The curse of being terribly polite is that you risk death at every meal.
I do not speak from personal experience here.
When Christmas stopped being about family, which came for me when most of mine were gone, I started going across the village to a friend’s house.
She made the best Christmas dinner ever. Usually teamed with a hefty glug of alcohol, we watched films while she excused herself at intervals to baste the living daylights out of the monster-bird in the oven.
We did not watch the saccharine, cutesy stuff or the day-long epics on television.
We watched zombie movies. Her boyfriend would slip off to the fridge from time to time, and return with yet another can of frosted black for me and two bottles of chilly lager or shelf-fresh ale for himself and his lady.
What followed was a cavalcade of roast bird and acres of stuffing, crunchy but inwardly-yielding roast potatoes, brussel sprouts choked with chestnuts and bacon bits, assorted gorgeous vegetables and the kind of gravy for which you’d sell your grandmother. I seem to remember cheesecake as well.
It was worth a year of noodles and microwave misery for a Christmas like that.
They introduced me to ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ over the cocktail sausages and silly paper hats: for this alone, I’ll be forever in their debt.
While all this cynical merriment was going on in Devon, my uncle who had grown both wary and weary of the long drive to the south-west had his dinner with a lady-friend, and whatever was on Radio 4.
His lady-friend had long yearned for an Aga. This is something that just happens. I don’t know that there’s a particular age associated with it, but an attitude is reached and, from nowhere in particular, the need for convenience and speed dissipates. The glorious, countryside, heart-and-hearth nerves start to jangle and the lower lip quivers and moistens with the idea of an Aga.
My mother had wanted an Aga. (I suppose everyone’s mother wanted an Aga.) Perhaps not so much in Croydon, but as soon as we had birdsong and the potent tang of fertilized fields, it was all she could think about. My father, who was the kindest and most practical man in all the world, knew that an Aga was not a throwaway item, hardly cheap, demanded special lessons and would require regular servicing. As it happened, he had passed before they had to have the conversation and her bubble had to burst.
Not so for my uncle’s lady-friend. She wanted an Aga, and she was in a position to buy herself one. So she did.
For no apparent reason, she resolved to forgo the special cookery lessons and instead, she would work out how to cook on the new and shiny Aga by instinct alone.
She became very proficient at making toast.
I’m not sure that she got as far as coffee before she invited him over.
When I was working at the shop, a lady came in to see the butcher with a view to ordering her Christmas turkey.
“What sort of size did you want, my lovely?” our trained chef-slash-butcher asked.
“I would think around £40,” she replied.
Now, the vast majority of the village population are pre-decimalisation folk. So when the lady said “£40”, the butcher heard “40lb”.
An absolute behemoth-bird arrived in his order. It was enormous. Impossibly big. Good Lord, you could move in.
I suspect, if she hadn’t been looking at a bill for £150 of unnecessary meat, the lady would have been too polite to correct the obvious error. However, with only herself and her husband at home, and a cooker that might have accommodated the legs alone, she had to say something.
He was a good man, our butcher. After twenty minutes of nervous lady-shuffling, he returned with the bird – quartered. The lady was relieved and he sold out within the day.
That was the best thing about our butcher: I couldn’t get through a six-pack of chump chops, so almost unbidden, he would take the packet, remove a couple of chops, repackage them, print out a new label, and just like that – I had a fresh dinner, and he still had sales.
Of course, he did slightly take the shine off his good-guy image by packaging up sheep eyes and putting them in the middle of his display before the school run.
Returning to my uncle, he went to his lady-friend’s for Christmas. It had become a tradition within the family to have turkey (or chicken when there were fewer of us) on Christmas Day, and pork on Boxing Day. The following week would result in several dozen flaked pork sandwiches and turkey curry.
I suspect my uncle was expecting one of the two meats he had come to anticipate. Not so.
His lady-friend had always had a passion for duck. She had never cooked with it, never made a sauce for it, but it was her particular favourite any time she went out to dinner. Whatever else was on a restaurant menu would fall to uneaten obscurity; duck was the be all and end all.
Decided, Aga in place, uncle en route, she was making duck.
The sprouts had been on since dawn; by the time they reached the table, they were brazen mush-nuggets of disappointment. The broccoli was no longer a colour that existed in nature. The carrots had dissolved. Strangely, the potatoes were burnt on the outside, raw and hard on the inside.
And then she brought out the duck. She sliced a thin sliver from the breast, looked at it like a pathologist and handed the fork to my uncle.
“Do you think it’s done?” she asked, nervously.
If nothing else, my uncle is a gentleman.
He took a tiny bite, made unconvincing-happy noises, and said, “Lovely.”
Poor, kind man.
She began carving with gusto. A happy, little smile on her face, she filled half his plate with cold and bleeding duck meat. The other half consisted of nuclear-strength gravy and exploding vegetables.
He was sick as a dog for two weeks.