Canned Turkey and other Christmas Meals of the Past

As well as hanging up the Christmas Decorations, sorting out the presents, and writing those cards, thoughts often turn to food at this time of year. We are used to our Christmas turkey with all the trimmings, or a vegetarian equivalent. However, this may not always have been the case. There are a few references in the archives to Christmas meals over the years.

In the nineteenth century food may have been plentiful for some of the wealthier families living in the large country houses, and it seems that in 1835 the Lee Warner family were happy to share their provisions. The estate book of WW Lee Warner (NRO, BUL 7/5) contains a note of the meat the family gave away at Christmas. It talks about how they divided 2 sheep into joints including 2 heads, 4 legs, 4 shoulders, 4 loins, 4 necks and 4 breasts. Presumably some of the joints were already divided up, as they managed to get 4 necks from 2 sheep. The joints were then divided up even further to give out to local people, Guy Mace and boys received 1 shoulder, whilst Matthew Bales, Betty Wich, Mr Crane and Nathaniel George each received ½ breast, though it states that ‘first a small piece to be taken off for B Betts’

However, meat was not always plentiful. In Second World War Britain meat was often in short supply. This may have come as a shock to some of the American Servicemen over here fighting in the United States Army Air Force. The men were used to a fairly good diet compared to many of the British citizens, being able to get their hands on candy amongst other goods. However, the experiences of Robert Jacobs of the 93rd Bomb Group (NRO, MC 371/882/65), shows that as soon as the men were off base choices were much more limited. In his memoirs recorded in c.1985 Robert talks about how he got food poisoning from eating a canned turkey dinner in a pub near RAF Cheddington, Buckinghamshire in 1943.

Christmas dinner on the base was considerably more aimed at an American palette. The Christmas menu for the 392nd bombardment group in 1944 included roast turkey or baked ham, mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, sage dressing, creamed corn, candied sweet potatoes and creamed asparagus (NRO, MC 371/220/1, USF 4/6). For pudding men could choose between pumpkin pie or apple pie cake and fresh fruit. This could all be washed down with, beer or tomato juice and followed up with coffee.

christmas menu-ed

Christmas menu for 392nd Bomb Group. NRO, MC 371/220/1


Whatever you are having for Christmas dinner this year, enjoy and don’t forget to think back to the Christmas meals of the past. See you in the New Year!

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