Where: Smithsonian Folklife Festival
When: a typical steaming-hot day in early July 2009
Who: six cooks from Wales
The challenge: to prepare and present an entire traditional Welsh Christmas lunch between 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. in the Taste of Wales kitchen (the hottest place)
Whose crazy idea was this?
“Christmas in July” was the fevered brainchild of curator Betty Belanus, but the Welsh cooks—including coordinators Angela Gray and Hazel Thomas, as well as chefs Anthony Evans, Geraldine Trotman, Gareth Johns, and Ana Rees—took on the challenge with gusto. Foodways coordinator Beverly Simons, a veteran of many Folklife Festivals, had no choice but to become deeply involved in the challenge as well. Planning began several days ahead of time, as the cooks made a list of everything they would need for The Feast.
Top of Beverly’s shopping list: the Christmas goose. She started her search with the usual meat purveyors in the area, but they all wanted to sell her a dozen geese and she only needed one. While Anthony was threatening to procure a goose from a pond near the hotel, Beverly, on a whim, stopped at Balducci’s gourmet market in Bethesda, Maryland. “I said to the man, ‘By any chance do you have a goose?’ and he said ‘Oh yeah I’ve got a couple in the freezer.’ I said, ‘I’ll buy it, I don’t care how much it costs.’ I called Angela on the phone and said, ‘Hey, I got your goose!’”
The biggest cooking challenge of the day was not the goose, but an additional fowl mash-up: the “bird within a bird within a bird,” which Anthony and Gareth labored over as the centerpiece of the presentation. A holiday tradition similar to “turducken,” this involves stuffing a smallish bird and inserting it into two progressively larger birds: in this case, a stuffed quail inside a pheasant inside a chicken. Hazel recalls the scene: “This is quite a feat to create and takes a lot of skill and respect in the handling of the various cooking requirements for each bird. I can still visualize the concentration on Gareth’s face as he worked on this dish.”
The menu also included foods that do not usually grace the tables of either Washington, D.C., or Wales in July: potatoes roasted in fragrant goose fat, cauliflower with a rich cheese sauce, game pie, and a picture-perfect Christmas pudding. The cooks took turns demonstrating these traditional Welsh Christmas dishes, while Angela explained the dishes and fielded questions from the rapt audience throughout the day.
The cooks not only planned and expertly executed the Christmas lunch; they also decorated the demonstration area with a banner displaying “Merry Christmas” in Welsh: Nadolig Llawen. To get further into the spirit, the folk choir Parti Cut Lloi visited the kitchen and graced the audience with some Welsh Christmas music, including plygain songs common at all-night holiday gatherings.
To get some sense of the hard work this challenge produced, Angela recalls: “The heat is always at a high in the kitchen, but never as intense as it was on that day—phew! I remember in between courses soaking our feet in ice water at the rear of the tent.”
At the end of the day, the delicious Christmas feast was ready, and the heat-flushed cooks presented their handiwork. Angela remembers the feeling of gratification: “The audience got so excited at the sight of the feast. It was quite a moment, as they stood and loudly applauded us for our efforts!” Due to National Mall regulations, the general public could not partake in the meal, but when it was brought to the back of the Taste of Wales tent, hungry Festival staff and volunteers descended upon it—the lovely golden brown birds reduced to a pile of bones and the Christmas pudding dish practically licked clean.
“The Festival will always have a special place in my heart,” Angela says. “Lifelong friendships were forged there, we learned a lot about ourselves, our own culture, and of course we discovered the Smithsonian, the city of Washington and were privileged to be there and part of it all. Back home in Wales at the [cooking] school, I have just finished a run of festive themed events, and once again I had the opportunity to impart some tales from our time at the Festival, and people love them.”
Hazel adds, “As I start planning for my own Christmas lunch this year in Wales, I will raise a glass to you all at the Smithsonian and to those fond memories you helped create. There will always be a little part of me which longs for those shared moments in your Smithsonian kitchen tent. Time and distance may separate us but my heart will always beat a song of friendship and love for you all. Nadolig Llawen i chi gyd a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!”
Hazel Thomas’s Holiday Cauliflower Cheese
1 large head of cauliflower
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons plain flour
2 ½–3 cups of milk
Seasoning of your choice, to taste
½ cup of grated cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F
2. Slice or pull the head of cauliflower into small florets.
3. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and put the cauliflower in; cook until the stalks are tender without reducing the florets to a mush.
4. Once the cauliflower reaches the required point, immediately douse with cold water, drain, and arrange in an oven-proof dish.
5. Make the cheese sauce:
• Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan and add the flour, mixing well. Cook the mixture until pale in color and dry, but do not allow to brown.
• Keep the pan on a moderate heat and slowly add the milk, whisking continuously to ensure a smooth sauce.
• Simmer gently to ensure the flour cooks out, and then add seasoning.
• Add the grated cheese, setting some aside for later. Keep on a very low heat and do not allow boiling.
• The cheese will thicken the sauce; adjust as needed with more milk until the sauce is thick enough to cover the cauliflower.
• Pour sauce over cauliflower and sprinkle some grated cheese on top.
• Place in the oven until the cauliflower is heated through and the cheese has browned on the surface of the sauce.
Variation: Add broccoli to the cauliflower and arrange in alternative colors before covering with the cheese sauce.
Betty Belanus curated the Welsh program of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She and her family lived in Wales for four months in 2007 and enjoyed the local cuisine and holiday traditions, including plygain singing at the St Fagans National History Museum.
Shannon Davis is an anthropologist and intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with a particular enthusiasm for foodways around the world—especially if it involves sampling said food.