Fiona McCade: Why do we eat turkey at Christmas?

Could festive Cheddar become a staple on Christmas dinner tables? Picture: Complimentary
Could festive Cheddar become a staple on Christmas dinner tables? Picture: Complimentary
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YOU can see the logic behind why turkey is eaten at Thanksgiving. In 1621, the Pilgrim Fathers and the Wampanoag tribe sat down together at a table laden with a feast of local delicacies. There were wild turkeys everywhere, so they ate them. Fair enough.

I have more of a problem working out why the British eat turkey at Christmas. The bird is American, it wasn’t particularly popular here until the 20th century and everybody knows that chicken tastes much better, so what’s the point?

I don’t see the point of many of the so-called treats we stuff ourselves with at the midwinter solstice. However, I’m curious to see if a new creation will catch on: Christmas Dinner Cheddar.

Perhaps inspired by the pilgrims of old, the Pilgrim’s Choice cheese company has invented a festive Cheddar, which contains lumps of sprout, shavings of carrot and bits of dried fruit, all infused with turkey flavouring. Then, if you like that, you can follow it with a chunk of its Christmas Pudding Cheddar, in which you will find all the usual brandy-soaked, candied fruits, apple, cinnamon and a dash of Christmassy liqueur.

Currently you can only buy these limited-edition cheeses direct from the manufacturer, but I should think they’ll take our tinsel-trimmed dinner tables by storm. After all, they’re enshrining the great British Christmas dinner tradition, aren’t they? What’s the matter? Why are you turning up your nose?

These weird cheeses are as valid as anything else we eat at Yuletide. The fact is that we eat an awful lot of awful food at Christmas simply because we think we ought to; because it’s “traditional”.

Unlike the Americans, the Brits have no excuse for having a turkey-fest and yet, somehow – despite rarely touching the stuff during the rest of the year – millions of us apparently feel as though we’re letting the side down if we don’t cook one at Christmas.

’Tis the season to do dumb stuff. I do it, too. For example, I loathe dried fruit, but I suffer it being in almost everything I touch during December because there’s a historical justification for it – it’s one way our ancestors preserved their harvest. However, there is absolutely no precedent for turkey and its plethora of flatulence-inducing trimmings. I don’t recall anyone at the First Council of Nicaea saying: “OK, we’ve created the first, unified Christian doctrine, decided when we’re going to have Easter and now…what’s next…oh yeah, salmon for Christmas lunch – yes or no?”

Had this actually happened, the Brits would have piped up: “Fish? Never! We want turkey!” And everyone else would have said: “Why turkey? Chicken tastes much better.” “No! Chicken is too nice and flavoury. We want turkey and what’s more, we want SPROUTS with it!”

Obviously no such debate took place because if it had, Britain would have been excommunicated there and then.

If you really want a traditional celebration at Christmas, you should go right back to the origins of the Christian festival (not the pagan one, or you might not make it to New Year in one piece). After enduring childbirth, it’s most unlikely that Mary would have been up for immediately cramming her face with overcooked meat and five veg, figgy pudding, mince pies, a cup of coffee and an After Eight. It is much more likely that she and Joseph would have shared a morsel of unleavened bread before they both passed out from exhaustion. Ah, perhaps that’s where the Christmas Day nap ritual started.

Cheddar cheese is as authentically British as almost anything else we might eat on 25 December. However, it would be even more fun to create a whole Christmas meal out of different cheeses.

How about turkey cheese, sprouts cheese, roast potato cheese, parsnip cheese, bread-sauce cheese and perhaps even a Quorn cheese for us vegetarians? Then, after the Christmas pudding cheese, there could be mince pie cheese and After Eight cheese.

This way, nobody has to bother cooking or clearing up. You could also do slices of bread cheese to make sandwiches with the left-over turkey cheese on Boxing Day.

Then, for Hogmanay, you could blend all the rest of the leftover cheese together for an unforgettable fondue experience. You never know, it might catch on.