I was thinking the other day that people just don’t feast like they used to. Back in the days of the Vikings, feasting went on for many days and involved a simple menu of roasting “joints of meat” over open fires and, in a carefree manner, tossing the bones over your shoulder to the waiting hounds. Nobody does that anymore.
I suppose one reason is that the world of work doesn’t allow us the time. Back in 950 A.D. you didn’t have to work 9 to 5 with the weekends off like we do today. Back then work consisted of starting another war or pillaging coastal English or French villages from your longboat. When you were done you could kick back with a micro-brew mead and a leg of lamb and spend days feasting to work up your energy for another raid.
Things have changed. Spouses now also work, which means if you fling that gnawed-clean femur bone over your shoulder you’re likely to be clubbed with it by an angry helpmeet who doesn’t have time to clean up when the feasting is done. Plus, our dogs are no longer allowed to eat like dogs — they now have carefully curated diets. So feasting has changed into a day or two of preparation and a sit-down affair lasting maybe an hour. Then everyone is off to watch football or go to a movie. Vikings, and their dogs, would be shocked by this behavior, except for the football part.
Other things have changed, too. A lot of people out there think the hardest part of planning holiday feasting is getting the guest list right, or at least getting the seating at the table right to minimize the risk of verbal confrontations over politics or religion, as in “Don’t seat Uncle Sven next to Cousin Olav. You know how they always argue about the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church! It’s enough to make Martin Luther roll over in his grave.” I know. I’ve actually been involved in one or two such confrontations. It was then I discovered butter knives come nowhere near broadswords as effective murder weapons.
As someone who enjoys cooking, I have found over the years that menu planning has become even more challenging than preparing guest lists and seating charts. This is because as we get older, we acquire more family and friends, and those family and friends come with an ever-growing and detailed list of dietary preferences and challenges. A holiday menu that served you well for a decade may suddenly pose a conundrum.
The changes are often simple at first. Everyone in the family knows that Uncle Sven has despised asparagus since he was a kid, but as long as there was lutefisk on the table you were good to go.
Then at some point a regular guest or family member announces, “Oh, did I tell you I’ve gone vegan?” This usually happens in the kitchen when you have your arm inside a turkey the size of a city bus searching for the packet of giblets with which to make the gravy. Now the menu must be expanded to accommodate not just a different taste, but an entirely different way of looking at the world of food.
Then there are the food allergies, both real and imagined, and newly acquired medical conditions. My son has been allergic to nuts and shellfish since he was a baby, so it is difficult to find a nut in our house, unless you include my cousin Kenny. But he only shows up for Thanksgiving, so the rest of the year we’re safe. And with age come metabolic changes, such as diabetes, so leave out the sugar.
Most recently there has been a trend toward the politicization of food. We have gone from the vegetarian justification “I don’t eat sentient beings” to “I do not eat beef because cattle fart and methane contributes to global warming.”
That is why I’ve come to rely on a gift my children gave me a few years back. They developed a menu planner for me from an old Rubik’s cube. On each one of the cube faces they wrote things such as “No thanks, I’m vegetarian,” “Allergic to nuts!” “I hate coconut!” “No eggplant,” “Leave out the sugar,” “Crustaceans a no-no!” and “Chocolate makes me lose my lunch!”
So with my Rubik’s cube planner I can now confidently plan menus for all holiday occasions and for everyone invited to my table. Just this year for Thanksgiving I used the Rubik’s cube planner to set up the menu. After factoring in the guest list and carefully aligning all the cubes, the device yielded a menu sure to please everyone at the table: Green beans.