Ah. It’s “R”. R U ready? Then let’s begin…
Roast dinner is ready, but nobody really relishes the parsnips.
Reveries in Red: With the red, red robin bob, bob, bobbin’ and the holly bearing berries as red as any blood, the garden reminds me that it is time to bring the red party frock out of mothballs. Christmas festivities provide an excuse – if excuse were needed – to paint fully scarlet lipstick onto my (regrettably) less than full Scarlett lips and, less wantonly perhaps, to succumb to the lure of a cheap poinsettia for the table. Red may be the colour of warning and wantonness, but it is undoubtedly also the colour of winter celebration and it seems particularly apt at Christmas. Santa just wouldn’t be so jolly in green.
Both Anglican and Catholic churches use white as their liturgical colour for Advent. Perhaps red is a throw-back to the Old Religion and rituals celebrating the life cycle and fertility which long pre-date, and contrast with, the Virgin birth. Most of the trappings and traditions of our modern Christmas have nothing to do with the religious festival itself, after all: they are an amalgamation, an adaptation, an incorporation (enough ‘ations’ already!) of the imported newer religion into the ancient mid-winter festival. And we continue to import ‘traditions’ – cranberries, anyone? Pleasingly red!
Maybe that is it. Maybe it is simply pleasing to festoon our homes and clad ourselves in a warm, vibrant colour to cheer us through the winter gloom.
I spent several years living in Japan trying – failing mostly – to make sense of its highly stylised culture. I appreciated, for example, the aesthetic of traditional wood-block prints but found the depictions of persimmon trees in winter landscapes to be stylised beyond credibility. White background; upward-curved rooftops of country dwellings and barns; jagged bare black branches and perfect red circles of fruit supposedly ripening in the snow. As if! Then winter came, transforming the entire region into a snowscape, drifts reaching the upward-curved roofs of the buildings, and only the jagged bare black branches of kaki trees breaking through the snow. And hanging from those branches in an otherwise monochrome landscape, perfect orange-red circles of ripe persimmons like droplets of life-blood in the six-foot-deep midwinter of northern Japan.
Red is very much the colour of celebration there, with Sekihan – ‘red rice’ – the traditional New Year dish, the red coming from aduki beans cooked with the rice.
In my student days, I spent one less-than-festive year-end travelling with a friend in Western China. As foreigners, we were granted privileged access to comforts such as Western-style hotels but at the same time, not being tourists, we possessed ID cards – our own Little Red Books – that permitted us to slum it with the locals to some extent too. Hence we booked a three-night berth in cattle class on a Yangtze river-boat and spent the journey on narrow bunks in intimate proximity with ten other travellers. One man carried a box which he never let out of his sight, frequently checking the contents which we took to be precious as well as mysterious. The mystery resolved itself towards the end of our first sleepless night when we all learned, with no uncertainty, that the box contained a fully functioning cockerel.
Our red ID cards secured an invitation to the captain’s New Year dinner along with other Western travellers, all of whom were sailing in greater comfort on the upper decks (the only one I remember now being a shy Icelandic man my friend still insists was called ‘Stinkipoo’) and assorted Communist Party officials. The lanterns and red flags were flying and I tasted my first red meat for weeks, my travelling companion being vegetarian. The following morning we noticed that the sacks of skinned dead dogs we had seen before on the deck had disappeared. Yum.
The previous week we had woken on Christmas morning in a rather basic hotel in Chengdu to find a male stranger occupying the third bed in the room and, as a nod to Western visitors, a Christmas tree in the foyer. It was topped, of course, with a Red Star.
Roast Tatas: Roasties aren’t just for Christmas – they are a treasure all year round – but they do come into their own on Christmas Day. Until a few years ago you could cook them in pretty much anything – lard, generic vegetable oil, 3in1 – but since around the mid-eighties, when Delia Winston-Smith put us all straight, it has become a hard and fast Christmas rule that roasties can only be cooked in goose fat, resulting in pitched battles in supermarkets the length and breadth of the land as crazed women tear each other apart over the last few jars on the shelf. This, it goes without saying, is absolute bollocks, and every year countless millions of gooses [I know: I just think gooses sounds better] are needlessly slaughtered just to provide fat for roasting our spuds in, the rest of their bodies discarded like worn out wellies because even though goose is a traditional Christmas centrepiece the demand for their fat far outweighs demand for their flesh for general consumption. Ironically, the reason for this is because many people think their meat ‘a bit fatty.’ I know. Go figure.I usually cook my Christmas tatas in duck fat (no, I didn’t swear, Speverend Rooner; I suggest you clean your ears out), easily and cheaply obtained by cooking an easy cheap duck for Sunday lunch a week or two beforehand and saving the run-off. One duck can produce enough fat for around 3 acres of potatoes. Lard or 3in1 will do at a pinch…
 Not all geese suffer this fate, of course. Many suffer the even more vile fate of being confined in cages while evil bastards cram corn down their gullets to engorge their livers for making foie gras, which even viler bastards then shovel down their own gullets to engorge their own livers. The birds live their whole lives in agony and terror; we can only hope the gourmands feasting on the final product die in similar circumstances. Oh, and I know geese don’t get slaughtered for their fat and binned; this is what is known as artistic license.
Featured Writer: Peppy Scott (Reveries in Red). Additional Contributors: David Smith, Karen Tucker.