It would be wrong to think the only thing that binds us together at Christmas is a standing rib roast. If you stroll down the meat aisle, there will be plenty of fine-looking roasts, but the truth is there is no single Christmas meal that Americans own.
Unlike Thanksgiving, when the nation’s menu is practically etched in stone, Christmas is full of culinary surprises. It hasn’t always been that way. If it was up to the Puritans, we’d still be standing at our work stations eating lunch.
Until the mid-19th century, there was no such thing as a holiday meal. By the Civil War, the mood began to soften, and American families sat down to turkey dinners that were pretty much like what they ate for Thanksgiving.
It was only a matter of time before the force of the melting pot would kick in and we would be where we are today. Holiday meals are defined by where people live and who their ancestors were.
In the Southwest, for instance, local cooks turn out platters of tamales for the holiday. Southerners make pots of chili, and Italian families, steeped in Catholic tradition, eat multi-course meals with at least seven fish dishes.
For wowing Christmas guests, cooks can’t go wrong with a beef tenderloin. The cost of the meat is enough to give anyone chest pains, but knowing it’s for a special dinner and will serve 12 makes it seem almost reasonable.
Hours before the roast goes into the oven, it’s rubbed with a garlicky-herby mixture spiked with Dijon mustard and extra-virgin olive oil. After about 30 minutes in the oven and a brief rest on the cutting board, it’s ready for the holiday crowd.
—By Jean Kressy