’TWAS the night before Christmas, when all through the house the only thing stirring is the frazzled cook who’s already working himself into a right old tizz.
It’s not just the stirring of the pot already on the hob that’s fuelling the rising panic. There’s the thawing to do, the mixing and, of course, the peeling. A pile of potatoes awaits that’s going to make me look like one of those cartoons of a soldier in the glasshouse being punished by having to prepare enough spuds for a battalion.
Ghosts of Christmases past hover at my shoulder, and send the occasional icy finger down the spine at the recollection of culinary disasters, like the fancy recipe for shredded sprouts that produced a dreadful sludge which reminded everybody of an early 1970s episode of Dr Who featuring a malevolent green slime threatening to wipe out humankind.
Or the pudding doused in so much brandy that it went up like an exploding oil well, taking with it most of one eyebrow, which gave me a somewhat eccentric appearance for some distance into the new year.
Soggy vegetables, burnt roast potatoes, undercooked parsnips, rubbery stuffing, flat Yorkshire puddings, oddly-shaped canapés and doughy Christmas cake have all put in cameo appearances as well.
But it’s the bird in the oven that gives me the worst shudders, not least the year when everything went perfectly and it resembled a picture from a cookbook. Proud? I did a little jig of joy around it. Eat your heart out, Delia, this is how it’s done. Masterchef? They’ve got nothing on me.
Bronzed and beautiful, it was borne proudly to the table, where with beaming bonhomie, flourishing carving fork and knife, I confidently expected appreciative oohs and aaahs.
Instead, there was some uncomfortable clearing of throats, downward glances and an awkward shuffling of feet, since nobody had seen fit to tell me that four of the six people seated there had become vegetarians since I’d last seen them.
Not all of it’s been my fault. One of the most lovable dogs I’ve ever known, called Henry, who belonged to a friend, torpedoed one Christmas Day by snaffling a large lump of a wonderful joint of beef from the kitchen worktop whilst the rest of us were exchanging presents in the front room.
And a power cut that plunged my corner of Yorkshire into darkness, leaving the oven cooling for long enough to render the half-cooked bird inside unfit for human consumption was just one of those things. Henry, though, did well out of a late and unexpected Christmas present the following day.
All of which makes me jumpy about the Christmas cooking, which always feels like an annual assault on Everest.
All advice is grabbed at. Lists are made, plans are laid and new things tried well in advance. However, it’s one of the immutable laws of Christmas cookery that a recipe that turns out surprisingly well at the end of November refuses to perform when the Queen speaks to the nation.
Television chefs are viewed with almost as much devotion she is, but only make the jitters worse, even though they do their utmost to be helpful. I can only watch in pathetic admiration as the likes of Jamie and Hugh and Gordon unflappably whip up perfect meals, knowing full well that what emerges from my kitchen is as likely to be wonky as theirs is wonderful.
Still, I’m a sucker for every tip on offer, and an avid devourer of all those glossy magazine pieces about how to do the Christmas cooking whilst also being the perfect host. Be prepared, they counsel. I am. I’ve been worrying about it since Bonfire Night.
Dress elegantly, they say, dispense the bubbly whilst engaging in equally sparkling banter with your guests as they arrive.
If only. The arriving guests don’t find an immaculately turned-out and groomed Mr Elegance in his beautifully-ordered kitchen, all highly-polished shoes, crisp shirt, relaxed charm and witty repartee, cooking with effortless assurance as he hands round delicious nibbles he made earlier.
Instead, they discover a wild-eyed, dishevelled, perspiring, panicky host spattered with hot fat, juggling pans and roasting tins with utensils scattered everywhere. Rather than frothy conversation, he issues periodic shrieks as he burns himself on the oven.
In the midst of it, I usually reflect that rather than the smartest clothes in the wardrobe, my best outfit for the Christmas cooking would probably be a boiler suit, steel toecap boots, welder’s visor and a pair of the sort of heatproof gloves issued to steelworkers.
Still, wonky or not, it’s the best meal of the entire year, even if sludgy sprouts provoke giggles, which, if the cook’s got any sense at all, they’ll join in with. And that’s because the people who share it don’t want a vision out of a glossy magazine, but each other’s company.
However the cookery turns out, enjoy a peaceful and happy Christmas.