Let’s begin by stating the obvious: leftovers are better than Christmas dinner. It is – and, this being 2017, I do not use the term lightly – an unequivocal fact. I have evidence: 65 per cent of my Twitter followers agree and the ones who voted “no” are just being contrary. It’s part of a wider human truth; just as the chips you have at the end of a night out are usually more enjoyable than the party, festive leftovers are our annual reminder that good things come to those who wait. Then wait a little more. Then wave Nana off, open the Baileys and put on their stretchiest trousers.
But when I say leftovers are the best festive food, I don't mean five days of turkey fricassee or that fiddly recipe for six-layer parsnip and pomegranate surprise that you snipped out of a Sunday supplement back when you had energy and ambition. Even bubble and squeak, much as I love it, has been slightly corrupted by the gourmet brunch squad. No, the real spirit of this hazy, formless hinterland between Christmas and New Year lives not in recipes, but in relaxation and innovation. If Christmas Day is about putting on a show, then the week after is for taking your wig off.
I’m talking about Boxing Day morning, when you pile up a plate with a slice of panettone, a hunk of Stilton, two smoked salmon pinwheels, a fistful of cheese footballs, a dollop of piccalilli and a portion of tiramisu separated by a barricade of stuffing balls and call it “breakfast”. I mean the fantastic, all-rules-are-off mentality that leads us to do things like eat Christmas cake with cheese (PSA: the cool saltiness of mature Cheddar is the perfect foil for the aching sweetness of all that dried fruit and royal icing – thank me later), dunk sausages in marmalade or pile a cold Yorkshire pudding with squirty cream and eat it over the sink, free from judgement. Life affords very few other occasions for this kind of vital gastro-experimentation and most of them involve being pregnant.
I mean the can-do attitude that gifted us the leftovers sandwich; a modern icon built on equal parts imagination, architectural prowess and potatoes. The fillings are personal, but to my mind a leftovers sandwich should always be served with an argument. Such as: is bread sauce a delicious addition or disturbingly meta? Should the bread be a crusty granary doorstop or cheap, white and pliable? Is cutlery allowed? Is mayonnaise perverted? How about houmous?
There’s the ritual rebranding of 'no longer so full you’re in physical pain' as 'peckish!'
It goes without saying that The In-Between should be a time of nutritional ceasefire. Calories don’t exist, meal times are irrelevant; for a week, we are just disembodied heads, swaddled in fleecy blankets. There’s the ritual rebranding of “no longer so full you’re in physical pain” as “peckish!”, slotting small items like Twiglets and chocolate coins into the imaginary gaps like a game of Stomach Tetris. The heroic sense of “helping out” every time you eat another bowlful of trifle. The gleeful novelty of any meal outside the house, even just a Costa panini, because you know nobody is going to leap out and beg you to eat some reheated red cabbage with it.
And, of course, this week’s eating is laden with sentimental value, as well as condiments. The very best leftover recipes are the ones we inherit from loved ones or invent with them – savoured, sanctified, eaten faithfully in tribute. Like my friend Angela, who has Christmas pudding and brandy cream for Boxing Day breakfast every year, a tradition she began with her gran. “I keep it going, even though she’s no longer here,” she says. “One year, I miscalculated and there was no leftover Christmas pudding, so I waited till the shops were open and bought another.”
But perhaps we should save the most reverence for those foods that are bought and laid out dutifully, year after year, whether anybody wants them or not. Trays of dates. Little triangular cheese nibbles. Look around you right now and tell me there isn’t a curious snack item on a side table, lurking like a distant cousin nobody remembers inviting.
At my parents’ house, it’s nuts. Walnuts, dry-roasted KPs, a few glamorous pistachios – vast troughs of them appear on every available surface around December 23 and remain there long into the new year. We mock the nuts at first (“Hoarding for the apocalypse again, Mother?”; “You do know you’re supposed to gather these in May?”), but by December 29, once all the good cheese is gone, our dressing-gown pockets overflow with foil wrappers and there are only Bounty Celebrations left, we’re always very glad of the nuts.
Because the nuts, like the stuffing sandwiches, breakfast chocolates and bread-sauce chasers that went before them, are markers of a break from normality. The very best kind of in-betweenness. And while there are still nuts, Christmas can’t really be over yet.