?

Anyway, dinner on the 26th of December was basically a carbon copy of the one that was had on the 25th – very literally, especially since it was mostly leftovers plus more of the same veg cooked up. Starters were also handled the same way; in fact, the only difference was that one of the original guests had another party to attend and wasn’t able to join us.

On to the 27th and I’m somewhat late in the day for penning (see: typing) this, but in the shuffle, something came unplugged and I couldn’t access my online draft of the post until now. Three out of the original 9 people have left, though one may return tonight, I’m honestly not sure. This takes us down to six mouths to feed and are still things in the cupboards that were purchased for party consumption that have not yet been opened. If I want to count from the 24th, we are now on 4th day of Christmas out of my assumed 12.

I’m still sick to boot, yay for me, but will be feeling slightly less like death warmed over now that I’ve learned another thing to avoid in my diet. My husband, when I told him about my findings, was aghast and said, “They don’t even list where it [Glucose Syrup] comes from on packages! How do they expect anyone to know if they don’t do that?”

27th was more leftovers, ho hum.

Back onto the main topic: the 28th was the first day we saw actual deviation from the menu of leftovers – we had salmon steaks with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables.

The 29th was leg of lamb, roasted potatoes with steamed cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and peas which most people drowned (as is standard) with gravy and sauces. There were also Yorkshire puddings, but I did not partake in those. I am happy to report that we have finally gone through most of the deserts.

I’ve been speaking with a fellow UK Transplant about traditions, sharing perceptions and she (let’s call her J for the sake of argument) concluded that keeping decorations up until the 6th of January is something that her UK spouse and children do. From what I gather, for J’s family, there aren’t 12-days-of-food to go with all of this fun, leaving me to wonder if this isn’t just part of my husband’s sub-culture. It may also have a thing or two to do with the fact that we still have a guest in the house and party-fare seems to co hand-in-hand with all of that.

Today is the 30th and last night they took the goose out of the freezer to thaw for the New Years festivities to follow. One thing I do note as a difference is that people here do not seem to pay much attention to the weight of their food; it was asked yesterday how long it would take to thaw, and when I queried how much it weighed, the whole group basically shrugged en masse. Used to people in the States almost bragging about the size of their bird (not a euphemism, I swear), the paradigm shift to those without a care to know was a bit of my mind blow. The best I got was, “The turkey and goose cost about the same,” because, per pound/ounce, of course the cost is similar… haha. But it was a start and using this to conclude that the fellow had SEEN said poultry, I garnered the approximate size.

It’s anywhere – if you wanted to know – between a 10-12 pound bird, on the top end. I’m somewhat interested to see how they will go about preparing it; goose is a notoriously dry meat.

Anyway, the 30th dinner was “Jacket Potatoes” with assorted fillings – for those not familiar with the name, a jacket potato is a normal baked potato, though they are quite inventive on their fillings. Plain canned tuna being the strangest, I found. Accompanying this was a mixed salad, and, of course, desert, making this the LEAST festive meal that we’ve had thus far. Also the most vegetables I’ve seen on a plate in a very, very, long time. This meal also killed the last of the meat leftovers from Christmas.

… or was it? The 31st was an informal sit-down over curry out of a box from the supermarket. After which we attempted to watch a b-rated movie (attempted in the sense that the plot line stank up to high heaven and everyone abandoned in 30 minutes in) before deciding to switch to watching the fireworks in London on the TV and the entertainment that came before and after it. During that, we toasted the new year with sparkling wine accompanied by a cheese board, crackers, olives with sun-dried tomatoes and there appeared to be some sort of fruit-cake type pudding-thing set out but no one seemed interested in actually EATING the thing, so it was returned to the cupboard unopened (rather dubiously at that; I suggested that my husband have some of it this morning – the man is a sugar fiend – but he turned it down then too).

Tonight (and, I really do apologise – perhaps not sincerely enough to FIX it – for any confusion on the transition of days throughout this monologue) is the 1st of January 2014 and we’re finally having that goose. I’m not sure with what it will be served, but I do know that it will be eaten. Given the amount of goose fat/grease that came out of it, I suspect there will be the traditional roasted potatoes at the least (as that is what is normally used to make them, due to it’s high smoking temperature).

Now that I’ve mentioned it so many times, I suppose I should explain how those are made; as they are appallingly easy to do. The secret, as far as I gather is to dust the potatoes with flour or cornstarch/corn flour (depending on which side of the pond you are on determines the name for it – i.e. those are the same thing) after peeling, cutting them up into triangular thirds (no easy way to describe that) and par-boiling them start the cooking process.

So, from the top: Take your potatoes; peel, cut up and boil them for about 5-10 minutes. While this is happening, in a deep roasting pan in the oven, start heating up your goose fat (alternatively, you can use probably lard, though in a pinch Olive oil has been used, it just takes longer) at about 400F/200C Drain the water from the potatoes well, dust with whatever coating of your choice (for GF, I recommend the corn based option), and then (carefully!) pour them into the pan, turn them slowly to coat them with the oil and then whack them back into the oven until they start to turn golden. Turn them some more to make sure that they’re evenly cooked and then remove from the oil straight into a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Pro-tip: Apparently, you can keep the oil and use it again and a again for days in a row. On a personal level (as I don’t much like fried foods to start with), I find this a little on the gross side, but the frugal part of me jumps at any chance at all to save wherever I can.

At this point, I’ve dragged this on long enough, and I still have to think about New Years resolutions that I will break within the first week. xD

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