This holiday season we will hear again the old Christmas carols and festive songs full of food. This list of Christmas treats may seem rather dull to modern appetites: wassail, egg nog, sugarplums, plum pudding, roasted chestnuts, mincemeat and, of course, fruitcake. Why would our ancestors have thought these items so special that they heralded such delicacies in songs? Where are the double dipped chocolate peanut butter cups? Or the boxes of colored sugar-coated marshmallow trees?
Food used to be simpler. All tiny Tim needed to get excited 100 years ago was the mention of goose. And sugar plums amazed children in the night so much that they couldn’t sleep. Fruit, nuts, juice and wine were good enough for a century of American and English Christmas revelers. Even until 50 years ago fruit was exciting. My mom remembers opening her stocking Christmas morning and finding an orange. Then my mother explained the rarity of an expensive orange, especially in the little town in the cold upper peninsula of Michigan. Still, to my sister and me it seemed weird to get excited about an orange.
The power of simple pleasures, and American excess, became apparent to me a few years ago when I went to Peru. One day I got a craving for chocolate cake the moist kind with gooey chocolate butter cream frosting. So I went to the outdoor market and looked for a piece. I wondered through the tents and looked through each stall. When I would see a glass case my hopes would rise I would get excited; but each time no cake lay inside. So I gave up on my dream.
A week or so later it was the birthday of one of the local guys with whom I was working. So a neighbor next door made a cake. When she took off the lid everyone started to let out exclamations of excitement. I looked at the plate and saw…a carrot cake. It did look pretty, but seemed more like a square carrot muffin than a cake. Where was the layer of thick cream cheese frosting?
It was then that I realized how much Americans were spoiled and we didn’t even know it. Sweets surround us in the store and through media. Ads tempt us with “decadently delicious” goods. I had always assumed decadent meant wholly good and rich, until one day as I was helping English students with word origins I realized “decadent” came from the same root as the word decay, as in the Roman empire decayed because of its overindulgence. I sure missed that meaning.
I plan to enjoy the holiday foods this year. Desserts like pumpkin pie offer simple and healthy satisfaction. Pecans are healthy too, until they become cloyingly sweet in a decadently delicious chocolate bourbon pecan pie. However, cognizant of American decay, I will try to enjoy just one piece and will not search out a horde of other complicated sweets throughout the day.
After all, as my wife says, and other centuries and cultures show, sweet and simple can be satisfying.
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