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When the turkey hits the fan: Christmas dinners gone wrong

Christmas is all about a fabulous meal, right, cooked for days with family around, a long languid lunch spent in the company of the ones you love? Only, sometimes it isn’t. Three North & Southers reflect on their less successful Christmas feasts.

Jean Teng, 2007

I grew up without any Christmas tradition. I never believed in Santa, our closest extended family was 8891km away, and I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to pine trees. My parents observed the holidays with the lackadaisical attitude of non-religious Asian migrants raising Western-assimilated kids. That is, they asked me what I wanted, bought it while I was in the store, wrapped it up, and shoved it under a plastic tree in the name of Christmas. I knew what all my presents were from the age of five. We ate boring, everyday meals on Christmas day.

However, I consumed Western media and its saccharine Hallmark holiday movies with fervour, obsessed with the thought of whole roast turkeys and silky mashed potato. The tables in these movies always looked heaving. With what, I wasn’t sure – I hadn’t grown up on that type of food, and it all looked alien and delicious. That must be the true meaning of Christmas, I thought. Unnervingly beautiful food someone spent the whole day cooking that was devoured over tense, extended-family get-togethers.

One year, my older sisters and I decided we’d try our hand at a “traditional” Christmas lunch: chicken instead of turkey (because turkey just seemed beyond exotic to us), the aforementioned mashed potato of our dreams, and a salad. This was the food we thought of as “Christmas” food, and that seemed about right. We scoured the internet for recipes that didn’t exist in our culinary canon, and for which my mum – a great cook – had no reference.

And, oh, how we slaved. Gravy made from the roast chicken’s drippings, a tablecloth bought from The Warehouse just for this occasion, some Christmas compilation CD playing in the background. It wasn’t until we had all the food laid out that we realised we’d made a grave mistake. Chicken, if you don’t know, is quite a bit smaller than a turkey. And Christmas lunches apparently consist of a lot more than just meat, potato and supermarket garlic bread. In our attempt to adhere to some imaginary Western Christmas ideal we cooked up in our heads, we didn’t realise how little food we were making. It had all seemed so grand and romanticised and lovely – a whole roast chicken! Hand-made mashed potato! Michael Bublé! And, worst of all, my tastebuds rebelled. “I wish I was eating rice right now,” I remember thinking while shovelling up sad, cold, lumpy potato.

Anyway, we went to yum cha afterwards – which, hot tip, is usually open on Christmas – and never attempted a traditional Christmas meal again. Because, honestly, that food blows. Yum cha, I discovered, tastes a whole lot better.

Ben Fahy, 2008

It started with a Crock-Pot. And it ended in disaster; an entirely avoidable disaster that offered yet more evidence I was an impractical imbecile. My general approach to Christmas gifting for many of the fully grown adults in my life is: 1) buy them something completely pointless that will bring a large amount of joy for a small amount of time, like a cheap radio-controlled helicopter; 2) embrace the “experience economy” and give vouchers that the recipients will ideally forget to redeem; 3) re-gift things I have received for free throughout the year (mostly books, sometimes booze, possibly a branded pen, T-shirt or bottle opener.)

And so it was that, circa 2008, I won a Crock-Pot in a golf tournament. At this stage on my culinary journey, I was more of a fast-cooker than a slow-cooker, so I invoked rule #3 and decided my Crock-Pot-less mother, a regular soup maker and renowned stew producer, would be the perfect recipient. I added one of my vouchers for a double scooper from the Patagonia ice cream shop in Arrowtown and her gift was sorted. On the day, she was grateful, but guessed straight away I must have chanced upon it somehow, given my long-held disdain for practical gifts.

One of my go-to, supposedly foolproof meals was lamb shanks on kumara mash with beans, peas and almonds. After a few hours simmering away in a pot, the meat would fall off the bone and everyone loved it. So, a few days after Christmas, I invited my girlfriend’s parents, her sister, my family, and a couple of friends from Dunedin to come for dinner at our holiday home in Arrowtown.

There were 10 people for dinner, so I gathered the ingredients that morning. There was a shortage of large pots, so I got out my mother’s Christmas Crock-Pot and added half of the ingredients. Just as the All Blacks would never trial a new set-piece move without first perfecting it in practice, a chef would presumably never attempt to cook for multiple guests using untested tools. I had never used a Crock-Pot before and this would prove to be my undoing.

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The shanks went in around 2pm. Five of them bubbled away and softened beautifully on the stove, but the five in the Crock-Pot remained worryingly firm. The guests arrived soon after and by 6pm the shanks in the pot were, as expected, almost ready. Unfortunately, I had severely under-estimated the slowness of the slow cooker and the others were a long way off. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I ignored my mother’s clear instructions – and, it turns out, the laws of thermodynamics – took the Crock-Pot out of its casing, placed it on the element and hoped I could still get dinner out at a reasonable time.

Things appeared to be going well. The sauce was bubbling. The beer was cold. The conversation was flowing. I was feeling smug. But then about half an hour later, my mother’s few-days-old present split in half and boiling hot, oily ovine liquid spilled across the bench, onto the floor and across my jandalled feet. Five still-uncooked shanks lay stranded like pilot whales on the stove top. At first there was concern for my welfare, but then the laughter and judgment began. Painful memories from my youth rushed back as I was ridiculed once again for my ineptitude and the familiar refrain of “I told you so” rang out from my disappointed parents.

By the time I had cleaned everything up, it was about 7pm. I put the cooked shanks into a separate dish, added the rescued shanks into the big pot and turned the element up to high, going completely against the concept of slow-cooked food. By about 8.30pm, the guests were getting restless, so I was forced to serve them up. As I sawed and chewed my way through an undercooked shank, I watched with embarrassment as my two friends, my sister and my now-wife sawed and chewed their way through theirs. I could only taste humble pie.

When I called my mother to get her recollections of this oft-mentioned family event, she laughed. Adding insult to injury, she also told me that when she went in to the shop to order a replacement pot a few months later, it ended up being more expensive than buying an entirely new Crock-Pot. I’ve never paid her back for the replacement, so technically she’s still short one present. Well, Merry Christmas, Mum. One voucher, coming right up*.

*Expires Boxing Day

Simon Farrell-Green, 2012 

I spend most Christmases in Auckland but for some reason, in 2012, Mum and I thought we’d go to the bach – I can’t remember why, or even how, but the main thing you need to know about this is that I set off on December 24 without any food, because Mum and I were going to get it in Whitianga.

It was a glorious day. The sun was shining, and there was a tufty sort of a breeze. As I came down Onewa Rd towards the Harbour Bridge, Mum rang – in those pre-Bluetooth days of course, I didn’t answer. And she then rang again twice more. My heart sank, and I answered it on the bridge, a couple of white yachts sailing below me.

My beloved grandmother, Celine, had a stroke that morning at the age of 84. Mum and my aunt Jude were with her. She was sitting down, someone had just cracked a joke, and they were having tea in the good cups. Mum reckons she was there one second, and gone the next. She never woke up.

She was rushed to hospital, and Mum rang me from there. I dropped the dog at a friend’s house in a daze, and then headed for the hospital myself, arriving to find the entire extended family present – we’re Irish, see, we don’t do death alone. Aunts, uncles, ex-aunts, new partners, cousins. Sixteen or 17 of us, crammed into a curtained-off space in the emergency room. Grandma was there, but gone. Breathing, but unresponsive. Comfortable, but slowly dying.

I’d never seen anyone die before; fortunately, I haven’t had to since. We sat in a vigil by her bedside, first in the emergency room until our joking and suppressed snorts of black humour saw us told off by the nurses and asked to leave, until she was moved upstairs about 10pm.

The hospital was quiet. We ate chocolate and salty snacks from the vending machine down the hall. There was a red sign in her room from the previous patient that said NIL BY MOUTH.

Grandma died in the early hours and after saying goodbye and waiting for the undertaker to come we finally got out of the hospital as the sun was coming up. Mum lives on Waiheke Island and there was no ferry for hours. So we drove back to my place through the gathering purple light of dawn and stopped for McDonald’s on Great North Rd – an Egg McMuffin for each of us for Christmas Day breakfast and a guilty “Happy Christmas!” for the poor sods serving us. We slept for a few hours, me on the couch, Mum in the bed, and then managed to scrounge toast from the freezer a few hours later.

Christmas Day: no shops open, and no food in the house, and I had to get the dog. On the way I noticed Paradise on Sandringham Rd was open, so I stopped in for takeaways – a dahl makhani, a vindaloo and a goat curry that was out of this world, with naan and pickles. We set up the table nicely, got the table cloths out and the good glasses my grandparents had given me just a few years before, and I raided my modest cellar for some decent booze, and put the curry in nice bowls. We spent the afternoon drinking champagne and syrah and talking about Grandma.

I can’t let December 24 go past without thinking about that day, and most Christmases I think about how it really isn’t about what you eat or even where you are. It’s about getting the people you love around a table, and remembering everyone you love in life. And maybe getting Indian takeaways.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.