Christmas Kitchen Calamities

Monday, 23 March, 2015

Words by Ellen Cregan, Illustration by Emily Keppel

Christmas day for an extended family of 37 is always a chaotic affair. With one matriarch in her late eighties, seven children, seventeen grandchildren, three overwhelmed great-grandchildren under the age of seven, plus various partners, friends and companion animals all on the scene at once, certain changes to the classic Christmas model have had to be made. Kris Kringle is a necessity, and inevitably you will be disappointed. The alcohol flows and petty arguments bloom into shouting matches in mere minutes. But perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon of my family’s Christmas Day festivities is lunch.

For such an extremely large family, it would be utterly impossible to manoeuvre a traditional, sit-down Christmas lunch. Thankfully, the buffet is what saves the day for us. Made up of any tables the hosting family can find, it is usually a shambolic, multi-level strip of seasonal tablecloths, and is the centrepiece of the day. In the months leading up to the big day, an email is sent out to all attendees, detailing who is to bring what dishes along. This email varies from year to year, depending on which aunt is playing hostess, which cousins have aged enough to be counted as fully-formed adults, and which uncle can be trusted to man the barbie.

However, the food categories assigned each year tend to be as consistent as my Uncle Terry’s annual, VB-fuelled ‘boat people’ rant. Savouries are split into meats, salads, roast vegetables and bread. Most years the lunch spread is pretty predictable. There are always far too many potatoes. Roast potatoes (of at least three different varieties), potato salads and sliced potatoes on the barbeque are permanent features. Occasionally someone will ignore the fact that Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere occurs in the middle of summer and bring a bowl of mashed potato. Alongside the mountains of spuds are assorted vegetables – pumpkin, carrot, parsnip, peas and the occasional ear of corn. Many of these dishes come with a sprinkling of herbs, blackened beyond recognition in the oven. Looming over these dishes is a huge Pyrex beaker full of gelatinous gravy that always seems to obtain a skin.

Next on the buffet is meat. Cold meat, hot meat, lukewarm and charred meat – we’ve got it all. Occasionally the meat is stewing in some sort of juicy substance. Occasionally it rests in a puddle of its own greasy secretions. I vividly remember being so disgusted by a slice of turkey one year that I stashed it, cranberry sauce and all, in an empty drawer. I maintain to this day that the disgusting appearance of the Christmas meat table was what inspired me to become a vegetarian at the tender age of 11.

The salad section of the table tends to be much more interesting than the previous two. In the past few years I’ve noticed a spike in the use of ‘ancient grains’, also affectionately referred to as ‘trendy hippy crap’ by my country cousins. When my family makes salad, inspiration strikes and flavours don’t matter anymore. Quinoa, bacon and cranberries appear together in a confusing medley, resting on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Hard boiled eggs are mixed through tabbouleh. Basically, weird shit goes down.

Even those who stick to recipes tend to flirt with the culinary avant-garde. My mother’s contribution to the salad table this past Christmas (a questionable Nigella recipe furiously copied from the television) was no exception. The ingredients had begun to break down in the boot of the car before we had even arrived, and as a result the finished salad looked a little bit like compost and smelt like feet. And so it seems the world isn’t quite ready for an un-refrigerated watermelon, feta and lime salad. My own contribution to the salad spread was treated with equal disdain. I thought my mango, black bean and chili concoction was perfectly balanced and wholesome, but based on the amount of leftovers, my family disagreed. However, I had made the same dish for a barbeque in the northern suburbs a month beforehand, and it had gone down very well indeed. You can decide whose taste buds were correct. The rejection of my salad left me ashamed, bitter, but with enough leftovers to last an entire week.

While the contribution of savouries is strictly monitored, everyone is expected to bring a dessert. Following a brief digestion period, the lunch buffet is cleared away and the sweets come out. Despite the fact that every single one of my aunts and uncles is a capable, even accomplished cook, dessert is always an utter freak show. There are cakes, trifles and jellies galore. However, the golden Christmas goose for my family has always been the tiramisu. Tiramisu, in its unadulterated form, is a delicious Italian dessert made up of sponge biscuits soaked in coffee, covered in mascarpone and shaved chocolate. Heavenly, right? Every year my aunts try to outdo each other in the tiramisu game, and having no Italian blood whatsoever, they pay no attention to tradition. One year, we were presented with a ‘kid friendly’ version of the dish, a creation of Milo dissolved in boiling water instead of espresso. The combination of malted chocolate and soft cheese is not one I would personally recommend.

We all thought that the milo tiramisu would forever take the cake for Christmas food disasters. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Christmas ‘14 brought with it the most unorthodox tiramisu yet. My Auntie Karen had attempted to purchase Italian sponge biscuits from Sunbury Woollies, only to find that they had completely sold out. However, not one to give up easily, she decided to substitute the sponge with a packet of the humble chocolate ripple biscuit. The result, much like Frankenstein’s monster, was a monstrosity created with the best of intentions.

So for the time being, the choc ripple tiramisu holds the title for wackiest perversion of a dessert, a position from which I’m sure it will topple before too long. The spread my family puts on at Christmas is always colourful, unpredictable, and slightly deranged. However, something else that is colourful, unpredictable and slightly deranged is my family itself. I am doubtful that I would be able to deal with the bickering cousins, cackling aunts and inebriated uncles for more than one day a year, but I can’t think of anything worse than a bland Christmas.