Entertaining for the Holidays Old Virginia Style, Part 2

Natural fruit wreath in Colonial Williamsburg. Christmas door decoration.

My thanks to two great Virginia businesses for this year’s new contributions to the recipe collection at Red Barn View. First to Silverback Distillery owner Denver Riggleman in Afton Mountain for his initial gift of Blackback Honey Bourbon, and then to Caroline’s own Sassafras Vineyard for their creation of Caroline Red, which is my new “go to” for use in mulling, cooking, and serving guests at Holiday Dinner Parties.

When last I left my esteemed readers a month ago, we were about to celebrate Thanksgiving here at my home, Red Barn View. In Part 1, I noted that in the rural south, the Holiday Season often began with the completion of the harvest in November, and lasted through Christmas and Epiphany on January sixth. Visitors from farmstead to farmstead stayed to celebrate through the new year due to weather and impassable roads, but this was not the only reason for the elongated season. These traditions, as we shall see, go back before the founding of the colony.

When one thinks of celebrating a Virginia Christmas, images of Colonial Williamsburg come to mind. Beautiful as it is, however, the colonists of long ago would recognize little of what is seen there in the way of decoration if they were to be magically transported to Duke of Gloucester Street.

Those incredible designs using fruits, nuts, and other objects from the natural world were actually born in the 1930s during the early years of the restoration of Williamsburg. They are heavily borrowed from Italian designs of the 1400s, and also from architectural English woodcarvings of the 1700s in Great Britain. Items like pineapples and oranges were highly prized in early America, and would not have been allowed to deteriorate on a door or in a table arrangement. These designs, now on their way to becoming a century old, have become a firm and beloved part of our Virginia traditions. Every several years or so, I use real evergreens on the outside of our Colonial Revival home and decorate them with fresh fruit.

The celebration of the birth of Christ as we know it today in Virginia was an evolutionary process imbued with the wonderful foundations of the traditions that began in the countries where our immigrants originated. The memories the colonists had of traditional English Christmases, with the hanging of evergreens and wassail bowls, would have a huge influence on how the holiday would come to be. Later, in the Valley of Virginia in the mid 1750s, the influence of German immigrants brought the traditions of Kris Kringle aka St Nickolas, and our beloved Christmas tree.

Albert, Victoria, and children.

These images were ripe to be imprinted upon the American psyche when engravings appeared in our newspapers in 1840 of the German consort of England’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, happily trimming a Christmas tree with his children.

The same can be said for Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, The Night Before Christmas, and the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1881, Nast’s drawing upon Moore’s descriptions created the jolly ole elf himself, and an icon was born. Americans, including Virginians by this time, were not entirely unfamiliar with these old world traditions.

Very early Virginians, however, celebrated in a simpler way, especially since the jury was still out on whether Christmas should be considered a celebration at all. While Virginians did not adhere to the Puritans’ idea in New England that Christmas should be illegal, many looked on it as a somber occasion and religious holiday, period. Writings from Colonial Virginia speak of spending the day in church; however, it seems that in the days afterward there was time for feasting and merrymaking.

Remember, in the 1600s in England the birthday of the Lord was still a melting pot of Christian and ancient Celtic and Roman celebrations which also began with the ending of the harvest a month or more earlier.

One theory for the choice of December 25th as the birthday of Jesus, is that sometime around the year 336, the church fathers in Rome were attempting to win both the day and souls by competing, and thus drawing converts from one of the most raucous celebrations of the old Roman pagan world. This was known as Saturnalia, the winter solstice or longest night of the year. The celebration of the solstice incorporated the hanging of holly and evergreens, and so this tradition was absorbed into what was declared then as the Feast of the Nativity.

The popularity of the Feast of the Nativity soon found its way to Britain and then to Scandinavia, where it melted into the old Norse celebration of feasting and dancing, called Yule, held the same time of year. By the 9th Century King Alfred of England extended the days of observing the Nativity to 12th night on January 6th, and by the 11th century texts began to refer to celebrating Christ’s mass. No matter how the feasting and dancing and merrymaking were frowned upon by the church, the customs of the Old World were never quite forgotten and have certainly won out today.

All this was helped along by the famous storyteller Charles Dickens who, during a time when many British and American families lacked the resources for lavish Christmases, published a story about the holiday. The story that we all know, A Christmas Carol, reminded the public that the true gifts of Christmas are in the spirit and joy of giving from the heart. The book, published in 1843, would have a profound and lasting effect on how we celebrate Christmas.

Christmas in Virginia
What is interesting to note when we turn to Christmas in Virginia is that the accounts that early Virginians recordered in their letters and diaries about this holiday are truly scarce. When taken as whole, one can surmise that in the days before the Revolution, Christmas Day was one of quiet attendance at church and the feasting and merrymaking to different degrees, held in the days that followed.

The earliest account comes from Captain John Smith who tells us how he kept Christmas in 1609:

“Christmas amongst the Salvages: where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle, and good bread, nor better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”

Some seventy plus years later in 1680, an ancestor of mine, Colonel William Fitzhugh, known to us as “The Immigrant” and legendary for his Virginia hospitality, had the occasion to entertain at Christmas in his elegant home called Bedford. Among his twenty guests that night in his mansion on the banks of the Potomac was a certain French traveler named Durand du Dauphine who wrote:

“There was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so there was a great deal of carousing.” Fitzhugh provided for entertainment “three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope walker, and an acrobat who tumbled around.”

Thomas Jefferson tells us in 1762 that Christmas was a “day of greatest mirth and jollity.” A few years later, Jefferson recorded that he spent 48 shillings for Christmas presents.

In 1765, Royle’s Virginia Almanac put forth the following:

Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round, and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry, now provide
To feast thy neighbors at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with mirth conclude the Year.

Just a year earlier, we find an account from traveler Nicholas Cresswell who kept a diary and wrote of his visit to Alexandria on December 25, 1774: “Christmas Day but little regarded here.” He later, however added this description of a ball that he attended on Twelfth Night:

There was about 37 Ladys Dressed and Powdered to the like, some of them very handsom, and as much Vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of Dancing. But I do not think they perform it with the greatest elleganse. Betwixt the Country Dances they have What I call everlasting Jiggs.

Some of the best accounts of the planter’s Christmas come from Philip Vickers Fithian who held the post of tutor to the Carter children of Nomini Hall in Virginia. He wrote about his first Virginia Christmas experience on December 18, 1773:

“Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas. I almost think myself happy that my Horses lameness will be sufficient Excuse for my keeping at home on these Holidays.”

Christmas day itself was spent peacefully except, as he noted, he “was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House.” He treated his servants to a “Christmas Box” and wrote that the dinner was “no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to.”

Yet another Virginia Almanac in the mid 1770s published these thoughts about Christmas in December:

“This Month much Meat will be roasted in rich Mens Kitchens, the Cooks sweating in making of minced Pies and other Christmas Cheer, and whole Rivers of Punch, Toddy, Wine, Beer, and Cider consumed with drinking. Cards and Dice will be greatly used, to drive away the Tediousness of the long cold Nights; and much Money will be lost at Whist Cribbage and All fours.”

Recipes For Today
While cards and dice have been replaced by tablets, televisions, iPhones, and other accouterments of our age, we are still roasting meats, making pies, and concocting toddies, punch, and special drinks during the Christmas season. While accounts are sparse, there is no doubt eating special foods and specially prepared drinks are a large part of the heritage of Virginia Christmases. Here are a few from my house.

Libations, Winter drinks, and Muddling
A new book this year, an early Christmas present from me to me entitled Winter Cocktails, provided quite a bit of inspiration on what to serve on a cold winter’s day.

Who knew that Hot Toddies originated as cold remedies? Who knew that smashing ingredients in your cocktail shaker with the back of a spoon to release the flavors like fresh ginger and cranberries was called Muddling and considered an art? One must “bruise,” not destroy, those fresh ingredients.

I tried several Toddies in this book, all using Virginia’s own Silverback Distillery’s Blackback Honey Bourbon, truly one of the best bourbons on the market anywhere today. Thanks to our friend Denver Riggleman, owner of Silverback, for making this amazing Bourbon.

The Denver Riggleman Hot Toddy
Pour 1 ½ tablespoons of honey in four warmed mugs. Stir in 2 ounces each of Blackback Honey Bourbon and fill the remainder of the cup with boiling water. Garnish with lemon slices. Make sure to use Red Barn View Honey!

Two hot toddies or glasses of lemon spice tea with cinnamon sticks, lemon slices, and honey. The drinks are on a tray on a wooden table with a teapot in the background.

At Christmas time, I also like to serve to my family what was said to be a favorite offering at Mount Vernon by Martha Washington, Mulled Wine. This is the recipe still used there today although with my crew, I double or triple the ingredients, and I don’t boil as suggested. I simmer for at least an hour.

I am using Sassafras Shade’s Caroline Red, produced right here in Caroline County. It’s a super rich, smooth blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin, perfect for mulling. Having experimented with already mixed mulling spices, I highly recommend those made by Crown which have just the right amount and mix of spices for two full bottles of wine. Crown mulling spices also make a fabulous hot or cold mulled cider.

Mount Vernon Mulled Wine
1 bottle Virginia made red wine
3 pints water
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoons cloves
6 dashes bitters
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Homemade Hot Buttered Rum for the Holidays

On Christmas and into the new year, especially if there is snow on the ground, I have another vintage favorite I like to serve, Hot Buttered Rum. Winter Cocktails had a great twist on an old recipe, adding vanilla bean butter. The addition of butter probably sounds like an odd ingredient but just as the book points out, butter turns the liquid into a silky texture. Note: I use a tsp of butter not a tablespoon as suggested by most recipes. It does just fine.

Hot Buttered Rum
Make your vanilla bean butter first. Mix well the following ingredients: 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 vanilla bean pod, seeds scraped out (you can also used ½ tsp real vanilla extract), 1½ tablespoons brown sugar, pinch each of salt, cinnamon, and mace.

Warm four cups or mugs.

Stir together 6 ounces of dark rum and 3 cups of hot water. Place one tsp. vanilla butter in each mug and top with your rum and hot water.

Christmas Dragoon Punch

A new addition to our holiday menu this year and one that was well received is a vintage punch (not originally from Virginia) made from tea. The members of Charleston’s 19th-century Light Dragoon militia were legendary for their social and party skills and this was one of their favorite libations. The recipe called for four extra quarts of Brandy, but even one quart when I experimented was too much. Here is my version.

Dragoon Punch
4 cups raw sugar
3 cups fresh lemon juice from about 24 lemons
4 quarts black tea
1 quart Bermuda or Barbados rum
1/2 pint peach brandy
Peels of 6 lemons, cut into slivers
1 1/2 quarts soda water

Combine sugar, lemon juice, tea, rum, peach brandy, and lemon peels in a large bowl. Stir until sugar is dissolved and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Add ice and top with soda water before serving. Alternatively, top each glass with 1 ounce of soda water before serving.

This year, in addition to our new punch recipe, I tried several new appetizers. The Pears and Prosciutto I highly recommend as it’s quick, easy, and oh so tasty. The stuffed mushrooms take a bit more time, but worth it. Add a really nice round of Brie, top with real maple syrup, bake in the oven and your appetizers are complete. Baked Brie is a staple of any appetizer course served here at Red Barn View.

Invest in a cheese baker, as it takes all the “thinking” away and can sit warm and yummy in your oven until you are ready to serve. This year I added pumpkin dip and apples (it’s good for you) and is another easy to prepare appetizer. Melt a bar of cream cheese or bring to room temperature, and add apple pie spice to taste, pumpkin puree, and a dash or two of maple syrup. You can also use canned pumpkin.

Stuffed Mushrooms
1 cup crabmeat
1 bar of cream cheese
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1/2 cup green onions, chopped
6 tablespoons Parmesan and a little extra for topping
House Seasoning, recipe follows
12 to 15 large mushrooms
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Nonstick cooking spray
House Seasoning:
1 cup salt
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup garlic powder

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine the crabmeat, cream cheese, parsley, green onions, and Parmesan. Season with House Seasoning, to taste. Stuff the mushroom caps with the mixture and top with more Parmesan. Spray the tops with nonstick spray to help them brown. Transfer to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the filling is hot and melted.

Pears and Prosciutto
Makes 18 appetizers

1 bundle arugula leaves
3 ripe pears — I use Bosc
1 lemon
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 slices prosciutto

Quarter the pear lengthwise and remove the core. Cut the quarters in half again. Dress the pear with the juice of 1/2 lemon, thyme leaves, lightly salt and pepper. Place a few leaves of greens on each slice of prosciutto with a slice of pear and roll up into a tight bundle. A cocktail toothpick will help to keep your bundle tight.

Roast Christmas duck with thyme and apples

Roasted Duck from Caroline’s Rappahannock River
(Thanks to my friend Mary Motley who lives on the river and her family for providing our ducks this year)

2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp paprika
5-6 lb. duck
4 small apples
¼ cup honey
1/2 cup fresh orange juice, strained
2 tbsp lemon juice, strained

Mix together your salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.

Remove the insides of your duck, rinse and pat dry. Rub the entire duck with the spice and salt mixture. Remove the core from your apples and cut into halves. Fill your duck with apples and tie the legs with kitchen twine. Put the duck (upside down) into a roasting pan. Whisk together the honey, orange juice, and lemon juice and set aside. Cook your duck 350 degrees for 45 minutes, then turn it to the front and roast for another 50 minutes. Remove from oven and pour your glaze over the duck and let sit for about 20 minutes before serving.

Corn Pudding with Silverback Honey Bourbon
Will feed 8-10

5 large eggs
1/3 cup butter, melted.
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup Honey Bourbon
1/2 cup half/half
3 (15.25-ounce) cans whole kernel corn

Lightly whip your eggs together with the half/half. Stir in the remaining ingredients, adding the corn last and pour into a 3 quart casserole dish. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 50 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and always allow corn pudding to sit for at least 10 minutes.

Christmas Green Beans
This is my very own recipe adapted from trial and error and a number of similar recipes found online. The sun dried tomatoes add the holiday color and a savory good taste. These are really pretty served in a silver dish.

3 pounds green beans, trimmed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Two bunches of shallots/Spring onions, minced
1 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes
Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (optional)
½ cup Kraft Poppy Seed Dressing
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons chopped almonds

In a covered, microwave-safe dish, microwave the trimmed green beans with a little water for 2 minutes. Set beans aside. This is optional. I like my green beans crunchy so I omit this step.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook 2 minutes. Add the beans and sauté about 5 to 7 minutes, until tender. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper and Poppy Seed Dressing. Remove from heat and transfer to serving dish. Top with chopped almonds and serve.

The New Year
For the final installment of Entertaining Old Virginia Style, for the New Year I’ll share thoughts on the history of the venerable sport of Foxhunting in the Commonwealth in honor of my great-grandfather five times removed, Thomas Grffin Thornton.

“Griffin,” as he was called was High Sheriff of Caroline County and the most famous fox hunter of his day in early 1800s Virginia. I’ll include my favorite Hunt Breakfast menu and recipes which I have used often, not only for New Year’s Day, but other events as well.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas from Red Barn View!