Every year at Christmas time, thousands of South Africans insist on cooking and eating a dry, less flavoursome chicken because “it’s traditional”. For most, it’s the only time of year they’ll eat the giant American bird.
Why do people do this? We have our own giant flightless bird to eat. Ostrich meat is richer in protein, tastier and doesn’t take six hours to cook. It might not fit on the dining room table, but it goes really well with gravy and cranberry sauce (if you insist).
Why is turkey traditional here? It’s not a universal Christmas meat. Most countries have a smorgasbord of ham, fish lamb or beef and their own unique Christmas comestibles.
I happily grew up in a Mediterranean-inclined household where slow-roasted Greek lamb and roast chicken (preceded by copious amounts of champagne and orange juice) was the order of the day.
Every Christmas my grumpy English grandmother would say, “Oh, we’re not having turkey?” She would also refuse to have any lamb, “Too much garlic for me.” It’s testament to my mom’s patience that she never told her mother-in-law where to get off. She did however stuff the roast chicken with loads of garlic, especially for Gran.
My brother’s girlfriend is of Polish descent and they have bisgos stew. It takes three days to cook and usually contains cabbage, beef, cabbage, pork, cabbage, mushrooms, cabbage and anything else lying around. They also have carp. Yes, carp, soaked in water then vinegar for a week before Christmas. And I thought Greek Easter’s painted eggs were odd.
It seems that in South Africa most people have dishes particular to their cultural heritage, but most of the time there’s the obligatory turkey. My husband’s extended Afrikaans family always have chicken pie and a shredded lamb concoction that offends all my taste sensibilities. Everybody prefers the other dishes, even the cruelly masticated lamb, but they all feel obliged to have some stuffed bird too.
I think it’s time we freed ourselves of this turkey tyranny. Our local lamb, beef, chicken and ostrich meat is exceptionally good and does not bow down to a hegemonic American ideal of what constitutes Christmas lunch.
As for the hideous evil that is Christmas pudding, only my father likes that. And that’s because my English grandmother made him eat it.