12 Days of Christmas Feast at the Culinary Vegetable Institute Gives Reason to Sing
Considering half its subject matter is edible, it shouldn’t surprise that the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” could make you hungry. In fact, traditionally, each verse has been associated with a feast day. But one dinner that coherently strings together effective riffs on its animals, characters, and actions?
Considering some attempts online (chocolate turtle doves as a second course?), that’s not as easy. But 12 tasty, playful courses were on the menu an hour west of Cleveland in Milan, Ohio at the Culinary Vegetable Institute at the Chef’s Garden this past weekend, where its executive chef Jamie Simpson served its 12 Days of Christmas dinner’s fourth annual celebration.
The CVI’s inaugural Twelve Days feast started in 2015, inspired while the chef sat by the fireplace, singing the song late one night with staff and interns. “The song just gets stuck in your head,” he said. “There's a dish here, actually,” he said he realized in the moment. “There's a meal here. It's an event!”
Held in the spacious main dining room at the Culinary Vegetable Institute near a loaded sleigh and in front of that roaring fireplace on a long candlelit table, the scent of smoking herbs and pine drifting aloft, the $300 dinner (tax and tip included) showcased vegetables grown by The Chef’s Garden and kicked off with a specialty cocktail, a glogg (an additional $100 wine pairing was available).
Usually served warm, this spiced alcoholic drink was said to have originally been used to revive messengers traveling in cold weather in Scandinavia. Here it was chilled but infused with cinnamon smoke, accented by homemade spruce bitters (drawn from a glass that at least one reporter walked off with before being set straight) and garnished with finely shaved, slightly pickled carrot shaped into a rose. Two were enough for a jovial mood. A third and singing the courses would’ve followed.
Chef Simpson called the first course “the partridge in a pear tree,” a fowl verse followed by three others and the most difficult to conceptualize. This year, it was an amuse of partridge and pear terrine perched in an ornamental tree. But next year, who knows? “Some think that oral tradition has misplaced the original meaning,” he explained. “It was actually ‘a part of juniper tree,’ because a partridge is a ground-dwelling bird, and will not ever be found in a pear tree.”
Given juniper’s role in gin, the meal could start with a martini and that story.
This year’s turtle dove course featured paper-thin bread origami made with feuilles de brick and accompanied by a “candle” whose cinnamon bark wick melted the butter. Three French hens were presented more conventionally: three traditional French preparations — a braised wing, butter-poached breast, and thigh ballotine. Golden rings were beautiful, hollowed cylinders carved from golden beets, potato, pumpkin, and potato, then poached in olive oil.
A quivering soft-boiled egg served in a potato nest with ham, sun-dried herbs, and white truffle stood in for six geese a laying, seven swans alighted in the form of nasturtium petals floating on the surface of a duck consommé, and nine ladies dancing sashayed in represented by a doll with a kale dress who was lifted off of each plate to reveal lobster and a tomato náge below, to delicious effects.
Two standouts were the four calling birds and eight maids. The first showcased a slow-cooked sprouted grain “risotto,” family-style to be spooned from a bird feeder and gently doused with a ginger white pomegranate dashi poured from a bird whistle. The grains were earthy and toothsome, the dashi rich with a Parmesan-like umami from butter whipped with white miso.
The second dish was also challenge to devise. “How do you make an eighth course of a 12-course menu a milk dish that really celebrates milk?” chef Simpson asked. “Even more challenging, how do you pair wine with it?” This way, apparently: an adult dinner version of a savory cereal bowl, lined with a smooth custard made with veal bone marrow and whey caramel, covered with warm milk, and accented with crispy fried cereal puffs.
Some of the dishes have evolved over the years, getting tweaked to better adhere to the lyrics, or make the experience more intimate. Take the turtle doves, whose “verse” chef Simpson thought would be better shared between adjacent diners, one bread bird per person. Besides those refinements and the protein course (the Lord’s-A-Leaping verse), given the amount of work that goes into the dinner (“We also call it 12 Days of Prep,” chef Simpson noted), the chef explained, “we’re blessed by repetition.”
The showstopper of the evening was the lords verse — a cart wheeled in and filled with sharing plates piled high with roasted root vegetables grown on the farm, pies packed with al dente carrots swimming in a thick, delicious creaminess, and a “king’s feast”: a suckling pig who’d been eating vegetables at the Chef’s Garden days before, and whose skin crackled like treacle as the serving forks pierced through.
Though chef Jamie may have tipped his hand by slipping a “next year” into the explanation of a course, he said it’s too soon after all the work to commit to a fifth annual invitation. But he added he could be interested in taking it on the road, pairing it with a Disney venue, or reaching out to collaborate with the restaurant Meadowood in Napa Valley, California, which has been doing its own 12 Days dinner for a decade.
Drumming, dancing, leaping — it’s a good thing those three exciting actions are accounted for in the song, as after a meal like this, the only thing you can imagine doing well, is sleeping. Click here for a photo gallery of the meal.