All religious considerations aside, I’ve always thought of Christmas as being pretty foodtastic. Candy canes basically grow on trees; chestnuts roast over open fires (fire codes be damned); everything smells like gingerbread and tastes like rum. Even the Grinchiest little hearts can’t help but stir at the prospect of Christmas cookies — and joy to any world that gives us eggnog by the gallon. ’Tis the season to be jiggly, and like any self-respecting foodie, I’ve spent most of my Decembers gorging it up.
But this year I’ve been giving a little thought to the holiday eating frenzy. In the name of peas on earth and baked goods toward all men (goodwill means nothing to me), I’ve been trying to figure out what makes holiday food so magical. What’s so dreamy about sugarplums? Why do we covet that figgy pudding? What’s the big deal with Christmas food anyway?
Ordinarily I’d point to taste, but here’s the big, fat, joy-sucking problem: When you boil off all the ho-ho-hos and fa-la-las, Christmas food isn’t very good. Or fun. Or pleasant in any way, really. We wrap it in festive boxes and hang it from jolly trees and put it out in classy crystal bowls on our coffee tables, but the fact is, it’s all kind of nasty.
Case in point: the gingerbread house, a mascot of holiday cookery if ever there was one. When they’re done right, gingerbread houses are charming, adorable confections that make you wish you lived in a village made out of gumdrops. But who, besides Martha Stewart’s army of pastry minions, has ever made a successful gingerbread house? (By “successful,” I mean “sturdy, attractive and plausible as a residence of well-adjusted gingerbread persons” — gingerbread caves, gingerbread prison cells and gingerbread wigwams do not count).
In real life, the cookie walls are always vastly different sizes; the frosting sticks to your fingers but not to the walls, which in turn don’t stick to each other; the roof caves in under the weight of the chocolate chips; and even if you manage to assemble some kind of vague shelter thing, your younger sibling will immediately pick off all the M&Ms, and your gingerbread house ends up looking like it was ravaged by mad trolls. Few things are less festive than mad trolls. But more importantly, gingerbread houses are essentially giant stale cookies bound by gluey inedible frosting and topped with foul grandma candy that nobody likes. If that makes your mouth water, then you are deranged.
And gingerbread houses are only the beginning. If you’ve ever tasted a Bûche de Nöel — that’s pretentious for Yule Log — you’ll know they belong in the fire after all. Christmas pudding? Not so much a pudding as an overgrown lump of coal, and coal on Christmas is never good news. In theory, Christmas cookies are a terrific idea, but dare you put theory into practice, and taste your suitemate’s chocolate-oat-bran-marmalade-Lucky-Charms fiascoes? I think not. And of course, there’s the immortal fruitcake — immortal because you’ll never eat it, and because it will haunt you in your nightmares forever.
As much as it pains my food-loving soul to say this, it seems our obsession with holiday food has little to do with the actual food. We eat dozens of candy canes for love of the Christmas spirit, not for the pasty mint taste. “Figgy pudding” is code for “brotherly love,” which is what we really want when we call for it. Presumably out of some larger consideration for family, or community, or some equally mysterious notion of bonding, we’re deluding ourselves into deliciousness. To put it in revoltingly gloppy terms: Love makes gross holiday food taste good.
To this I say, okay. That’s nice. [Nondenominational, secular] God bless us, every one. But personally — and this is the food Scrooge in me talking — I think the taste is just as important as the sentiment behind it. I’ll love you more if I like your cookies.