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December 8, 2014
Moments in Art
A Christmas Feast like No Other
by Lawrence Jeppson

One of Pieter Bruegelís most famous paintings is Peasant Wedding, which he painted about 1567. It is in every Bruegel book and is the cover illustration for a handy one, Breugel, the Complete Paintings written by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen and published in Cologne, Germany in 2000.

I have always liked Bruegel and have seen this painting several times in the great Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna. But I bring it to the fore now because I want to write about the most dramatic church dinner ever.

Hereís the painting:

Now imagine that this is a ward dinner party way back in the days before Salt Lake headquarters put a stringent clamp upon how much a congregation could spend on conviviality.

Pay particular attention to the two men on the right carrying food. Imagine if those handles went the length of the platform instead of crosswise and were carried on the shoulder of the men.

Back in the days when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a separate program for adult men holding the Aaronic Priesthood, I was counselor to the group leader, dear friend John Baker, and the teacher and the activities guru. I had a connection with several suppliers in the gift foods business and procured a small suckling pig, which I roasted on a barbeque spit for a small party of about 10 men and their wives.

Somehow the word spread about my guruness, and I was asked to mastermind the Potomac Ward Christmas party.

Now what can be more festive and fun than an old English Christmas bash? Of course, for church we had to skip the mead.

Every December I try to read Thomas Hardyís first novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, which is set in some English Wessex villages in about 1850. I donít care a fig anymore for the plot, but I relish the descriptions of what goes on among those simple villagers as they carry out their traditional Christmas activities, faced with the modernizing reality that their little musical group is going to be replaced for worship by a new church organ.

The little group goes from place to place playing and singing the traditional carols.

For a big ward Christmas bash I was smart enough to leave decorating the building and rec hall and Santa stuff to steadier hands. The food and the kitchen ó that was all in my purview. I did delegate the vegetables to a brother who fancied himself a misplaced chef.

To finish a great English banquet, one must have the most glorious of English desserts, homemade figgy pudding.

My wife has a traditional Daniel Wells family recipe for fig puddings handed down by generations. It certainly came via Great Aunt Edna, not Betty Crocker.

But itís a killer.

Indescribably delicious ó but virtually verboten in these days of worries about cholesterol.

Because fig pudding must be made in advance, Frances recruited a bevy of Relief Society sisters, gave them recipes, and taught them how to make the pudding and its sauce.

Besides lots of ground-up dried figs and lots of eggs, the key ingredient is ground up suet.

Not lard. Suet.

Go ahead, nowadays. Try to buy a pound or two of suet. If you have a genuine local butcher, he can cut the fat off a carcass heís caressing. But more and more, meat arrives in the supermarkets and big-box stores already cut and packaged. There is no suet to buy. (Of course, you can always purchase a lot of super-duper steaks and do some trimming.)

In some places the butcher is not allowed to sell suet for human consumption. But if you lie a bit, you might be able to get some if you say itís for bird feed.

Frances says she has substituted butter for suet.

If youíd like the recipe, sheíd be happy to email it to you.

But to get back to the heart, if not the soul, of the dinner. There was no way I could spit-cook enough tiny pigs to feed a big ward and guests. But people had heard the story of the Aaronic Priesthood-adult party. There was a yearning for suckling pig. Or at least I said there was.

Good luck Number One: a good brother had distant relatives who ran a farm in southern Pennsylvania. He called them. Yes, they could supply us with two young pigs, dressed. But I had to drive to the farm to get them.

There was no way I could spit a large post-suckling pig. Nor did I want the responsibility. The chance to ruin a big ward party.

Good luck Number Two: It helps to have Marriotts and Marriott officials in the ward. Back in those days, Marriot had not yet gone heavy into the hotel business. The firm was famous for its Hot Shoppes restaurants, which permeated metropolitan Washington.

The Hot Shoppes would roast and deliver our two pigs, no charge.

So off I went, to Pennsylvania to retrieve a couple of dressed pigs in my Lancia sports sedan (the worst thing I ever bought). I put the pigs on their backs in the back seat, but with their feet stretched out fore and aft, they were too long for the seat, and I had to place them with their feet sticking out the window. A bizarre sight.

As I drove back home on Interstate 70, a number of cars passed me, did doubletakes on the feet, slowed down so much I had to pass them, and then they speed up to be equal to me and get another look. I will never forget the two men who gawked, grinned, and then gave me big thumbs up.

Maybe they thought Iíd shot them myself. Maybe they thought all those hooves were deer feet.

Presentation is a part of taste.

I asked friend Hal Jewel to build me a couple of parading platforms, sort of like sedan chairs without the chairs. See that Breugel painting. My two pig platforms were built with extended arms so that each platform could be carried on the shoulders of two footmen. I dressed the footmen in bright red aprons. I donít remember if I fitted them out with bright red Christmas hats.

The two roasted pigs arrived, fitted with bright red apples in their mouths and candied red cherries in their eyes.

Accompanied with appropriate music, the footmen paraded the planked pigs all over the gaily decorated festive hall.

I must admit that there may have been two or three older sisters who recoiled at the piggy sight, but aside from them, there were huzzahs everywhere.

The whole pigs on their platters were deposited on the banquet tables to be carved on site. And, oh, they were delectable to smell and delicious to taste.

One of the pigs came to me to carve. I had carved the little suckling pigs before. This was a lot bigger.

The other pig was destined to be simultaneously carved next to me by Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon.

I have never, ever seen such delicate and precise carving of anything!

By legend, this became the greatest church Christmas dinner ever. One that never will be repeated.

I am still amazed and how Dr. Bob took that pig apart, a show as precise as the Cirque de Soleil.

I donít know if I dare tell you that in medical practice, Dr. Robert Smith was an acclaimed proctologist.

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