Magazine

The Christmas turkey naysayers

Five people enjoying beef for Christmas dinner Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption An aversion to turkey is shared by some meat-eaters

It's the centrepiece of the traditional festive dinner. So how do people who don't like turkey cope at Christmas?

It's too dry, the naysayers complain. A bit bland.

Others, having dutifully munched it through umpteen Christmases, are just bored of the stuff.

While traditionalists might be aghast at the thought of Christmas dinner without turkey, there are those who have had quite enough of this gravy-drenched annual custom.

Tell people that you're planning to sit down on 25 December to another dish - beef, say, or ham, or something entirely meat-free - and the reactions can range from bafflement to outrage.

Vegetarians and vegans might be accustomed to being in the minority. But for a meat-eater, defying this particular culinary convention makes you an oddity.

Although the custom is an American import, it dominates British dinner tables each year. The British Turkey Information Service (BTIS) predicts 76% of UK families will serve turkey for their festive meal this year. In 2013 some 10 million Christmas turkeys were sold across the country.

For many, going without is unthinkable. Others may be less keen, yet eat it uncomplainingly out of respect for the seasonal ritual, or in deference to whoever is in charge of the cooking in their household.

But there are those who defiantly choose to opt out.

"I just find it a bit dry, a bit bland," says photography writer Daniela Bowker, 35, of Newmarket, Suffolk. On Christmas day itself she favours egg and chips.

Each year she cooks up a turkey-free Christmas meal at home for like-minded friends.

Lamb, beef and duck have all featured, she says, "but goose is definitely the best. It's luscious and it's succulent and it's full of flavour". It also appeases traditionalists, with its long Yuletide associations and, famously, having appeared on the Cratchit family table in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol during the Ghost of Christmas present sequence.

Image copyright Thinkstock

Her group of festive refuseniks are in good company.

The River Cottage's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall prefers to tuck into aged sirloin on the bone on 25 December, having concluded that turkey simply "isn't up to the job". Tom Kerridge, recipient of two Michelin stars, champions venison.

Flavour is not the only consideration. Groups like Animal Aid and Compassion In World Farming argue that the mass demand for poultry has encouraged intensive farming techniques in which are cruel to the birds (the BTIS says welfare standards in the UK are "among the best in the world").

Arguably, it's easier for vegetarians and vegans. Those who don't eat meat for moral reasons have a good excuse to eschew turkey and, unshackled from tradition, greater leeway to experiment.

"Twenty or 30 years ago there was nothing in the shops for us except sprouts and potatoes," says Patrick Rushton, a management science consultant from Sheffield who has been vegetarian since his late teens.

Now the possibilities are manifold. "It's very liberating," he says. This year his family will, having followed recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi, sit down to a starter of fennel salad followed by a kale and Swiss chard tart.


The turkey alternatives


While Christmas may be an increasingly secular feast, celebrated by Britons of non-Christian faith or no faith at all, the modern multi-cultural UK includes many residents who may celebrate the festival with different cuisine. A British resident of German origin may prefer to mark the occasion by eating stollen, a Scandinavian with gravad lax (cured salmon sprinkled with dill and salt) or an Italian with panettone.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Turkey - "not quite as traditional as many suppose"

In fact, the traditional British Christmas dinner isn't quite as traditional as many suppose. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that the meal became the pre-eminent festive meal, says historian Mark Connelly of the University of Kent.

Much of what we think of as traditional Christmas fare dates back to Victorian times, he says. Beef, chicken, goose and Christmas pies - a three-bird roast which dates back to medieval times and later became known as Yorkshire pie - were common sights on British tables.

While the favoured dishes have changed, December has long been a period of indulgence. In the Middle Ages, Christmas was marked by a 12-day period of feasting.

Mince pies date back to the 14th Century. Boar's head was popular by the Tudor era and plum porridge or pottage was fashionable by the 1570s. The aristocracy favoured game and, latterly, roast beef.


Cooking the turkey - it's all about the baste...

Image copyright Thinkstock

And yet somehow turkey came to predominate. It's commonly believed that the bird was introduced to the British Isles by William Strickland, who acquired six from Native Americans while on a voyage to the New World in 1526.

Popular legend has it that Henry VIII was the first person to have it for Christmas dinner, although Connelly thinks this is "quite unlikely".

Close cultural links with Britain's North American colonies led to its popularisation in the mother country. Turkey is believed to have been eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner attended by colonists and the Wampanoag tribe as early as 1621, and the association between the bird and celebratory feasting crossed the Atlantic.

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol, in which an enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge sends a prize turkey to the Cratchit home to replace their goose, went some way to cement the dish's status.

But the rise of Christmas turkey was chiefly a consequence of economics, Connelly says. Falling cereal prices in the late 19th Century made it possible to feed a turkey up sufficiently to feed an entire family. Advances in technology meant storing and cooking the bird was far easier for the average family.


More from the Magazine

Image copyright Thinkstock

Campaigners say chicken meat needs better labelling. How much do people really know about the life of a chicken before it reaches their plate?

Do people know where their chicken comes from? (23 October)


The subsequent ubiquity of the dish was also reinforced during the 20th Century rise of the mass media, in which no depiction of a Christmas feast was complete without a turkey.

But even if the ubiquity of turkey puts off many diners, it still has its defenders - Connelly among them. It's not dry if you cook it properly, he insists. Plus, he suggests, white meat offers fewer health dangers than red: "If you are going to indulge, it's probably the best thing to indulge with."

But while some would be horrified by the notion of a Christmas dinner in which the main dish was prawn curry, say, or nut roast, a minority would regard it as a blessed relief.

Departing from the turkey convention does throw up at least one dilemma, however - what exactly to make with the leftovers.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics