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And let’s get this out of the way right now: fruitcake isn’t on this list and it shouldn’t be on any list of bad Christmas foods. Fruitcake is, to the cuisine of Christmas, what pizza is to those big Chinese buffets. You go to one of those giant, Happy Hong Kong Garden House of Hunan all-you-can eat buffets, with steam tables crowded with broccoli and beef and Hunan chicken and red-cooked pork, mounds of fried rice and tumbled piles of crispy egg rolls and because there are so many delicious other comestibles to distract you, it’s easy to overlook the pizza there, baking under the heat lamp. And if you take the time to actually sample it, if you’ll think of that pizza as something worthwhile on its own, you will discover that…
Well, you’ll discover pizza in a Chinese buffet is actually pretty awful. So that isn’t a good analogy. But anyway, fruitcake gets pushed off to the side during a holiday that has so many other rich and extravagantly sweet delicacies that get more attention. If fruitcake got served in say March, at say, Feriae Marti, your celebration of Mars’ birthday (which always means ham at our house, by the way), away from all the grand, rich foods of the year-end holidays, it’d be appreciated for what it is.
Then too, even at it’s bricklike baddest, fruitcake is not in the same ballpark as some of the more awful crimes against dinner that constitute a bad baker’s dozen of the most atrocious foods of Christmas.
Like, oh, for example and in no particular order:
1. Ribbon Candy
Ribbon candy is to Christmas what Peeps are to Easter. It looks lovely. It looks like beautiful, multi-hued, magically spun glass—and shatters, incidentally, exactly like glass, too, making a mouthful of it ideal for those multiple gum lacerations that make the holidays so special.
Remember when you went, as a kid, to visit your friend’s Grandma Kruka? The one from the “Old Country?” Remember how her house smelled? Ribbon candy tastes like Grandma Kruka’s house smelled.
Hey kids! Here’s some Holiday Fun! Let’s mix high-test alcohol with a nauseatingly rich dairy product—oh and don’t forget the raw eggs—and serve it up in big mugs to people swaddled in layers and sweaters in overheated homes. What could possibly go wrong?
Now, some fairness is in order here. First, the health issue. Raw eggs have joined Chernobyl and artificial sweeteners as the world’s most lethal threats to human life. Which may be true, but doesn’t appear to be your biggest concern, noggishly speaking. Rockefeller University did a study a few years ago, leaving alcoholic eggnog, with its potent slurry of raw eggs mixed in, sitting at 98.6o for 24 hours. They found nary a trace of salmonella. The non-alcoholic version, on the other hand, put to the same test was, next day, like the Times Square at New Year’s Eve of salmonella crowds. So chances are, alcohol actually pickles the little buggers into impotence. That means if you’re nog-oriented, it’s best to go with the 90 proof version rather than the supermarket “Holiday Nog” renditions.
Second, we actually like eggnog. It’s just that there’s a threshold of eggnog satiation and it is one you tend to find right after you’ve crossed it. There’s that sip that tastes like Home for the Holidays Yuletide joy and the very next that is the equivalent of a gastrointestinal blasting cap going off somewhere south of your esophagus.
3. Braunshweiger Ball
Interesting Fact: Braunschweiger is German for “No one below the age of 70 would eat on a bad bet.” Some people think Braunschweiger is the same thing as liverwurst. It isn’t. But really, who cares? They both taste like a combination of bologna and potting soil. It’d be hard to come up with any way, in fact, that Braunschweiger all by itself could be more unappetizing. That’s taken as a challenge, apparently accepted, by the fiendish conniving of grandmas and nutty aunts all over Christendom who every December descend into their gingham-bedecked kitchen laboratories and conjure up these softball-sized nightmares on a plate.
We weren’t sure exactly, Braunschweiger aside, what went into the savorless spheres of bad Christmas fare so we consulted Google and found this completely legitimate and apparently un-ironic description:
“Hearty liverwurst gets grown up in this pate-like appetizer that’s prepared in the blender. The ‘frosting’ is actually cream cheese and mayonnaise whipped until smooth.”
Yeah. “Pate-like” is the operative phrase here. In the sense that garden slugs are “escargot-like.” And so that’s where the extra cream cheese and mayo that doesn’t go into Aunt Brenda’s lime Jell-O and pretzel “salad” ends up. (About which more in due course.)
Often studded with chopped nuts or, even more bizarrely, with sliced pimento-stuffed olives (above) which gives the ball the unsettling appearance of a giant, multi-eyed amoeba, Braunschweiger balls are typically advertised by their clueless makers as “appetizers.” Here’s some Christmas dinner advice: When your host informs you that the turkey isn’t cooking as quickly as they’d planned but come on into the kitchen ‘cause they’ve just laid out a Braunschweiger Ball “appetizer,” that’s your clue to volunteer to take their dog out for a little walk. Taco Bell’s only a couple of blocks away.
4. “Christmas in a Jar”
It’s the aesthetic pleasure of multi-colored sand art combined with a delicious entrée that’ll take up space in your pantry for the next seven years. Accompanied by a folky, hand-lettered recipe attached with a ribbon and a lovely circle of fabric on the lid, these are Mason jars filled—artistically—with all the ingredients you need to make Hootycreek Brownies or Confetti Bean Soup or Oatmeal Scotchies. Or something else you’d never think of assembling the ingredients for on your own because, well, come to think of it, you don’t actually like any of that stuff.
You want Christmas in a Jar? Unload half a bottle of a good Zinfandel into a Mason jar. Add a peeled, roughly chopped orange. Half a dozen cloves. A tablespoon of allspice. A finger’s length of cinnamon, a quarter cup of honey, and, if you’ve got it, the same amount—quarter cup—of brandy. Put the jar in a pan of water and bring it to a simmer. Take the jar lid off first, Mr. Science. When the honey’s dissolved and the mixture’s steaming, pour it through a strainer into a pitcher, then, strained, back into the jar. Then drink up to the season and make the decision to get your butt into church more often than on Christmas Eve next year which, in addition to being good for you, will also allow you to feel properly superior to idiots who think you can put Christmas in a jar.
5. Green bean casserole
So let’s review: Sudafed and Claratin-D are kept behind the pharmacy counter; you need a doctor’s prescription to relieve a stuffy nose. Cream of mushroom soup, though, and French-fried onions in a can? Oh, anyone can just stroll into the neighborhood grocery and buy all they want. That’s why we have green bean casseroles on Christmas dinner tables, right there exposed to any and all, including little children.
Yeah, we know: your version is totally awesome. Here’s a hint, though. It still looks like the potluck assemblage of the results from a Dumpster diving expedition.
6. Stuffing actually stuffed in the turkey
We had an acquaintance who, seeking to get back to the Basics of Things, decided to eschew modern shortcuts that have, as we’re scolded incessantly, destroyed the whole wonderful goodness of Slow Foods. A good place to start, she concluded was with that standard of the groaningly-laden Christmas table, pumpkin pie. No Libby’s filling in a can for her. No, she found a squash that hadn’t been transmogrified for Hallowe’en. Scraped out its innards. Boiled it into a custardy mess. Added spices and whatnot according to the recipe she found in her great-grandmother’s recipe book. And filled it into a blind crust. Baked it. Tried it. And tossed it out. She described the taste as something like damp, nutmeg-dusted ceiling insulation.
Turkey stuffed with stuffing is in the same category. It sounds all Norman Rockwell. It comes out more like Edvard Munch.
Here’s the problem. Problems. First, even if your turkey is the size of an emu, the body cavity doesn’t have enough room for stuffing that will provide more than a tablespoon for you and your fellow diners. And dressing, gobs of it, is as critical for holiday leftovers as arguments about the superiority of cranberry sauce homemade or canned. Second, those dozen tablespoons from the belly of the bird you’re sharing with your loved ones has been sitting and sweating in the salmonella spa that is the inside of your turkey, and is about to turn your holiday dinner plate into an overburdened Petri dish.
Now, as we noted above in the discussion of eggnog, alcohol is like Kryptonite to the troublesome wee beasties of microbiology. But unless you’re like Uncle Milt and his “special” dressing that uses the half bottle of Wild Turkey he doesn’t drink out on the back porch, your stuffing isn’t going to have the prophylactic firewall that’s going to provide adequate protection for your digestive tract.
So go ahead, dig that chestnut and sausage stuffing out of the turkey and eat up. The good news is, you won’t be standing in the Return Line at Macy’s after Christmas. The bad news is, you’ll be counting the bathroom tiles for three days straight
When it comes to contributions to human civilization, we’re first in line to give credit where it’s due, to the Italians. Mozzarella, Pliny the Elder, Monica Belluci, bocce. That acknowledged, to the entire nation of Italy, we have to pose this holiday question: Panettone? Seriously? Panettone combines the texture of a dry kitchen sponge with the lusty, full sweet taste of a baked couch cushion. Cannoli, gelato, zabaglione: grazie, grazie, grazie. Panettone? Non ne faro parola.
8. Jell-O salad with pretzels
Yum. What enhances your Christmas plate quite like that green seep of melting, pretzel-studded lime Jell-O coming in, like a slow tide, onto the pillowy beach of your mashed potatoes?
Here’s the thing: The Jell-O salad with crumbled pretzels inside will be brought to your Christmas table by someone who brought it last year. And the year before. And who’s never brought anything else. Think about it. If he or she did bring something else, would you contemplate, even in your wildest dreams, actually eating it? Right. There’s always room for Jell-O. At Christmas, it’s on someone else’s plate.
9. Carolers at your door
We know carolers aren’t food. This just slipped in from our other list: 10 Reasons to Keep the Garden Hose Hooked Up for the Holidays.
10. Mincemeat pie
The name alone ought to be a clue. This is not a Christmas food. This is a prop for Sweeney Todd.
11. Those mysterious little cheese wheels that come in fruit baskets
Why, look here! It’s a tiny thimble of cheese wrapped in foil. Could it be a fine, pungent Epoisses? A buttery Spanish Roncal perhaps? No. What it is, is an unsatisfyingly-sized nibble of chalk-flavored cheese-like product from Upper Drabovia. The real challenge here is to find a wine to pair with it. Tough call. Given the amount of petroleum we suspect is in these faux-fromages, it might be the time to uncork a nice light vintage 30-weight Chateau Valvoline.
There has to be some ancient pagan ritual of sacrificing some of the village at winter’s solstice to propitiate the gods of the forest or fairway. We’re not saying we approve of this sort of thing. But if we are going to give it some thoughtful deliberation, would it be worth considering nominating for the sacrifice those who think Tofurkey is in any way Christmas fare?
We have eaten more tofu than have you. We’ve eaten more tofu, in the form of complex Chinese dishes that substitute tofu for meat, than you. We know tofu can be delicious. But it is Christmas. We do not come to a Happy Birthday Gaia event, and try to push our grilled brats onto your recyclable plate of rough-chopped yard waste salad spritzed with organic tamari probiotic vinaigrette. Show us a little consideration and allow us the Victorian charm of poultry protein excess, that glistening, crispy golden skinned bird, the luscious slices of breast ladled with giblet gravy, the dark, rich promise of that plump leg.
There are times when only the real thing will do. The turkey at Christmas dinner is one of them. Now that cranberry sauce on the other hand? Yeah, go with the canned stuff every time.