An illustration of a stack of books being carved like a turkey, with gravy being drizzled over it.
An illustration of a stack of books being carved like a turkey, with gravy being drizzled over it.

Most of us learned long ago to keep politics away from the family Christmas table, but then, the more divisive conversation is sitting right there in front of you isn’t it: Which part of the festive feast is best? Turkey? Stuffing? Pudding? …Bread sauce?

Whatever your choice, it’s none of our business, but we’d be remiss not to let you in on something of a literary secret: there is, in fact, a scientific correlation between your preferred Christmas dish and the type of books you read, and we’ve gathered a host of the country’s leading experts to reveal its mysteries. Below, allow them to guide you from plate to page, in a miracle we’re attributing to science and Christmas in equal measure.

Turkey

The traditional centrepiece of the holiday feast, meaty and show-stopping, can either be sumptuous and delicious or overrated and a smidge on the dry side. Nevertheless, it’s a classic, which is why, if you think about it, the correlation here is a simple one: If it’s the bird you’re after, you might also devour the classics – think Dickens or Dostoyevsky, Austen or Achebe.

Of course, ‘classics’ spans a spectacularly broad variety of literature, but whether you prefer the breast, the thigh, or the sought-after drumstick, there’s a classic out there to your taste – and you won’t have to fight your weird uncle to get it, either.

Stuffing

Ah, a connoisseur! Stuffing is moist and delectable, but above all it’s unique, isn’t it: When, other than Christmastime, do you find yourself graced with a plate of that rarefied, flavourful, bready goodness? Stuffing stans, we know you appreciate fine, distinct foodstuffs; you might do well to dig into a few cookbooks.

They might not be the kind of page-turner you sink into like a novel, but they’re every bit as immersive: cookbooks can be gorgeous, with magnificent illustrations and mouth-watering photos, and they’re crucial for bringing new, tasty food ideas to life. Next time you stuff-buffs are indulging in something  from the pages of Ottolenghi’s FLAVOUR or Nigella Lawson’s Christmas collection, do make sure you thank us.

Potatoes

The wonder of books is that they can take you anywhere: into far-off worlds; to times long ago and eons into the future; into the minds of people just like you, or unlike anyone you’ve ever met.

Potatoes – spuds, taters, tatties, tubers, whatever you call them – boast similar versatility: there are your stone-cold classic roasties, but there’s mash, too, not to mention Hasselback potatoes, or those done Dauphinoise. The list goes on, as chefs worldwide find new and exciting ways to deploy its starchy bounty.

Modern novelists are doing the same experimentation with narrative and prose, which to our minds makes contemporary fiction the literary equivalent of your favourite root vegetable. Spud savants, why not start with some new classics like Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other or Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, then explore from there? If you can’t finish the novel quickly, worry not: these tend, like potatoes, to make perfect leftovers to return to long after the original meal.

Brussels sprouts

Ah! Hm. Okay. You’ve chosen sprouts. Divisive! Brussels sprouts are an absolute staple of the traditional Christmas dinner, but it takes a special cook to make sprouts the best part of the meal, doesn’t it? It’s the sort of dish that, if done well, makes you re-think the entire concept of vegetables. Which is to say: sprouts are the poetry of the Christmas spread.

Hear us out! Poetry is good for you: at its best, it feeds the mind, and illuminates the power of language by pushing at its boundaries to explore new realms of meaning. Sprouts, nutrient-rich and fibrous, perform a similar feat: they show the richness of our very Earth, illuminating the potential of vegetables when they are given the attention they deserve.

If you love Brussels sprouts, we know you’re aware of the pitfalls of an underdone, flavourless sprout – the dinner equivalent of rhyming “love” with “above” – and that you appreciate a tender, devoted approach to things: so, why not fall in love with Nobel Prize-winner Louise Glück’s incredible collection, Poems 1962-2020, or Caleb Femi’s new ode to Black London life, Poor?

Parsnips

Interesting. Fascinating. Did you know parsnips are related to both carrots and parsley? We bet you did; someone with the kind of appreciation for a once-niche veg like the parsnip shows, we think, an earnest predilection for the curious and compelling reaches of our world. Might we suggest some captivating non-fiction?

When people talk about books, it’s easy to think of fiction first, but non-fiction can be – nay, is – every bit as engrossing. Don’t believe us? Just read Merlin Sheldrake’s fungi odyssey Entangled Life, Shon Faye’s argument for liberation The Transgender Issue, or Ciaran Thapar’s eye-opening exposé about youth violence, Cut Short, for proof. And here’s another bit of non-fiction: Did you know that you need to wear gloves when farming parsnips? Their shoots and leaves are phototoxic, meaning they contain chemicals that will make your skin blister in the sun. Fascinating.

Pigs in blankets

Look, there’s no judgment here, but if your favourite holiday dish is meat wrapped in… uh, more meat, we think you might have a penchant for indulgence. You like delicious, savoury things, but why shouldn’t you? Life is for savouring! Why waste time feigning righteousness?

We say dig in – into the bacon-y, salty goodness and, book-wise, into the comforting, indulgent, luxurious pages of that happily ever after-est of genres: romance. Whether you’re seeking the feel-goodness of something like Emily Henry’s funny, warm You and Me on Vacation or something a little more ‘characters in blankets’, if you catch our meaning, we think you’ll find it hard to sneak one more bite. Also, if you please: some credit for getting this far without making a single sausage joke.

Bread Sauce

*Deep sigh* Ok, we gave the sprouts people the benefit of the doubt, and the parsnip people as well. So we’re going to give it to you, too. But really, bread sauce? From which dusty old tome of medieval cookery didst thou shaketh thine recipe, pray tell? Or was it handed down by generations, all the way back to pre-written time, when the printing press was but a glimmer in Gutenberg’s eye and “clove” was the only available flavour?

We jest – sort of. Bread sauce holds its place at the Christmas table like a history book about pre-modern warfare holds its place on your grandfather’s shelf, long after new scholarship has rendered it obsolete. But gosh, get the old codger talking about it and he’ll go on enthusiastically for most of the meal. You have to respect it – or, at the very least, find it endearing. No?

Pudding

The meal is getting started – the Christmas crackers are laid out, the gravy boat is loaded and ready, and the turkey has just touched down on the table – but your moment is still eons away: visions of sugar plums dance in your head, but you’re going to have to wait while Dad does his third plate of helpings and Nan makes her fourth off-colour remark about the ways the country is “falling to ruin”.

And then, finally: pudding, and it’s all the sweeter for having waited. When that first sugary morsel hits your palate – doesn’t really matter what kind of pudding, does it? – it’s like magic, and everything feels right.

Ask any avid reader of the genre, and they’ll tell you that crime novels – and thrillers, as well as spy novels – give that same sweet sense of build-up and release: the baddies do bad, they get caught; the detective always gets their man; the delicious twist will come near the end. So, pudding pros: may we recommended starting with the late, great John le Carré’s incredible Silverview? Then make your way to Jo Nesbo’s incomparable Harry Hole detective series, and Richard Osman’s charming The Thursday Murder Club for, um, pudding.

Cheese plate

If you’re yearning for the cheese plate – and who can blame you? – you’re in a similar boat to the pudding crowd: you’re going to have to wait until the end of the meal. But where theirs is an expectedly sweet ending, you prefer something a little weirder, a little more left-field: the future is not necessarily honeyed for the cheese plate enthusiast (though we mean no insult: a cheese plate with honey is, of course, a time-honoured treat).

You guessed it: cheese plate pundits might do well to sink their teeth into science fiction, a philosophical and sometimes dark genre that, like the cheese connoisseur, appreciates notes of complexity. A perfect place to start is with Penguin’s curated Science Fiction series or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, then move to something new like Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day.

Gravy

Ok, nobody is just glugging a glass of it (please tell us nobody’s doing that), so if gravy is your fave-y, we don’t quite have a book recommendation for you. But if none of the Christmas feast is the same for you without that glossy brown drizzled all over it, then we have to say: we recommend you dedicate new interest to the footnotes, index, and extra-narrative parts of the books you read. There’s plenty to be learned from these pages surrounding the book which add flavour and texture to the main part of the text: just as Dennis Duncan, the author of Index, A History of the, might attest.

And if your favourite bit is cranberry sauce, there’s an even sweeter book bit for you: we recommend you start reading the acknowledgements. There’s a lot packed into these supposed accoutrements – but we needn’t tell you, you saucy devil.


Disagree with our Christmas dinner experts? Email 
editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin

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