If you can't escape to Williamsburg, at least you can taste its holiday flavor

December 22, 1991|By Orange County Register

Oh, for an era that was kinder and gentler. A more innocent time when holidays were reverently and joyously celebrated. A bTC longer celebration, perhaps, but virtually without commercial pressures.

Colonial Williamsburg provides such a retreat. The original royal capital of Virginia, the historical village is a painstakingly re-created depiction of 18th century life (sanitized, naturally, of wars with Britain and with the Indians, and the other less pleasant features of preplumbing life in the Colonies).

If you can't escape to Williamsburg for the holidays, you can capture its flavor on your Christmas table. Many of the traditional comfort foods of today's holiday celebrations -- ham, beef and turkey, corn bread stuffing, fruit cakes, nuts, fruit, and even the presence of the Christmas tree -- have roots in Colonial times.

Even the tradition of a holiday groaning board -- a boggling array of offerings -- can at least partly be traced to the Colonial menu plan.

During the days when Patrick Henry, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke out for freedom in the taverns and private homes of Williamsburg, the day's largest meal was served in the early afternoon.

Patterned after the old British style of service, a first course typically included several kinds of meats. The aim was to impress guests and have a variety of tastes.

Just how this bounty was displayed was an important matter of etiquette. Today's thoughtfully conceived buffet harks back to these careful layouts.

In wealthier houses, a proper table was symmetrically laid out. A standing dish (one served almost every day), such as a cured ham, was positioned at the top of the table. At the bottom of the table, for balance, would be another heavy meat -- a large roast, turkey or leg of lamb. Smaller meats might sit to the right and left.

After soup, more meat would arrive. These light meat dishes might be fish or smaller birds, fricassees, stews and casseroles. "Made" dishes such as savory pies, vegetable garnishes and complicated salads might accompany these meats.

Finally, dessert. Glasses filled with preserves and jellies, candied fruits, custards and other confections were piled with glass plates in a pyramid, surrounded by other desserts.

"Of course, this is how the wealthy lived and ate," said Art Hopper, one of the guides at George Wythe House, one of Colonial Williamsburg's most pristine re-creations. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence and mayor of Williamsburg, Wythe was among the privileged. And the house epitomizes the best of the era.

"The poor were eating mostly hominy grits and a little wild game," Mr. Hopper said. Pickled or salted beef or pork goods were common fare. Since there was no refrigeration, fresh meat was a special meal. Chickens, wild game or fowl occasionally were on ordinary tables, "but working people were more apt to regularly dine on oxtails, livers or tripe," he said.

Or consider this delicacy: veal and cow's udder, spiced and baked in a pie.

America had come far from its Pilgrim roots. During that highly religious era, excess was frowned upon. But by the mid-1700s the Virginia Colonists "always made much of the Holiday of Holidays," to quote "The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion," the first cookery book published in America (circa 1742, later republished in 1938 as "The Williamsburg Art of Cookery").

The holiday meal wasn't a "set piece" with hard-and-fast menu rules, said Dennis Cotner, a Virginia historian whose work at Colonial Williamsburg focuses on interpretive demonstrations in the village's two working kitchens.

"We don't see yet more foods specifically associated with the holidays," Mr. Cotner says. "Turkey wasn't locked to Thanksgiving, for instance."

Still, where food was concerned, "There was generally a lot more -- more of everything, more festive than day-to-day life," Mr. Cotner said.

There was more meat, and the seasonal harvest was plundered for the occasion.

Everyday staples often were gussied up for the holidays. Corn, the gift from American Indians, was on both rich and poor tables. One of the earliest uses was a simple boiled pudding or mush. But Colonials eventually developed more sophisticated uses for

the grain -- moist, satisfying breads or chowders made with cream and bits of salt pork.

Living by the coastal tidewaters, the Colonials searched the shores and bays for whatever treasures lurked there. Oysters were one -- they might be scalloped or stuffed into other things, pickled or fried, or turned into a rich, creamy stew.

Beverages ranging from wine, ale, coffee or tea were standard offerings. But a punch -- especially the classic syllabub -- took a special place during holidays.

Citrus juice, sherry and sugar are usual ingredients, married with heavy cream in a blend that our forebears would whip for about a half hour.

Such feasts -- "a great entertainment," as such bounteous spreads of food were called nearly 250 years ago -- and the accompanying "frivolities" (performances, plays and musicales) may not have been everyday affairs.

But if you are still one who holds your breath, hoping for a mercifully swift holiday, pity the Colonials. Well-heeled gentry celebrated the "full holiday," meaning the age-old stretch of observances and gatherings ranging from Christmas Day through Twelfth Night on Jan. 6.

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