Holiday Food Mysteries

By Nell Birch and Andrea Zhu

Every year on the holiday table strange dishes appear, only to disappear again in a few weeks, leaving little but strange aftertastes behind. While we have often gamely tried these dishes after the urging of our various relatives, we decided to do a little digging to answer our questions about these strange foods. What exactly were we putting in our mouths? Where did these odd recipes come from? And what on earth does mincemeat actually contain? Herein lie the creation stories of five famous holiday staples. Enjoy the broadening of your mind and your palate.

Eggnog: For those who only know of eggnog through its presence on the Starbucks holiday menu, it could sound vaguely unpleasant and suspicious. It is, in fact, a drink made from milk, cream, sugar, and bourbon, brandy, Kahlua, vodka, whiskey, or rum, with whipped eggs added for a frothy texture. This combination is so delicious that in 1826, twenty US military cadets were court-martialed for smuggling whiskey onto the premises to make it and then starting what is now known as “the Eggnog Riot.” Try the non-alcoholic version for a less rowdy response.

Treacle: Often mentioned in the classic, opulent Christmas scenes in Harry Potter, treacle sounds appealing but is left unexplained. In the Middle Ages, triacle referred to an apothecary antidote containing many mysterious ingredients. Today, treacle is a bit more delicious: a syrup made from the leftover liquid in the process of sugar refining. It can come in a dark-colored, slightly bitter form, but the paler, golden-colored syrup is what is used to make the famous treacle tart. This English dessert involves a shortbread crust filled with a mixture made from treacle, bread crumbs, and lemon juice. No wonder Harry and his friends loved it so much.

Mincemeat: Mincemeat started its life as a simple mix of “minced” meat with added dry fruit, but eventually evolved to the more modern dessert variation. Although mincemeat pies are a traditional Christmas dish, they can be an acquired taste. While sweet, the pies often have a bitter edge — much like marmalade — that can be off-putting. In general when faced with mincemeat pies, eating the surrounding crust is the safer, and more appealing, way to go.

Welsh rarebit: Although the name implies meat, perhaps little bits of rare meat, this dish is actually similar to grilled cheese. It consists of a cheddar cheese sauce poured over slices of toast and then broiled to make a kind of deconstructed, open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. When meat was too expensive for many in Wales, cheese was considered the poor man’s “meat,” and the dish “Welsh rabbit” was named jokingly. Somewhere along the centuries the name was changed to “rarebit,” and so the misleading name has stayed.

Plum pudding: Most recognizable as the flaming shape that appears on the table after a holiday meal, plum pudding is a classic Yuletide dessert. The pudding, actually a steamed cake, contains not plums, but rather raisins, because “plum” was the name for raisins in Victorian England. The original pudding recipes called for meat; adding dried fruit to meat significantly elongated its shelf life and made it possible to preserve meat throughout the winter. The original mix was much like that of mince pies, but plum pudding has since evolved to become a steamed cake rather than a pie. Occasionally, as part of the holiday cheer, a golden coin is added to the pudding, and the lucky recipient of this tooth-breaking addition can look forward to a (supposedly) lucky year.