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Susan Williams
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2003

Holiday foods are about more than nutrition

The tradition of holiday feasting is all about who we are, where we come from

EDITORS: The following is the third of a series of holiday features from Indiana University.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Why do we celebrate New Year's Day? Maybe so we can make resolutions to lose the five to seven pounds we gained through the consumption of Christmas goodies. While additional poundage is not usually a welcome holiday gift, it's almost worth it when you consider the pleasure derived from partaking of special holiday foods with family and friends.

But food has always been about more than just nutrition. It binds us to our families and ethnic groups in ways nothing else can and often is the only link we have to our past.

That's why food, as well as all aspects of planting, gathering, storing, preparation and serving, has been researched at Indiana University Bloomington's Wylie House Museum. Part of the IUB library system, Wylie House was built in 1835 and was the home of the university's first president, Andrew Wylie, and his family.

"Wylie House is operated as an ongoing historical research program," explained Jo Burgess, director of the museum, about the recipe project, which was active in the early 1990s. "We collect, preserve and interpret the history and culture of the Wylie family, IU and Monroe County. Through the buildings, collections, landscape and archives, we learn about our own roots and what it was like to live in the Midwest in the early 1800s."

Currently, curators are focused on restoring Wylie House's interior decoration. They also support an ongoing project to preserve heirloom seeds, but during the 1990s, as they searched through Wylie household papers, they uncovered recipes used by Margaret Wylie, wife of Andrew Wylie. Groups of volunteers reworked and tested the recipes, many of them for sweet treats we associate with holiday celebrations.

The custom of feasting, of course, didn't start with Wylie House in the 1800s. As a link to our collective past, feasting stretches back to the pagan festival of the winter solstice. In medieval England, the Christmas feast began with the ceremonial entrance of the head of a boar carried on a silver platter. A lemon, the Norse symbol of plenty, was wedged into the boar's mouth, and rosemary and laurel were wound around its head. Why? Because this beast held the dubious honor of being the sacred animal of the goddess of peace and plenty, Freyja, and at the winter solstice was offered in sacrifice to her.

Thankfully for boars everywhere, this custom is no longer so widespread. But just in case Freyja should lose her patience, casting upon us a winter limited to bread and water, we stuff ourselves with sweets in December. Those extra pounds should see us through until April, at least. Besides, using a lot of grains for baking was thought to make the gods of harvest happy.

Serving flour-rich foods assured the land's fertility. Shaped like animals or animal horns, some treats were perhaps substitutions for earlier sacrifices of the real thing. Cakes, bearing a sunlike shape into which candles could be placed, encouraged the sun's return.

One of Christmas' best-known treats, the mince pie, dates back to the Crusades when spices from the Orient needed for baking were brought west. A recipe from 1394 required "a pheasant, a hare, a capon, two partridges, two pigeons and two rabbits; their meat separated from the bones, to be chopped into a fine hash; add the livers and hearts of all these animals, also two kidneys of sheep; add little meat balls of beef, with eggs, add pickled mushrooms, salt, pepper, vinegar and various spices, pour it into the broth in which the bones were cooked." A number of creatures, feathery and furry, must be celebrating today's version, a sweet, spicy blend of winter fruits instead of a savory meat pie.

By the way, a lot of people don't care for mince pie. If you're one of them, you should rekindle the boar's head custom and cook a suckling pig. As it is eaten during the holidays by the English for good luck, you'll offset the bad fortune coming your way for turning down the pie.

Or you could always adopt the northern European tradition for good luck and whip up a Christmas pudding. There, a pudding or porridge containing a single almond is served. Whoever finds the nut will experience good fortune.

Puddings present their own problems, though. Are they desserts, made with brown sugar, dried fruits, citrus flavorings, spices, flour, eggs and brandy, or a concoction containing beef and mutton broth, raisins, spices, herbs and wine to be eaten along with the meat course? There is some disagreement here. Whichever, be sure to stir with something wooden (in honor of the manger) and in the same direction the sun moves (to copy the Magi's approach route). And please, let everyone join in the work, as stirring the pudding is lucky.

Christmas cakes were the latest thing in Britain. A Victorian recipe required flour, sugar, butter, eggs, fruit peel, blanched almonds, cherries, raisins, sultanas, and brandy or rum. It is easy to imagine the finished product tasting a lot like fruitcake, which everyone loves to receive as a gift today. Another popular sweet there was the Yule Baby made of gingerbread, with raisins for its eyes, mouth and coat buttons -- a big improvement over human sacrifices to the winter gods, which these goodies are thought to represent.

Those of us in the United States are particularly blessed by the harvest gods. As a nation of immigrants, we enjoy traditional goodies from all over the world: the mince pie, the Christmas cake, the puddings and a huge variety of cookies. But perhaps no treat represents the holiday in the United States more than the Pennsylvania Dutch sugar cookie. Cut into shapes of animals, hearts, angels, stars and bells, they were not only yummy but were also used for decorating the Christmas tree.

Cookies, incidentally, are a relatively new innovation, according to Wylie House research. In fact, despite the fact that cookies are noted as tree decorations in the United States as early as the 1820s, no cookie recipes were found among the Wylie collection from the 1830s. There were plenty for cakes, though, some with ingredients and instructions handwritten by Margaret, some by her cousin-in-law, Rebecca.

Here, from Wylie House, is a bit of IU and food history for you to intermingle with your own personal favorites. Make this holiday season a feast for your spirit and soul, as well as for your body.

Composition Cake

1 3/4 cups flour

1/3 cup butter

1/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 3/4 cups raisins

Soak the raisins overnight in just enough water to cover. Sift and combine dry ingredients. Cream sugar and butter, add egg and beat until fluffy. Mix in about one-fourth of the dry ingredients, then about one-third of the milk, mixing well between additions, and continue this way until all dry ingredients and milk have been added. Drain the raisins and add to batter. Batter is very thick. Put into a 9x9-inch pan that has been buttered and floured. Bake at 300 degrees about 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Original recipe: 3/4 pound of butter, 1 1/4 pounds of sugar, 1 3/4 pounds of flour, 5 eggs, one pint of milk, 1 teaspoonful of pearlash, one nutmeg, 2 pounds of stoned raisins or currants.