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Strawberry Santas are an adorable addition to the evolving traditions of Christmas food. Alan Dow/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Tofu turkey? Paleo feast? Christmas culinary traditions are ever changing

As the silly season nears, the popular media obsesses over the tension between serving traditional Christmas fare or adopting current foodie trends. But what are traditional foods other than past trends that have stuck?

Recent census results show that many Australians report “no religion”. Yet Christmas remains widely celebrated, combining elements of Christian, commercial and local customs. Naturally, the preparation and consumption of special foods symbolic of the season are in order.

It is widely believed that the Victorian era invented what our modern consumer culture sells today as the perfect Christmas: a family centred festival of generosity and goodwill surrounding a centerpiece feast. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) certainly contributed to the popular revival of the festival, despite many Victorians being too impoverished to even aspire to a feast of roast turkey with all the trimmings. From a longer historical perspective, our modern Christmas traditions are little more than a recent rebranding of the primeval winter solstice feast.

The Australian duopoly supermarkets regularly promote a high margin meat showpiece for Christmas, increasingly a whole turkey, something not traditionally on the Christmas menu in Australia. A whole leg of ham is a suggested extra. The centrality of the “main protein” meme is reinforced by such popular television cookery programs as MasterChef Australia and My Kitchen Rules.

Paul Kelly’s much loved Christmas song How to Make Gravy (1996) captures the spirit of cooking an English meal in the sweltering Australian summer. Kelly sings, “They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees, even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast”, and then goes on to provide a recipe to sauce it, adding “flour, salt, a little red wine” to the fatty pan juices, as well as the narrator’s special touch, “a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang”.

Despite the usual sultry Australian Christmas Day weather, this Anglo-inspired repast ends with a steamed pudding, heavy with dried fruit and served with a rich egg custard, although today rarely made with the traditional suet (sheep or beef kidney fat). The Americans have long added their own local refinements, such as a Yule log cake – a sponge roll decorated with chocolate icing to resemble a log lying on the forest floor. Europeans have their own specialities such as the Italian panettone, a light fruited yeast bread, and the German stollen, a heavier citrus flavoured loaf with a marzipan centre.

Supermarket campaigns present a range of choices for traditional, Australian (lots of seafood, pavlovas, cherries and mangoes) and Mediterranean inspired meals. There are also dietary influenced diabetic-friendly or Paleo spreads featuring such menu items as avocado mousse, roast turkey with cauliflower “rice” and gluten-free gravy, and raw puddings made with dried fruits, spices, almond meal, coconut oil and maple syrup.

This commercialisation is aided by market segmentation. Where once there were just fruit mince pies for sale at the local bakery, now there is an ever-expanding product selection including local, imported, gluten-free and organic choices.

Tofu turkey dinner. Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Vegan meat-alternatives, where plant based foods are processed to resemble various meats, add the “tofu turkey” to the range of possibilities. This is a glazed tofu loaf shaped around a stuffing that can be carved after roasting.

For more than 20 years, meanwhile, the Sydney Fish Market has been selling mountains of oysters, prawns and other seafood over the December-New Year period. Since 1995, the markets have opened all night in a marathon 36 hour burst before Christmas. Hundreds of tonnes of sea creatures are sold. No one, however, monitors whether these delicacies are served instead of, or in addition to, the ham and the roast.

Each year, starting in November, newspaper and magazine columns and new cookbooks appear addressing the same question – what to eat on an ever expanding series of Christmas festivities: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Christmas evening, Boxing Day, the day-after-Boxing Day, and more. Food writers, chefs, fitness gurus and celebrities also share what they will be cooking, their recommendations all advancing their personal brands as well as adding more choices to the mix.

Menu promotions are aimed at all skill and commitment levels. Last year’s ideas included Heston Blumenthal’s microwavable Christmas pudding with a whole candied orange tucked inside. When first released this created a buying frenzy when the pudding, quickly selling out in British supermarkets, was scalped for as much as £250 on eBay. For those with more patience, there are elaborate advertorials plugging the culinary equipment of the moment: wood smokers, sous vide immersion cookers, steam ovens and electronic ice cream churns.

In response, some simply surrender to the daunting task of deciding what to eat for Christmas and let someone else decide. In terms of dining out on Christmas day, again a wide range of options are available. Perhaps the best advice comes from cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss”.

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