Christmas stories 8 and 9: a bowl of dripping, the baker and the drunks

For some, today is the twelfth day of Christmas, for others, including us, it is only day eleven when the pipers are piping, For us tomorrow will be the last day of Christmas when we take down our decorations, pack things away and try and settle down for a quieter – and less expensive time! I’ve been sharing some Christmas stories, but I have got a little behind myself – next year will be better, I will be prepared – and I know I say that every year! So today I have two stories, the final three which are slightly shorter will have to be tomorrow.

The bowl of dripping, the pyjamas and the broken down car

My dad, Don always shared the preparing and cooking of food, and shared a lot of other household chores and child rearing, as well as growing vegetables in our garden. He always prepared the turkey – just as he prepared other game, plucking and drawing, trussing and stuffing. He would buy a great bird at the cattle market auction, bring it home, hang it, then prepare it on Christmas Eve ready to be cooked the following day. He and mum shared the cooking but he was in charge of the preparation of the bird… more below on that! On one occasion he had hung the bird as usual in the shed but somehow a creature, probably a cat, maybe a fox had sneaked in and ravaged it… that was the year we had a turkey with only one wing… but that’s a story for another time.

Over the years mum’s sister Audrey always spent Christmas with us, however, the first year she was married, she and her new husband decided to spend it together in their own home. Although a good cook herself, and an excellent cook of puddings, cakes and desserts, Audrey was not confident in cooking a bigger bird than the normal roast chicken the two of them shared. Don, always an early riser even on Christmas morning, said he would come round, prepare their bird, put it into the oven, and the rest was down to them.

On Christmas morning, pint of tea having been drunk, jumper pulled on over pyjamas, socks and shoes on his feet, Don went out to the car, put a bowl of dripping in the boot and wedged it in place. All the family did this when transporting such things – there was the memorable occasion when his other sister-in-law, Beryl, had come over for a visit with a car load of children. Our family only used dripping for cooking, hers spread it on toast and ate it as a treat – a cheap treat, but a treat all the same. Dripping is the fat and gelled juices from roast meat – it may sound disgusting but for some as well as being used to fry things, it’s a delicacy to be enjoyed on hot toast. Beryl accepted a bowl of dripping from mum, put it in the boot of the car and as it was a lovely sunny day, decided to take the children somewhere – possibly the seaside. The inevitable happened, the dripping melted in the heat, the bowl tipped over, and ever after that the car reeked of it!

Back to Christmas; armed with his  carving knife and steel (for re-sharpening the knife), a sweater pulled over his pyjamas and an apron over that, he started the car – except he didn’t… it wouldn’t start… despite turning the starter handle it remained stationary and silent. Nothing daunted, Don reclaimed the bowl of dripping from the boot… and walked the couple of miles to Audrey’s home, armed with his knife and steel. She was delighted to see him, and no doubt made him something to drink while he sorted out their bird. Maybe her husband gave him a wee dram, but turkey sorted and in the oven, covered in streaky bacon, Don took up his implements and walked home, in his pyjamas.

He tried the car again later… it started perfectly.

The baker, the drunks and their turkeys

Large chickens or the Christmas goose were no doubt on the festive menu before turkeys became so available and so cheap. When I was young, like most families we only had a small cooker – perfect for everyday life in those days when portions were smaller and people ate less. However, the smaller cooker had a smaller oven, so cooking a large bird was impossible. In a tradition going back centuries, people would prepare their birds, put them in the pans with whatever stuffing and additions they preferred, and carry the pan and raw fowl round to the baker who would have his bread ovens fired up and ready, and in they would go, with some sort of identifying marker.

This still happened when I was a small child living in Cambridge; dad would take the bird to  Maskell’s the baker’s – and he must have taken it on his bike because we had no car, and he would be there with all the other husbands, exchanging seasonal greetings, instructing the baker and relinquishing the bird. Maskell’s was on Victoria Road, just by the Portland Arms, the pub where Don grew up so it was very familiar to him, as was the Maskell family.

Later, and a little before the time for the collection of the turkey/goose/large chicken, the men would return and meet, not at the door of the bake-house, but at a local pub, open Christmas lunch-time (just as ours is in our village) Don met his friends in the New Spring, his local, and after a pint or two (more for some, but Don would pace himself!) they would cross the road and go to the baker’s to reclaim their Christmas dinner.

You can imagine the scene, a crowd of merry drunks, many wearing Christmas gifts, home knitted sweaters, hats, mitts or scarves, no doubt singing hearty carols, trying to remember which was their turkey as Mr Maskell pulled out glistening bird after glistening bird… And then to transport it home, red-hot, and with a jug of fat and gravy… Ours always arrived safely!

Maskell’s cart:

An interesting page about another nearby Cambridge baker:


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