On December 24, 1840 a story was penned that included a full description of how the the average Buffalonian celebrated Christmas. While the prose was written by an educated person, it acknowledged that families this particular year had a little less food and fewer presents than previous years, yet noting that there was still plenty, as the words were meant for the average ‘ordinary’ Buffalonian with simple tastes.
The setting is a double on the west side of Buffalo; making a reference to the idea of living down or upstairs from another family. While side-by-side row houses are symbolic of many cities, two family homes are the hallmark of Buffalo living.
The perfect holiday dinner had not an English goose and beef, or a German ham and sausages, but some very typical New York foods.
The Courier and Economist – “One might miss on the tables some luxuries before had. One family went without ducks, another oysters, another cranberry sauce, but then, every one has a turkey, and if one had the gift of two she sent it to the family that lived up stairs or invited them baby and all, to dinner! In the evening there was dancing every where. Almost every house had its Christmas tree with its lights and caskets of sugar plums.” – [signed as] M
Some might think the frontier that existed at that time was perfect for venison, but it was rare to find this in our city. Buffalo was heavily treed with some open windswept meadows at the time, which is favorable to turkeys, but less so for deer which prefer open fields or swamps and hence their population explosion with the growth of industrial farming. But long before deforestation and the expansion of the corn fields and deer population, The Editor of the Commercial Advertiser and Journal of Buffalo on Dec 29th, 1840 mentions excitement over being gifted the rare “fat young deer”. See inset.
Before jumping into other Buffalo favorites, we will detour to see what an English, New England, and Long Island Christmas feast looked like.
A Long Island Christmas dinner was very traditional, “To loose my Christmas beef and pudding too; I, who have toiled through all the year, to die[,] Just as I come to brandy and mince-pie !” This prose published in The Corrector of Suffolk County on Long Island on January 16th, 1830 reflects a population that has not integrated outsiders from the Continent or the rest of New York. Long Island was settled heavily by religious refugees such as the Quakers that were exiled by the Puritans of New England to New Netherland. Later, Scottish and Irish Presbyterians gravitated to NYC by the 1720s, eventually turning into a wave of immigrants, “On Christmas day, the party had a regular blow out of beef and whiskey…” – Long Island Farmer, Jan 11th, 1842. However, plated beef was for the well off, while minced meat pies were for the average person.
In addition to beef, a Christmas goose has been traditional English plate since the middle ages, as were Christmas bird pies. While small towns settle by English people in up-state New York tended to reprint articles from England, New England, and Long Island, Buffalo reprinted articles from Pennsylvania and New York City. This may have influenced the local culture. The following is an uncommon instance a local paper picked up an article about English holiday and food ways. In the local Black Rock Gazette on Mar 31st, 1827 a reprint of an English Christmas dinner is recounted.
“A Gigantic Pie. The Christmas Pie made by Mrs. Tagg, of the King’s Arms Inn, Eccles-hall, contained a goose, a turkey, a hare, a brace of partridges, a couple of rabbits, a couple of pigeons and two tongues !! The article was prepared after Dr. Kitchener’s best style,…[no bones and] This matchless pie was two yards long nearly a yard wide, and about two feet in depth. – Chester Chron[icle].” – 1827
Some people might be wondering where the Christmas ham came from. A Christmas ham or roasted pig was tradition-specific regions of England, spreading across England in the 1800s, “Ham is a typical Christmas dish, and, in Staffordshire especially, Christmas hams, pork pies, and sausages are a great feature. A ham that has been well cured after some old, reliable recipe always eats much better baked than boiled…” (1928, The Illustrated London News Vol. 1173, Issue 2.). However, it appears that English-Americans did not bring over this Staffordshire tradition. Christmas hams or roasted pig don’t seem to turn up in NYS prior to the 1800s, except for an instance where the turkey was stolen “leaving the pig to take its place !” Here again, we see that New York placed the emphasis on a Christmas turkey.
The journal, the Long Island Farmer, October 09, 1823, notes that up in Rensselaer [a Dutch community] it was most profitable to slaughter pigs by Christmas, but not in other regions of New York where this was delayed until April (for Easter). With Rensselaer being a predominantly Dutch and German community it is likely the idea of a roasted Christmas pig came from them. The American author of “Various Writings of C. M.: Embracing the Motley Book, Behemoth….” By Cornelius Mathews, (original 1843) Reprinted 1863, NY, they have used this phrase to describe fundraising for a school “The School Fund Again,” “…they have given you over to the devil, and you are roasting and crackling in the flame, as merrily as a Christmas pig.”
But wait, if the British of Long Island have Christmas beef and the Dutch and Germans of Albany have a Christmas pig, how did Buffalo get Christmas turkey, duck and oysters?
First, we should probably alleviate the anxiety that has built up in our vegetarian readers due to the crackling pigs over a devil’s fire. Buffalo was a creature unto itself. You see, we also introduced the idea of Christmas mac and cheese. Yes, really… back in the 1830s. But we didn’t just stop there. This was not just any mac and cheese and it didn’t come just one way.
We were not alone in our eating of macaroni, Gifford & Gourlay in New York City, advertised in The Evening Post in Sept. 1832 is the following; figs, dates, Genoa citron, olives and anchovies, parmesan cheese and 140 cases of macaroni and vermicelli, plus another “400 do.” It was not advertised for the holidays. However, back in Buffalo, On December 14th of 1839 according to the Commercial Advertiser and Journal for the holidays announced; grapes, prunes, “Macoaroni,” citron and wine were available. For all those who enjoy Mediterranean foods, the Buffalo Advertiser and Journal on Dec. 14th and 29th, 1840 advertised Grapes, Lemons, Raisins, and Figs. By the 1860s, Callander’s family grocer is advertising “Naples Macaroni” and “Naples Vermicelli.” Don’t forget this comes on the heels of women wearing Roman style hair styles, headbands and… dresses too. By the 1858, with years of mac and cheese on the holiday menu, they were no longer considered exotic foods. And for the vegetarian, ignore the gravy.
Buffalo Mac and Cheese
From “The Buffalo Daily Republic” 1858 page 1
[You will need] gravy aforesaid, grating Parmesan cheese and
the smoking “macaroncello”.
Place a handful of the Parmasan cheese
on the bottom of the tureen;
pour on this layer of cheese. a layer of gravy,
place on this layer of gravy a layer of macaroni.
on the layer of macaroni a layer of cheese, and so
on, placing alternately cheese, macaroni, gravy,
macaroni, cheese, until the tureen is full, then
close it tightly and serve it up in ten minutes.”
While the above calls for gravy, usually animal based, there are also recipes without. See also: “Macaroncello” or “Naples Macaroni.”
The 19th Century saw Americans go crazy for macaroni, vermicelli, and what they termed semolina. It is put in soups, served with currant sauces, stewed tomato sauces, in cream or served with grated cheese. Macaroni for the holidays eventually goes mainstream. Godey’s Magazine in 1858 vol. 57 suggests the Buffalo style of mac and cheese “… a layer of macaroni a layer of cheese; and so on, placing alternately cheese, macaroni, gravy, macaroni, cheese,..”
While Long Island, New England, and England shared food ways, Buffalo and New York City greatly overlap right down to the oysters. NYC was known for plate size oysters, just as Buffalo was know for its caviar, though only the oysters made it onto the holiday plate.
Before letting you all go, while not a Christmas dinner, it was served during the winter of 1641 in Buffalo. The Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf, stayed the winter in the Buffalo area which at the time had 40 villages of Indigenous People. From the chapter called, “Of The Mission of the Angels to the Attiwandarons, or People of the Neutral Nation,” which is a republishing of letters sent by the Jesuits, we see they were fed a variety of foods.
“The food and the clothing of this Nation do not greatly differ from those  of our Hurons [in Ontario]: they have Indian corn, beans, and squashes in equal plenty; the fishing likewise seems equal, as regards the abundance of fish, of which some species are found in one region, that are not in the other. The people of the Neutral Nation greatly excel in hunting [Page 195] des Elans [Elks], des Casters [beaver], des porcs-epios [porcupines], does Lievres, & some beasts, des Cerfs [deer], une especede vaches [a species of cows] which seem to have somebody related to ours… and other animals of which the skin and the flesh are valuable. The supply of meat has been great there this year on account of the heavy snows which have fallen and which have facilitated hunting; for it is a rare thing to see in the country more than half a foot of snow, and they have had this year more than three feet. They have also multitudes of wild Turkeys, which go in flocks through the fields and woods… chestnuts, of which they have plenty; and wild apples, a little larger than these [in Canada].”
And yes, did you catch that? The Neutral Nation served s species of cow to the Jesuits. Sometimes the French called elk, deer, and moose by the term vaches. However, Elk and deer are also mentioned. This leaves moose or bison. But be warned, just as the account of the rarity of deer in Buffalo required a trip to Pennsylvania, it is likely that is where the bison also came from. The assignment of names by others was common in the 17th century; Neutral Nation was coined by the French and Attiwandarons was given by the Hurons. With this in mind, the combination of Jean de Brébeuf’s having the nickname bœuf or “the real ox,” him being served a species of cow during his stay and the noting of the skins, may be at the root of where our name came from. A place for the Hurons to the north and the Senecas to the east to get bison meat and skins which were retrieved from Pennsylvania. Not to mention the place where The Ox who was visiting from Ontario was fed a rare dish of wild cow.
For the foodie looking for something different and historically available foods for a Buffalo Christmas table a menu could look like this:
Plate Size Oysters with Lemon Juice
Wild Caught Duck with Currant Jelly
Dates and Chestnuts
Baked Naples Macaroni and Cheese
Figs and Grapes
Turkey with Cranberry Sauce
Citron Custard with Hickory Nuts
Hot Chocolate in a Cup
Lead image: Photo by Katherine Lou