Holiday Guide 2009: Cooks

See A Christmas Carol enough times and you'll long for a traditional British Christmas dinner, no matter where you come from. Suddenly you find yourself craving a roast-turkey feast with all the puddings, pastries and stuffing on the side, made by hand with real butter.

If you can't make it back to Old Blighty this year, Jennie Skingley, 43, and Sarah Lewis, 38, will be working Christmas to bring you the next best thing. They spend the holiday in the kitchen at Best of British Pub on International Drive, the home away from home for English ex-pats. This will be the fourth year they start pouring brandy on the special dessert pudding at least a week before Dec. 25, so it properly soaks in before being steamed and served with a brandy crème. And that's just dessert.

But the day is not just about imported food specialties, say the cooks, though they pride themselves on empty plates. "Our people like things festive," says Lewis, who loves sharing her Brit-pop holiday music and the closest they can find to seasonal British television programming. It may be stressful behind the scenes, says Skingley, "but it's a lovely day" for the guests, many of them return customers. The pub is open all day apart from the kitchen, so there's a mix of regulars and the displaced on hand, all making merry.

Skingley and Lewis will feed 100 guests in two sittings, serving a taste of home complete with Paxo stuffing, cranberry sauce and the mandatory brussels sprouts, even if each plate only holds two sprouts because they're so pricey here in America. The Paxo sage-and-onion stuffing is a 100-year-old product created by a butcher in Manchester and has to be ordered specially, as do the particular sausages used only on Christmas. Of course, there's savory Yorkshire pudding, sausages wrapped in bacon, and lots of gravy.

By serving time, the pub team, which also includes Jennie's husband and pub co-owner Paul Skingley, will have peeled 100 pounds of potatoes and 50 pounds of rutabagas and parsnips. They've also got to roast the turkeys and take care of dozens of details, including sourcing the "crackers," which are not for cheese. These are the kind that look like wrapped candy. When the ends are pulled there's a small firecracker explosion, and a piece of paper with a joke and a trinket fall out. The Brits love those, popping them before the meal, after donning paper crowns or silly hats. (Last year's order of hats from England was held up in security at the airport, causing a
local scramble.)

Paul says that his mission to deliver a "proper Christmas turkey" brings in a cast of regulars, as well as travelers celebrating the holidays in Orlando. Best of British isn't a big place but they squeeze in every guest as best they can, even those who just want to hang out at the bar.

Christmas Day is for the children, Paul says. Jennie rolls her eyes a bit at his nostalgia; she's the one who still prepares his stocking, filling it with an orange, chocolates and a dime-store game to keep him busy till dinner, like the rest of the children.

After the guests are satisfied and all the pots and pans are hung to dry at the pub, the owners head home to do it all again with their own families. The Brits love their Christmas dinner steeped in dairy and meat fats, and they bless us, every one.


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