Would you serve a peacock for Christmas dinner?

Professor offers a glimpse into South Carolina's holiday food heritage

The holidays are a time of tradition and family — and, of course, food. Celebrating wouldn’t be the same without our favorite dishes and once-a-year treats, whether it’s eggnog, festive cookies, a turkey dinner with all the trimmings or love-it-or-hate-it fruitcake.

During this season of tradition, it makes sense to serve meals and recipes that connect us with friends, family and memories of years past. We asked English professor and Southern food historian David Shields to indulge us in a bit of nostalgia by offering a glimpse into South Carolina’s holiday food heritage.

The Southern country Christmas breakfast used to be a favorite subject of writers, newspaper reporters and travelers and became something of a genre in magazines in the late 19th century, Shields says.

He cites a Christmas tale by South Carolina novelist William Gilmore Simms titled “Maize-in-Milk” that elaborated the pleasures of a country table in the early 1850s. Some of the dishes Simms mentions appear in every description of a Lowcountry holiday breakfast: rice cakes, rice waffles, cornbread, rye cakes and biscuits, Shields says. In Simms’ story, the meats were cold corned beef and boiled venison and distinctive to his table was black pudding, the Southern answer to the Scottish haggis. Of the black pudding, Simms writes: “You shall find it a goodly commodity, taken along with its kindred, sausage and hominy, when the Yule log is blazing.”

It is the hominy, Shields says, that Simms tells us most about because it was the heart and soul of Christmas breakfast. By hominy the author means “small hominy” or grits. And he is quite precise in his description:

“Now, your yellow corn won’t do for hominy — the color and the flavor are alike against it. It must be the genuine semitransparent flint, ground at a water-mill, white as snow, and swelling out in two huge platters at convenient places upon the table. A moderate portion of each plate is provided with this vegetable, boiled to a due consistency: neither too soft, like mush, nor too stiff, hard, and dry for easy adjustment with a spoon. … The Carolina breakfast-table would be a blank without hominy.”

“One of the disasters of 20th-century agriculture in the coastal South was the loss of the white flint corn that enabled this masterwork of breakfast cuisine,” Shields says. “When the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation undertook a restoration of classic ingredients, sea island white flint corn was high on the list of desired items. We discovered that seed survived in Florida and in South Carolina — maintained by old families.”

He also points out that foods served during Christmastide were often symbolic and that until the 20th century, there were pockets of old believers who built the Christmas feast around the peacock rather than the turkey.

“This kept alive the old English association of the incorruptibility of the peacock’s flesh with the immortality of Christ,” he says.

In the ancient preparation, the peacock was skinned so that its feathers remained intact; after the bird was roasted the plumage would be reattached to make a spectacle on the serving platter. However, the antiquity of this dish was not enough to keep it part of the Christmas feast. Capt. E. Benton of Kershaw, South Carolina, was one of the last to serve peacock for Christmas, doing so in 1900, according to “A Peacock Dinner,” published in The State on Dec. 30 that year.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Christmas meal had evolved into a feast more akin to today’s traditions, Shields says, citing accounts from The State of lavish spreads of turkey, chicken, ham, beef, cakes, pies, plum pudding and mince pie. Christmas hunts for deer, turkeys and ducks were standard well into the 20th century, so venison and duck were often on the holiday table, and in the Lowcountry, oyster soup was the usual first course.

Black rural families kept their own rites: watch night, the firing of guns on Christmas Eve and the contest of shouting “Christmas gift” at someone before he or she shouted it at you, giving the right of commanding a present from someone.

In the mid-19th century, African Americans in the Lowcountry would dress in costumes and ragged clothes on the day after Christmas and travel from house to house, dancing and demanding refreshment.

“How this West Indian carnival tradition, known as John Coonahs, transferred to Christmas is not exactly clear, but it was recorded in some detail in Ladies Home Journal,” Shields says.

Although some bygone food customs may seem unusual for today’s holiday tables, you can make a nod to the past by preparing traditional hominy for Christmas breakfast. Flint corn grits are available at Anson Mills, 1922-C Gervais St., Columbia.

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