December 18, 2014

The Christmas Goose – or was it Buffalo Tongue?

Molly Kruckenberg, Research Center Manager

Food is an important part of celebrations.  From eggs at Easter to cold lemonade on Independence Day to turkey and cranberries on Thanksgiving, food is integral to how we celebrate together.  Christmas food, while not as prescribed as the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, certainly has its customs.  Whether you have ham or turkey or roast beef on Christmas day, there are probably mashed potatoes that accompany it, along with lots of pies and cookies.

Like most traditions, though, the food that we eat on the holidays has changed over time.  In 1882 Nannie Alderson planned a Christmas feast in her new home on a ranch near Lame Deer.  The highlight of her meal was fresh oysters, which she had arranged for a neighbor, who was traveling to Miles City, to bring back.  She set a lovely Christmas dinner table, decorated with pine cones, wild rose berries, and her grandmother's silver candlesticks. The dish of scalloped oysters were front and center.*

The cover of the Christmas menu at the Grand Central Hotel, Helena, MT, 1889
(courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center;
see entire menu here on the Montana Memory Project

In 1889, the Grand Central Hotel in Helena served Christmas dinner with a multitude of foods.  There were a few of the traditional foods we see today on their menu, such as mashed potatoes and stuffed goose.  But some of the foods served would not be seen on a holiday menu today, including green turtle soup, smoked buffalo tongue, and braised calve's brains with truffles.  There wasn’t a single pumpkin pie for dessert, but they did serve a Christmas plum pudding.

Whether you are eating turkey and mashed potatoes or stuffed buffalo tongue and oysters, the MHS wishes you Happy Holidays and pleasant eating!

(* Unfortunately for Nannie and her guests, the oysters had been tainted before they were frozen.  Nannie recollected that, "In spite of the bad oysters, we did have a merry time before the disastrous effects began to appear.")