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EPICURIOUS: Even the best-laid plans…

True tales of Christmas culinary catastrophe
FD-Epicurious 27.52 GETTY IMAGES
Nowhere is the old saying, ‘We plan, God laughs’ more pronounced than at the holiday dinner table, where often even our best-laid schemes can turn into a culinary catastrophe.

How’s that saying go? You know the one about God laughing at our best-laid plans? I like to think whoever coined that had Christmas in mind, the ultimate pressure-cooker holiday, but a quick Google informs me that the saying is actually Yiddish in origin, so unlikely. There goes my quippy intro. 

We plan, God laughs. 

You probably don’t need a pile of statistics to know how stressful the holidays can be, but I’ll share some anyway: According to the American Psychological Association, 69 per cent of respondents feel stressed by a perceived lack of time during the holidays, 69 per cent are stressed by a lack of money, and 51 per cent said they are stressed out by “the pressure to give gifts.” 

As it turns out, building a winter spending frenzy around a single day of the year isn’t all that great for our emotional and mental health, and add on all of the pressures that come with hosting family, and it’s no surprise why our anxiety levels can shoot through the roof in what has already been a gut-punch of a year. 

It’s this unrealistic standard we set for ourselves—no doubt bolstered by two months straight of non-stop Christmas ads, music, movies and other ephemera—that can make the holidays feel so surreal. We are told again and again, in innumerable ways, that this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, and yet our reality doesn’t always match up with those lofty expectations. 

And nowhere is that dichotomy more pronounced than at the Christmas dinner table, where, at least in my experience, God does the majority of his laughing at us. 

I’m reminded of a rare Christmas when my parents, basically allergic to anything resembling holiday ritual, decided to have some of our family and neighbours over for dinner. We’re talking honey-glazed ham, charcuterie, sausage stuffing, green bean casserole, and enough wine to make Caesar blush. We went all out. 

Then, just minutes before the guests were set to arrive, there came a great crashing sound from the dining room. Scandal, our aptly named beagle, had figured out that if he couldn’t reach the food himself, he was going to bring the food to him, tugging on our red-and-green table cloth until the entire Christmas spread fell to the floor. Rushing to the scene of the crime, gravy and spinach dip streaking the carpet, my father and I shared a look of pure terror. Then we burst out laughing.

We plan, God laughs. 

In this spirit, I asked some of Pique’s extended family for their personal stories of Christmas culinary chaos, and I got back some good ones, at turns funny and poignant, and all illustrating the folly of trying to plan the perfect festive feast.  

My diligent editor and noted cat lady, Clare Ogilvie, shared a tale from her childhood that also involved the family pet, a black-and-white former stray named Josey, and, uh, some ghost horses. Or is it horse ghosts? 

Her father worked as a family GP for the small Scottish village of Ratho at the time, and Clare’s family lived in a cavernous, 12-room manse that, by most accounts, was haunted by the ghosts of three racehorses the home’s former owner, racked with racetrack debt, shot and killed in a rage. It was said that, on some nights, they could be heard galloping and whinnying through the long hallways. And, because the feline and equine don’t mix all that well even in the best of times, on this particular December day, Josey apparently caught wind of these ethereal racehorses and bolted up the 15-foot Christmas tree, sending it tumbling, decorations and all, to the ground. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, amidst all the chaos, no one had noticed that the fallen tree had tripped a breaker, cutting off power to the kitchen, oven included. Hours passed. It wasn’t until everyone began to gather around the dinner table that it was discovered the Christmas turkey was nowhere near being ready. So, instead of the traditional holiday spread, the Ogilvies served nothing but desserts that year—“an eight-year-old’s dream come true,” Clare recalled. 

We plan, God laughs. 

Then there’s Pique’s long-time columnist and overall humbug, G.D. Maxwell, whose Christmas dinner wasn’t foiled by a nosey canine or a trio of spectral horses, but cheesecloth. 

You see, young Max was preparing his first orphans’ dinner for a group of college pals far away from home for the holidays and resorted to that ubiquitous cookbook, Joy of Cooking, for some advice on preparing the Christmas bird. Calling for a cheesecloth soaked in melted butter to be placed over the breast, Max, unsure of exactly what a cheesecloth was, substituted for a “reasonably clean” cotton handkerchief. This was …not a good idea.

“Needless to say, the resulting bird was very crispy and black on the outside, with a charred handkerchief permanently burned into the skin and woefully undercooked toward the interior,” he relayed. “Copious amounts of alcohol and other party favours saved the day.” 

We plan, God laughs. 

Then there’s a lovely and heartfelt story from Whistler Community Services Society director Jackie Dickinson that, truth be told, might take some of the air out of this whole God-using-us-as-a-constant-source-of-amusement thing. 

Just two days before Christmas 1992, Jackie’s grandma, affectionately known as Nanny, died in her sleep, casting a pall over the entire holiday. Unsure of how to celebrate after such an immense loss, Jackie’s family returned to Nanny’s tiny Toronto apartment to gather her things, and found a freezer full of her usual holiday cooking: containers of Italian meatball soup, boxes of sugary Christmas cookies, and bags of homemade perogies still indented with her fingerprints. 

“Whoever said food can be therapy is right. Each bite was central to how we celebrated her, recognized her and remembered her,” Jackie said. “Almost 30 years later, my family and I are more committed to those culinary traditions because of my grandma.” 

This is where, to me at least, the true magic of Christmas lies. It’s not in the unattainable Hallmark vision of perfection we aspire to, but in those beautifully messy, human moments of striving and falling it takes to get there. So yes, we plan and God laughs, but I like to think he’s tickled not so much by our failures, but our collective audacity to aspire to something more, something bigger than us, and persevere anyway.