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In praise of the traditional Christmas dinner

Rib of beef or baked turbot? Noel way.

Nothing says good times to the British like a spot of self-flagellation. The country rejoiced in the ghastly weather that marked the Jubilee, delighted in the happy chaos of the Olympics security fiasco and was palpably disappointed when the Games came off without a hitch.

Such whinges merely whetted our appetite for the annual highlight of the national calendar of complaint: Christmas. There’s all that awful consumerism to start with and then we’re never allowed to forget how they do things so much better on the Continent – not least, the festive dinner.

Every year, the papers are full of chefs whining that they can’t stand sprouts or turkey, and that panettone makes mincemeat of mince pies. Mark Hix gleefully describes “that sinking feeling of, ‘Oh no, not turkey again’”, while Michel Roux Jr (born in Kent, mind) has the temerity to criticise Christmas pudding for being “really heavy”. Well, duh, as Gregg Wallace might say.

I was even forced to defend the merits of Stilton to Rowley Leigh at Le Café Anglais’s fifth birthday party last month, though we agreed on the beauty of a sherry trifle. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s Tom Kitchin has been boasting in the Independent that he’ll be serving something called “lamb on hay” this Christmas, adding, somewhat poignantly, “Every year my sister begs the family to have a traditional turkey with all the trimmings but I love to do something a little different.”

Sister Kitchin, I feel your pain. I enjoy a rib of beef or a baked turbot as much as the next glutton, but they’re available all year round for those that can afford them. Have steak on your birthday, or salmon en croûte on Christmas Eve, but please, the 25 December belongs to the birds.

Turkey, goose, guinea fowl, capon – I’m not fussed as long as it comes with herby stuffing, crisp little sausages and fluffy roast potatoes, topped off with creamy bread sauce and a little something sharp and fruity on the side. For dessert, I’m sure Yotam Ottolenghi’s quince poached in pomegranate juice is very nice, but I’d quibble with his assertion that it’s “most definitely superior to Christmas pudding”.

The appeal isn’t solely in the nostalgic perfume of sweetly spiced dried fruit; these dishes are indisputably good food and anyone who claims otherwise can never have had them done properly. I’d hazard a guess that Bruno Loubet’s festive ballotine of goose, or Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall’s baked gurnard have just as much potential for mediocrity in the hands of a less skilful cook.

Ignored Nordic

If you don’t like currants or poultry, then feel free to flip them the bird, but otherwise, to judge an entire tradition on your mum’s terrible cooking seems unfair. Yes, British food can be done badly, but our traditional menu can more than hold its own against whatever’s riding high in the sleigh of festive fashion.

Trends come and go – a few years ago, it was all about a River Café, Italian-style Christmas, now our sudden mania for Fair Isle jumpers sees us turning northwards for inspiration. Thankfully, the Danish chef Trine Hahnemann has just brought out a book, Scandinavian Christmas, to show us poor Brits “how we, too, can celebrate Christmas the Scandinavian way”.

Very cosy this looks too, with its peppery cookies and spiced roast pork – but, as the Lyon-born, London-based chef Claude Bosi recently pointed out, rather refreshingly, “How do you say in this country? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. And you know what? The food at Christmas here is fantastic.” To think, it took a Frenchman to point that out. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis