Alongside the thin gruel of "Oliver Twist" and Miss Havisham's "Great Expectations" wedding cake, some of the most striking food images in the novels of Charles Dickens are, of course, the lush Christmas feasts. In "A Christmas Carol," for instance, Dickens' picture of the Cratchit family enjoying a holiday dinner in early Victorian London is, as "The Literary Gourmet" author Linda Wolfe puts it, "perhaps the most famous dinner scene in literature."
In Dickens' day, Christmas was a day when even the poorest families could justify luxuries, and their tables were loaded with food. The bird was considered the greatest extravagance, never mind that it was small and found at a bargain price.
"Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked," wrote Dickens of beleaguered clerk, Bob Cratchit. "Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family."
The Christmas feast is celebrated at the start of another Dickens novel, "Great Expectations." In it Mr. and Mrs. Joe Gargery are hosts to Mr. Wopsle, Mr. and Mrs. Hubble, Uncle Pumblechook and Pip. The splendid dinner consists of a leg of pickled pork and greens, two roast stuffed fowls, mince pie and pudding. Pip smuggled away the prized savory pork pie, as readers know, to feed the escaped convict.
Historical menus of Dickens' time show that celebratory dinners were often heavy on meat like poultry, game, suckling pig, partridge cutlets, mutton, roast beef and turkey, while they were light on vegetables. They went on for course after course after course.
A modern version of a Dickens' holiday menu has been served up for the last four Christmases in Bernard's, the lavish dining room in downtown Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel. Executive Chef Roger Pigozzi says the annual Dickensian bill of fare was offered because it felt right in the elegant old hotel, parts of which still have its original 1923 decor. Since this is a place where oyster forks, confiture spoons and elaborate service rituals are the order of the day, Pigozzi made his Dickensian menu much more luxurious than the Cratchit's dinner, though he says the spirit is much the same.
"The dinner in 'A Christmas Carol' was one of poverty, but it was quite lavish in its own way because of the chestnuts, the goose and particularly the fresh fruit, which was quite difficult to get," he explains. "When you read (the story), you see how opulent it was.
"In their day, people spent more than their means on Christmas. It was a treat. It was not frivolous, like having a car that's too expensive in your driveway. It was considered a justified expense."
Pigozzi's menu, which is mostly authentic, but includes some non-Dickensian twists (pine nuts, for instance), reads this way: rich, buttery oyster stew and winter salad with pine nuts, followed by either roasted goose with lingonberry sauce, braised loin of venison, beef Wellington or white fish baked with bread crumb-and-shallot crust. Dense English plum pudding (a good recipe ran in Thursday's Food Section, Dec. 16) is served with both hard sauce and Devonshire cream. After, Stilton cheese infused with Port wine arrives with water crackers and tangerines.
To serve a Christmas dinner more like what the Cratchits served, Pigozzi offers the following tips: The goose can be stuffed and roasted as the recipe below indicates. With it, whip up mashed potatoes with butter and cream. Applesauce can be garnished with prunes or raisins. When roasting chestnuts, always remember to score each with an X first, or the nuts will explode over the fire.
1 large shallot, minced
1 tablespoon sweet butter
12 large oysters, shucked, with juice
4 cups whipping cream
Chopped parsley or paprika, optional
Saute shallot in butter until transparent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add oysters and their juice and saute over medium heat until oysters are plump, 8 to 10 minutes. Add cream and simmer 5 minutes longer.
Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Serve 1 cup liquid with 3 oysters per person. Garnish with parsley. Makes 4 servings.
ROAST GOOSE WITH SAGE, ONION AND APPLE STUFFING
1 (8- to 10-pound) goose
1/4 cup butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
Goose liver, finely chopped (should come with goose)
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
6 ounces sausage meat, such as sweet Italian sausage
Finely grated zest 1 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh sage or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 cups peeled and coarsely chopped cooking apples
2 tablespoons Calvados or apple brandy or brandy
Wipe bird inside and out with damp paper towels. Remove any lumps of fat from inside. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. Season well to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.