Enjoying A Humble Christmas

December 23, 1990|By Elaine Tait | Elaine Tait,Knight-Ridder News Service

"A lot of Christmas literature looks back in a romantic way," says William Woys Weaver, suggesting that our view of Christmas is one of bounty and largess, a holiday celebrated by those with substantial incomes.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he says, "but I thought that Christmas belonged to the poor, too."

Mr. Weaver's new book, "The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets" (HarperCollins, $18.95), has its share of sugarplums for the fat-wallet crowd. But of special inspiration is the chapter called "Humbug Pie."

It tells how resourceful Americans of limited means improvised Christmas dishes and how those dishes became traditional. There are so many such dishes that the chapter only skims the surface, says Mr. Weaver, an author-food historian from Devon, Pa.

"A lot of American Christmas food traditions were never written down," Mr. Weaver says. As an example, he cites the sweet johnnycake recipe enjoyed by plantation slaves during the holiday season.

The johnnycake, based on the griddle-baked bannock of the British Isles, would be baked on a board by an open fire. The cake's simple ingredients-- butter, brown sugar, eggs, flour and cornmeal -- were available to just about everyone. Lacking sugar, a clever but impoverished cook might substitute wild honey.

A version of ice cream could be made by mixing newly fallen snow with sweetened heavy cream and flavorings. (It's sad to think that polluted snows make such a fanciful dish dangerous in our times.)

Costly figs were a popular holiday dessert of early Americans. Starting about 1845, their poorer numbers found that "tomato figs" could be made by poaching whole plum tomatoes in sugar syrup, then sun-drying them. The ersatz fruits resembled dried figs in appearance if not precisely in flavor, says Mr. Weaver.

Mincemeat made with meat was for the rich, but vegetarian "mincemeat" could be made with chopped lemons or with raisins and rolled crackers, as in New England humbug pie. Methodist mincemeat contained lemon, brown sugar, currants, apples and spices. It did not contain alcohol, but Mr. Weaver's note at the end of the recipe suggests adding lemon cordial or brandy to the filling before baking the pies. "After all, the alcohol bakes out," he writes.

Poor man's pound cake, one of several folk names for another humble recipe, originally was concocted of leftover bread dough, to which sugar and other ingredients were added. The original cakes were baked in small tin or earthenware cups or, if those were lacking, in old teacups.

An approximation of plum pudding might be made with crackers and inexpensive dried fruits such as cherries, wild plums and peaches. Hard times fruitcake, a recipe that originated around 1862 in South Carolina, included dried apples, molasses and spices. Other versions of the recipe were made with dried cherries.

Candies made with barley sugar (which was cheaper than imported cane sugar) were a holiday delight for many poor children. The most popular of these were called clear toys, in which the candy was cast in miniature figures. Animals, baskets, hands, scissors, ships and bugles were among the preferred shapes.

At Young's Candies at 28th Street and Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, antique molds still are used to turn out clear toys by the dozens at holiday time. Although the sculptured objects will keep for years, says Harry Young, the shop's owner, they were meant to be eaten. And while children still swear they prefer one flavor to another, Mr. Young knows that all the toys are unflavored and always have been. It's the colors that influence the children's perceptions of the taste, he says.

As for the recipes in Mr. Weaver's book, the author says he tested each one himself. Every photograph in the amply illustrated book was shot in his home. Afterward, "it took a month to clean the house," he says. "I found broken cookies and candies in places I didn't know we had been."

American tastes have changed somewhat over the years, he says. "If I make a cookie from a recipe dated 1702, most people will like it," he adds -- but some modern tasters will want a cookie that is softer, more crumbly and sweeter than those our ancestors enjoyed.

Tastes in flavorings have changed, too. A baker who tested Mr. Weaver's rose water-flavored poor man's pound cake found the rose-scented baking aroma unappealing, though the cakes themselves were acceptable.

Mr. Weaver isn't disturbed by that. His hope is that those who buy the book will try the recipes and say, "Hmmmm, I can improve on this."

"It then becomes yours, a part of your Christmas tradition," he says.

+ New Orleans gingerbread Makes 8 to 12 servings.

1/2 pound unsalted butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

grated zest of 1 orange

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon baking soda

2 cups fine white cornmeal, less 2 1/2 tablespoons

6 eggs

1 1/2 cups unsulfured molasses

1/4 cup milk

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.