Ask Rufus: The Foods of Christmas – The Commercial Dispatch

Open eyes, open minds.
As Christmas approaches, one of the most popular holiday topics is always food.
My memories of Christmas are of homemade chocolate fudge and Christmas stockings filled with apples and oranges, almonds and peppermint candy canes. Beginning in the late 1950s we always had a Greenburg smoked turkey from Tyler, Texas, for Christmas dinner, and this year’s arrived Saturday. It’s strange to think that getting the same brand of turkey every year for more than 60 years is a family tradition, but then they are that good. When I was growing up, we had bite-size cheese biscuits with a toasted pecan on top. In more recent years, cheese straws and milk punch became family staples.
As I began thinking about the foods of Christmas, I decided to call friends around the area and ask about their Christmas food memories or traditions. I asked what food or beverage they associated with Christmas or what memories did certain Christmas foods awaken.
Joe Boggess associates pralines with Christmas because his grandmother would make them then. He has her recipe and now he makes them every year.
Diann Powell of West Point thinks of cookies and plum pudding. She said Christmas for her also calls for “Merry Mincemeat Cookies,” which are shortbread cookies with mincemeat filling, and molasses cookies with peppermint icing.
Tom Bowens of Okolona said thinking of Christmas foods brings to mind peppermint sticks, oranges and apples, as well as the wonderful cake his mother would always make for Christmas when he was growing up.
Carolyn Burns Kaye cannot think of Christmas without thinking of how on Christmas Eve her father would always bring home a wooden crate of oranges, and then on Christmas Day her mother would make orange and coconut Ambrosia.
Hope Oakes, who lives in Columbus but grew up in Houston, remembers, “Mom’s chicken and dressing, hands down. Our family is huge, so she made a double batch. She hated sage so she never put it in her dressing. I will be making it in her honor next week.”
Jenny Holleman Harkness, who grew up in Columbus but lives in Starkville, said she always has freshly made cranberry and orange relish at Christmas.
Deborah Johnson said Christmas Eve is her Christmas meal and she fixes “seven fishes,” an Italian custom that she got into when she lived in Italy. However, her kids who grew up in San Francisco prefer tamales.
Gail Laws said it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without fruitcake and eggnog.
Robert White likes to start Christmas morning with Eggs Benedict served with Bloody Marys or mimosas.
Beau Easterling did not hesitate in responding that it’s cranberry sauce he thinks of at Christmas as Beth (his wife) “makes the best cranberry sauce ever!”
Chuck Younger said Christmas dinner in his family was always highlighted by his mother’s turkey dressing. Her nickname was BB, and the dressing was always called BB’s Dressing.
Luke Boer also always thinks of his mother’s dressing at Christmas. He said they called it stuffing and it was a family affair to make it. They would start by toasting two loves of white bread and then the whole family would pitch in breaking the toasted bread into little pieces for the stuffing.
I found it interesting that in spending a day with people talking about foods associated with Christmas no one had any “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.” Everyone, though, had a fond Christmas memory or tradition associated with food. To delve into what was served at Christmas long ago in Columbus, I pulled out an old Columbus cookbook. It had belonged to Sallie Billups, who lived at Snowdoun. The book was published in 1902 and written in the front was “Sallie P Billups November 12, 1903.”
The cookbook provided a guide for a proper Christmas Day menu. The table should first be decorated with holly and mistletoe. Suggestions for breakfast were oranges, germia, broiled salt mackerel, chipped beef on toast, baked potatoes, griddle cakes, muffins and coffee.
Dinner could include oysters on half shell, cream chicken soup, boiled 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.
The suggestions for supper were cold roast goose, oyster patties, coleslaw, charlotte russe, popovers and currant jelly.
Looking at other old cookbooks, I found that many of the old recipes include oysters and several people had also mentioned oyster dressing. Old Columbus newspapers also shed light on the foods of the Christmas season.
In December 1849 M.W. Peterson’s Oyster Saloon and Restaurant, which was on Market Street in Columbus, advertised their bill of fare. It included oysters, lobster, sardines, ham and eggs, venison, beef steak, pork chops and turtle soup. Candy was also offered for sale.
Oysters became a very popular dish served in Columbus and the time at which they would arrive fresh started a food tradition that has survived today in oyster dressing and other holiday fare. November was normally the month when the Tombigbee became high enough for steamboats to travel upstream from Mobile to Columbus. It was also when it became cool enough that the boats could bring sacks of oysters upriver from Mobile. With oysters arriving in late November and December they became a traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food along the river. By the late 1800s the quantity of oysters brought into Columbus by steamboat was so large that the city began using the discarded oyster shells to fill potholes in the city streets.
We all have memories of Christmases past and often Christmas traditions we still follow. That also applies to Christmas food and beverages. And some almost 200 year old Columbus Christmas traditions even began with oysters and steamboats on the Tombigbee River.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]
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