The Quality Street won't taste the same without my family | Grace Dent

‘Christmas 2020 will be a year of missing people and missing ingredients’

When I’ve told people I’m working on Christmas Day, broadcasting live on BBC Radio 2, their reactions have said a lot about British Christmas food. “But, but… you won’t be able to drink!” they gasp. “All day long!”

Friends’ and colleagues’ faces alike are misted in a vague befuddlement, trying to envisage themselves enduring a similar sober fate. But no one, to date, has mentioned perhaps missing the delicious dinner. No one has said: “But, Grace, does that mean you may be too busy for the sumptuous turkey we all love so much, and the over-boiled sprouts, and the very heavy fruit pudding served with custard?”

There’s an argument that the British yuletide menu is, dare I say it, not actually hugely unmissable, and what many of us do to titivate proceedings is to stay gently spangled from breakfast onwards. We will eat our smoked salmon and scrambled egg with a bottle or two of prosecco, before delivering our late-morning “Thank you for the book token and bath bomb” phone calls armed with a gin and tonic (rather like a nation of Jerrys from The Good Life), then two or three glasses of wine with “the bird” and all the trimmings, before a good, long, mouth-open snooze in front of something by Pixar.

Thankfully, there will be many NHS and emergency services workers who will also not be drinking booze on the 25th. Which is just as well, because the heady blend of free-flowing advocaat and haphazard attempts to use the cordless electric carving knife mean we really, really need microsurgeons and air ambulance pilots available. But I digress.

The truth is that working on Christmas Day 2020 will be one of my sharpest joys. I jumped at the chance, not only because it means I’ll get the chance to play Wham! to millions after going on air after Gary Davies (yes, your actual ooh, Gary Davies, on your radio). But as well as that, the fixed date in the calendar was a moment of certainty, and I want no more uncertainty in my year. Tiers be damned, along with the endless sore temptation to gatecrash the home of shielding family members on the 25th and bear-hug them in a way that northern families rarely do. Instead, I’m running a Christmas dinner after-party for millions of listeners in their kitchens as they load dishwashers and make turkey sandwiches (pro tip: double mayo, English mustard, layer of chopped cornichons).

But, more pressingly, I’ll be the soundtrack to many other people having a really very peculiar Christmas; one that isn’t remotely how they imagined it or wished it to be. Because, even if we admit that British Christmas food can be a little stodgy and underseasoned, it will be all the more strange without the things we’ll miss because we’re apart.

Thousands of people this year will miss their mother’s special gravy, or slice of Gran’s special-recipe Christmas cake with the extra-thick marzipan. I never thought I’d miss my dad’s infamous Boxing Day turkey curry, but I do. The prep for this traditionally begins some time after the Queen’s Speech, and he’ll still be stirring and adding random pieces of gizzard and carcass by noon the next day, as well as dessertspoonfuls of catch-all 1980s curry powder. The result is always terrifying and bewildering in equal measure, but it is made with love and I will miss it sorely.

Christmas 2020, then, will be a year of missing people and missing ingredients. Quality Street green triangles, I find, don’t taste quite the same without a dead arm from my brother, David, for taking his favourites. The most delicious thing about Christmas pudding is the in-joke he and I have have had for 42 years about how grown-up and special I am for liking it. Unlike him, who needs a separate trifle. Like a baby.

Grace Dent. 'Quality Street green triangles, I find, don’t taste quite the same without a dead arm from my brother David’
‘Quality Street green triangles, I find, don’t taste quite the same without a dead arm from a my brother, David’.
Personalised tin:
Photograph: Sophie Spring/the Guardian

This involves me eating the pudding theatrically while making “Mmmm” sounds, and often descends into our annual festive square-off about the time in 1984 when he bought me the Frankie Goes To Hollywood album for £7 from Woolworths and, in return, I gave him some 79p Mint Matchmakers. This discrepancy he has never forgotten. “You taped over my Top Gun soundtrack cassette with the Beastie Boys album,” I roared two Christmases ago, until my mother stepped in to remind us we were both now grown adults with mortgages and grey hairs.

I finish work at 7pm on Christmas Day and intend to be in my pyjamas by 8pm with a tray of leftovers. If all the mashed potato and stuffing has gone, there will be trouble, because they’re the best bits. Plus a glass of Dermot Sugrue to toast the back of the weirdest 12 months in the food scene ever. Here’s to the future comeback. We’ve only just begun.

• Grace Dent’s Festive Feast is on BBC Radio 2 from 5-7pm on 25 December.


Grace Dent

The GuardianTramp

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