If there was ever a day of the year when the fire went out in a Colonial Williamsburg kitchen, it probably happened on Christmas. ''It was on Christmas that slaves and servants were usually given the day off so little or no cooking was actually done,'' says Rosemary Brandau, cooking-programs specialist for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
''Christmas, as far as we know, was a very quiet day of the year. Families gathered to attend church and spend the rest of the day at home. Christmas dinner, such as it was, could consist of nothing more than leftovers from the night before,'' Ms. Brandau adds.
Recent research has shed new light on the life and times of these British Americans.
''We're finding that things were more simple in Colonial Williamsburg than we thought. We tended to portray things more as we would have liked them to be, rather than as they actually were. Christmas meals and decorations were really not very elaborate,'' Ms. Brandau says.
That is not to say there were no grand celebrations throughout the holidays. In fact, Christmas here was celebrated as a season, not just a day - from Dec. 24 through Twelfth Night (Jan. 6).
Guests would come together for a ball or fox hunt and certainly for sumptuous meals.
Children gathered cones and fragrant boughs from native loblolly pine trees to decorate mantels and doors.
Lemons, bayberry, and dwarf boxwood were stacked pyramid-style on shiny magnolia leafs to grace the tables. And guests would sometimes arrive with a prized Virginia ham or that coveted symbol of hospitality, an imported pineapple.
In some of the wealthier homes, an imported porcelain epergne filled with fruit, cookies, and bonbons graced the dining tables. Large silver salvers were polished for holding a roast of beef or mutton.
Oysters pulled from the Chesapeake Bay were eaten in abundance, as were crab and fish. White-tailed deer, hunted in nearby forests, were served as roasts or mince and Yorkshire pies.
Wealthy homeowners often had their own dovecotes where they raised squab for pigeon pie. Excavations from the well of the John Custus house on Francis Street have revealed a number of bones of the passenger pigeon - extinct since 1914.
The Governor's Palace here, as did other gracious homes and plantations, had great quantities of ice shipped from New England in the winter. This was stored in huge covered holes called, appropriately enough, icehouses. Perishable foods were stored there, and the ice lasted through spring and summer of the next year.
Most food was primarily British in style and presentation. Tables were set with particular care given to symmetry.
A recent Heritage of American Foods Symposium, sponsored by the Borden Company, brought about 30 food writers and editors to Williamsburg.
The following recipes are from ''Favorite Meals From Williamsburg'' (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va., $11.95; $6.95 paper). Christiana Campbell's Tavern Spoon Bread 1 1/2 cups water 2 cups milk 1 1/2 cups cornmeal 1 1/4 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 tablespoons butter 5 eggs 1 tablespoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Grease a large shallow baking dish.
In a saucepan, combine water and milk and heat to simmer. Add cornmeal, salt, sugar, and butter. Stir over medium heat until mixture is thickened, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat.
Beat the eggs with the baking powder until they are very light and fluffy, then add them to cornmeal mixture. Mix well.
Pour into prepared baking dish and bake for 45 to 50 minutes.
Serve hot. Makes 8 servings. Pumpkin Fritters 1 egg 1/2 cup white sugar 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup canned or freshly cooked pumpkin, well drained 1/4 teaspoon baking powder Vegetable oil for frying Confectioners' sugar
Beat together egg, white and brown sugars, and salt until light and fluffy. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla and mix well.
Add flour, pumpkin, and baking powder and mix thoroughly.
Refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
In heavy skillet heat to 375 degrees F. enough oil to cover fritters.
Drop batter by tablespoons into deep hot fat and fry about 3 minutes. When fritters rise, turn and continue cooking until golden.
Drain on paper towels and dust with confectioners' sugar.
Makes about 18 fritters. Roast Capon With Sage Stuffing 1 6- to 7-pound capon Butter Salt and pepper Sage Stuffing
Rinse capon in cold water. Pat dry. Rub outside of bird with butter and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff with sage dressing.
Roast in preheated oven at 450 degrees F. until thigh juices run clear. Sage Stuffing 1/4 cup butter 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped celery 5 cups stale white bread toasted and cubed 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons ground sage or poultry seasoning 1 egg 1/2 cup water
Melt butter in heavy saucepan and saute onions and celery until onions are golden and soft.
Add toasted bread cubes, salt, pepper, and sage or poultry seasoning to sauteed vegetables.
Toss until thoroughly combined and remove from heat. Beat egg with water and add to stuffing mixture.
Stuff and truss capon.