The Christmas rituals of carving and serving

featured imageChristmas Day couldn’t be the same for me without my carving set and enormous serving plate. A few years ago, while researching my book The Modern Kitchen, I started noticing these huge platters on eBay. They are not by any means beautiful pieces of china. These are thick, coarse ware — made from a rough material not much better than plaster and looking, from their overwrought patterns, to be Victorian or early 20th century. I couldn’t quite fathom why there were so many but found myself oddly drawn to them, bought a few and tried to find out more. The patterns were not the delicately applied enamel and gold leaf of the great potteries but usually some kind of cheap transfer, rarely applied without small tears and folds. Some were rough approximations of traditional Chinese willow pattern, others had strange mottoes or quite random images. Many of the larger versions don’t sit completely flat on the table — they would have been rejected as “second” or “third” quality items at the kiln — and the glaze is thick and pocked with bubbles. My favourite, the one this year’s turkey will sit on, comes from my mother’s side of the family. It’s about 50cm across and the most identifiable colour in it is brown.   The frankly surreal image features songbirds, irises, a duck and a boat (according to my daughter, there’s also a floating mine and a seaman vomiting over the side). To complete the complex visual narrative, there’s an Etruscan vase filled with dog roses, a spider’s web and a fan decorated with, or so the caption says, the “birthplace of Burns”. Big oval serving plates were popular prizes at fairs and affordable wedding gifts in Victorian England, where as well as sitting throughout the week on the dresser and brightening up the parlour, they would be used to serve the Sunday roast. This was a key element in a well-managed household. Something to be aspired to, like a properly leaded grate or a gleaming doorstep, and a highly valued symbol of societal conformity. The carving set was also a common wedding gift. It usually comprised a knife, a two-pronged fork and a steel for sharpening. Today, it’s rare to find a full set, as an essential part of the weekly ritual was father ineptly scraping the knife up and down the steel before diving into the joint. Few knives survive that sort of attention. I wondered, for a long time, what happened to them all, until falling into conversation with a dealer. At most antiques fairs, she pointed out, there is a stall selling magnifying glasses and letter openers in suspicious profusion. Traders would buy up the old carving sets, useless now their knives were ground to a rat-tail, and fit the handles to reproduction magnifiers manufactured in bulk in Asia.   The carving set, for me, is an immensely potent symbol of a certain kind of middle-class Britishness. It equips the father, at the head of the table, to act out the role of the Victorian paterfamilias — the Dickensian icon — judiciously dividing among his grateful family the bounty that his toil and acumen have provided. All but the very finest sets will bear deeply incised “hallmarks” that, on closer examination, read “EPNS” — electro-plated nickel silver — a thin surface of silver over cheaper metal. The handles will be white plastic or “bone” in imitation of costly ivory or deer horn, hinting at aristocratic shooting estates and sumptuous feasts of game. It would be hard to conceive of objects more perfectly designed to signify wealth and status, and yet these sets lurked at the back of the sideboard in every home in the land from the stately to the terraced. My carving set is not an heirloom. Our own was sharpened to death a generation ago. But this set spoke to me in a street market in a small Welsh town. It was almost identical to the one I’d seen my grandfather use. It is a little odd as it doesn’t contain a sharpening steel. As a result, the knife blade is intact and I’ve been able to sharpen it back to life.   For me the most emotive element of the set is the box in which it sits. Thick cardboard, still bearing the label “stainless table cutlery manufactured in Sheffield, England”, but repaired over and over again with library tape. Treasured, cared for and protected — quite possibly the only objects of value in their first owner’s household, rarely used, kept “for best” and handed down. As a nation, we Brits are strangely embarrassed by ritual display. Other cultures have formal, significant meals and ceremonies around sharing food and breaking bread. Here, a “proper” Sunday lunch and Christmas dinner are the last places we still pull out all the stops, suppress our natural reserve and actually feast. Having spent a couple of years researching the objects we cook and eat with, I have become increasingly obsessed with the significance of family eating tools — particularly the everyday ones, those so well used that we hardly notice them any more. I haven’t a spiritual bone in my body and practise no religion with my family, but now we understand their history, our plate and carving set have begun to regain their importance. The liturgical objects of our last family ritual.


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