How to Eat Like a King for Christmas

Using antique technology and vintage cookbooks, food historian Ivan Day recreates such Tudor and Victorian specialties as puddings and roast goose

Back in the day, according to Ivan Day, one of England's most esteemed food historians, selection was surprisingly great. (Elaine Glusac)

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“Plum pudding and pieces of pie,
My mother she gave me for telling a lie,
So much that I thought I should die,
For lumps of plum pudding and pieces of pie.”

We mix in currants, raisins, cloves, diced ginger and preserved orange peel and bind it with eggs, resulting in a wet, dense ball that Day declares “perfect for shot-putting.” Instead we push it into a Victorian-era greased “kosiki” mold, which resembles a castle with a central tower and four surrounding cupolas, where it will be boiled in a pot of water.

With their mix of prosaic and exotic ingredients, holiday puddings were the sorts of dishes the nobility would prepare for the poor on Christmas, doing their benevolent duty on a day that still celebrates hospitality and neighborliness.

“I call myself a culinary ancestor worshipper. It’s all about the people. There are voices from the past trying to explain how to do it.” He adds, “technology is the key.”

Turning our attention to dinner, we prepare a horizontal “cradle spit” caging an eight-pound standing rib roast rigged to a wind-up jack advanced by a slowly descending iron ball. “This is the sound of the 18th-century kitchen,” proclaims Day of the creaking cadence that will pace us over the next several hours while we construct a Christmas pie.

Though pies most often connote dessert today, their savory incarnations were an early form of food preservation. Meat pies could be cooled, drained of their juices via a hole carefully cut into the bottom of the pastry, and refilled with clarified butter, keeping without refrigeration for three months or more, like a canned good.

For our Christmas pie, we employ an elliptical-shaped, six-inch-tall mold with a nipped waist, fluted sides and hinged ends, lining it in pastry crust. Next we fill it with an assortment of poultry – “We tend to eat birds at Christmas when wild food is at its best, its plumpest” – layering in seasoned ground turkey with the breasts of turkey, chicken, partridge, pigeon and goose. Topping it with crust, we decorate the lid with pastry cut from fern-shaped wooden molds and form a rose of pastry petals.

Like pre-20th-century fashion, frippery was in vogue at the table. “Food has a visual aesthetic that reflects the aesthetics of the time,” says Day. “Now we are in an age of abstract modernity with splashes of this and that on the plate.”

Greeting us after a three-hour break before Christmas dinner—take two—is a hot brandy and lime punch with orange peels dangling out of the bowl. It’s the first recipe I feel confident I can replicate at home without scouring an antiques store. In the meantime, Day has prepared a plum pottage, a meat and fruit soup he calls “liquid Christmas pudding.” The 1730 recipe went out of fashion under the influence of King Louis XIV of France. “French cooking in the 17th and 18th centuries changes from cooking meat with fruit, which is of Islamic origin. They renounced sweet and sour flavors and elevated meaty, earthy flavors.”

In addition to its delectability, class time includes instruction in antiques, illustrated by our next morning’s attempt at a 1789 recipe for ice cream. Using a lidded pewter cylinder known as a sorbettier, we fill it with cream, simple syrup, preserved ginger and lemon juice and let it rest in a bucket of salt and ice outdoors in the drizzle of Sunday morning. Spun and stirred occasionally, it freezes about 20 minutes later. Spooned into a mold with layers of sponge cake and candied fruit, it becomes an “ice pudding.” With the remainder, we employ a seau à glace, a delicate 18th-century serving dish featuring a separate bowl that nests in a compartment for ice and salt topped by a lid designed to hold additional ice. Though it sits on the counter at room temperature for over an hour before lunch, the ice cream remains solid, a finale to the gorgeously striated poultry pie, now baked and sliced.

About Elaine Glusac

Chicago-based freelancer Elaine Glusac writes about travel, food and culture for many publications including the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler and

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