18 Dec 2019

Lucy Corry: The nightmare before Christmas (dinner)

7:20 am on 18 December 2019

By Lucy Corry*

Opinion - It's traditional in the lead-up to Christmas for food writers and chefs to wheel out their festive eating advice.

Some, like perennially effervescent Nigella Lawson, create the illusion that they spend Christmas gadding about in red satin dressing gowns, fingers ready to be licked.

Others, like uber-cheerful Jamie Oliver, invite you to download a specially tailored timetable so you can ensure everything runs to schedule. Jamie might have had a better year if he'd spent a bit more time concentrating on his business spreadsheets, but perhaps it's not in the spirit of goodwill to bring that up now.

A turkey Christmas dinner.

A turkey Christmas dinner. Photo: subbotina/123RF

The stakes are already high at Christmas time, considering its unholy blending of food, families and end of year stress. If there's ever a time when your culinary skills will be tested, it's now. Which is why it's gratifying to learn that things don't always go to plan for the professionals.

The 'family' part of the festive equation is often what tips the balance. Auckland food and gardening writer Lynda Hallinan still recalls the "legendary" year that it all got too much.

"My Aunty Kay always made a fancy salad for our family Christmas on the farm, even though no one in our family eats fancy salads," she says.

"Aunty Kay had been slaving away in the kitchen for hours, skinning mandarin segments, toasting pumpkin seeds and steaming cubes of kumara when my dad came in and asked what was taking so long. When she snapped back at him, he accused her of having PMT ... so she picked up the new dinner set he'd given my mum that Christmas and smashed it, Greek style, on the floor."

That was bad enough, but worse was yet to come: when Aunty Kay stormed home in a huff, she took the pavlova with her. "I cried," Lynda says.

Dealing with your own family may seem bad enough, but trying to impress someone else's can lead to even greater disasters. When Wellington chef and nutrition adviser Asher Regan was 18, his then-girlfriend's family invited him to join them at midnight mass. Asher, who was keen to impress, accepted. Unfortunately, he forgot about the chickpeas he'd left cooking on the stove at home.

"Although I'd never been to church before and knew little of the etiquette, I knew immediately that standing up mid-sermon and exclaiming 'oh f***, the chickpeas' was inappropriate behaviour," he remembers.

After explaining the situation to his hosts, they drove him home ("very slowly"). There, he found his parents' 140-year-old wooden house full of thick smoke. The pot's aluminium base had melted off and only its tight-fitting lid had prevented the chickpeas from igniting.

"Needless to say, hummus wasn't on the Christmas menu and the smell of burnt chickpeas lingered well into the New Year," Asher says.

"I took this as an omen and swore to never attend church again."

Celebrated Auckland chef Sid Sahrawat, whose Ponsonby restaurant Sidart was named Restaurant of the Year at the recent Cuisine Good Food Awards, has also sworn to do things differently. Sid, who also owns Cassia and Sid at The French Cafe, is only too aware of the importance of planning and preparation.

Last Christmas, he thought he'd nailed it. He and wife Chand closed all the restaurants the weekend before Christmas and flew to India with their two kids. They were going to land in time to have a family Christmas dinner - a fitting way to start their first holiday there in a decade.

The first flight arrived on time and they caught a domestic flight without incident. Then things started to come undone.

"After two hours in the log jam, we finally made it to the hotel. It was 7pm and the kids were exhausted. We then tried to get an Uber to pick us up to take us to the family Christmas dinner, but the traffic foiled our plans as no Uber, taxi or auto rickshaw could get to the hotel to pick us up. We forgot that Christmas in India is not a day where everything is closed like it is in New Zealand, but a day where everyone is out shopping and clubbing. At 9pm we gave up and ordered room service for our Christmas dinner."

This year, the Sahrawats are staying at home in Auckland and planning a fuss-free barbecue for the big day. Sid says last year's nightmare was a timely reminder of what's important.

"My advice is to start your own Christmas traditions and take the stress out of the celebrations," he says. "Whether you do duck instead of turkey, brownies instead of trifle or a barbecue instead of a sit-down meal; remember it's supposed to be a Merry Christmas. Do it your own way."

*Lucy Corry is a Wellington journalist and recipe writer

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