With Christmas fast approaching, it is interesting to consider the traditional foods of a Christmas meal. They may not all be what you think.
The first Christmas celebrated in what is now Mississippi was celebrated with religious services and a barbecue. That occurred 480 years ago, probably between present-day Starkville and West Point.
In 1540 a ragged army of almost 500 Spanish adventurers, soldiers, horses, war dogs, pigs and some priests, women and free Blacks entered what is now Mississippi near the present site of Columbus. About Dec. 16, 1540, the expedition of Hernando de Soto crossed the Tombigbee River with the best evidence indicating a location between Buzzard’s Island (about seven miles south of downtown Columbus) and Waverly.
After crossing the Tombigbee on rafts, de Soto’s force marched to an abandoned Chickasaw village, called Chicaza, arriving that night. There, the Spanish established their winter camp of 1540-41. The Chickasaws brought food and blankets to the Spanish, and the large number of Europeans probably greatly depleted the Indians winter food supply. As a supplemental food source, the Spanish had been driving a herd of hundreds of hogs across the South.
In December 1540, possibly on the Feast of St. Lucy or the Feast of St. Nicolas or at Christmas, de Soto would have ordered the slaughter and cooking of some of the hogs as a special or celebratory meal. This was a form of roasting meat over an open fire that was called a barbacoa. It was from that word and form of cooking that barbecue took its name. That Spanish meal would have been the first pork barbecue ever held in Mississippi and makes this month the 480th anniversary of barbecue in the Columbus, Starkville, West Point area.
Newspaper accounts during the early 1800s show that pork continued to be a popular Christmas serving. On Dec. 21, 1843, it was reported in Columbus that “Several droves of hogs are now in Town. Those persons of the county who desire pork can be accommodated. Brains and ribs are fine for Christmas.” A newspaper account of a celebratory dinner held near Canton on December 21, 1846, described the dinner as a barbecue.
An old family cookbook from 1901, “The New Dixie Recipe Book,” provides a traditional southern menu for Christmas dinner. It should include “oysters on half shell, cream chicken soup, broiled whitefish, sauce Maitre d’Hotel, roast goose, apple sauce, boiled potatoes, mashed turnips, sweet potatoes, Christmas plum pudding, lemon ice, squash pie, quince jelly, delicate cake, salted almonds, fruit and coffee.” For supper, “cold roast goose, oyster patties, coleslaw, charlotte russe, popovers and currant jelly” should be the fare.
Other suggestions for a traditional Christmas dinner included “roast young pig” and mince pie. Plum pudding was always a Christmas favorite and the oldest family cookbook I have, “The Virginia House-Wife” from 1825, contains the recipe for “An English Plum Pudding.”
English plum pudding
“Beat eight eggs very light, add to them a pound of flour sifted, and a pound of powdered sugar; when it looks quite light, put in a pound of suet finely shred, a pint of milk, a nutmeg grated, and a gill of brandy; mix with it a pound of currants, washed, picked, and dried, and a pound of raisins stoned and floured — tie it in a thick cloth, and boil it steadily eight hours.”
Another old Christmas favorite was ginger snaps, and for those people who have not already ordered a tin of Moravian Ginger Snaps, here is a hundred-year-old recipe from Columbus.
· 1 cup molasses
· 1 teaspoon ginger
· 1/2 cup sugar
· 1 teaspoon soda
· 1/2 cup butter
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix molasses, sugar, ginger and butter. Put on stove, stir until butter is melted. Stir in 3 1/2 cups flour into which soda has been sifted. Let this stand all night. In the morning roll thin and cut. Bake in moderate oven.
Most of our present Christmas dinner traditions, though, are from the more recent past. Among my grandmother’s papers I came across a December 1939, Detroit (Michigan) Evening Times. In it was a cook’s tour of Dixie with recipes for the holiday season. It was written by Eudora Welty under the name of Prudence Penny.
There was a recipe for jellied apples as prepared by Mrs. Herschel Brownlee in Port Gibson. In addition to the jellied apples the article also included Mrs. Brownlee’s recipe for stuffed eggs with spinach.
Mrs. C.L. Lubb of Aberdeen contributed a recipe for that “southern favorite,” beaten biscuits. The article concluded with Welty saying, “A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magical ingredient, the mint julep.” Welty then provided the recipe for the Whitehall Mint Julep from Columbus.
Though Welty’s source of the mint julep recipe was my grandmother, Mrs. T.C. Billups, I never recall mint juleps at Christmas. My grandmother’s favorite Christmas beverage actually was milk punch served in a chilled silver brandy snifter. One year a neighbor came over for a Christmas morning milk punch. She made a mistake and drank two of them. As a consequence, she forgot about her turkey in the oven and burned it to a crisp.
Christmas milk punch
· 2/3 quart of Bourbon
· 2 quarts of milk
· 1/3 quart of cognac or brandy
· 1 quart of half and half
· 1/2 quart of rum
· 10 tablespoons powdered sugar
Chill all liquids then mix and keep chilled. Makes about 30 servings. Nutmeg may be sprinkled on top before serving.
I recall Christmas dinner as a child with my great aunt and uncle, Dr. and Mrs. John Richards, where the meal always included not jellied apples but pickled peaches. Aunt Martie, as we called her, also always served a pear salad. It was simply a pear half filled with Dukes mayonnaise and grated cheese on top.
It is interesting to note that roast pork which was first served here 480 years ago was still considered a traditional Southern Christmas meal in 1901. Actually, barbecue at Christmas is not a bad idea.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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