There are some Christmas foods you make far in advance that just get better and better with age and anticipation. Like British fruitcakes that age into their boozy ripeness, and German gingerbread cookies called lebkuchen that get softer and spicier as they mature.
In Guyana, a small South American country wedged between Venezuela and Suriname, certain Christmas foods are also prepared weeks in advance, and aged at room temperature. But they're not sweet; they're meaty, and they sit out for weeks. Although it may sound a bit suspect, these dishes — called pepperpot and garlic pork — have been eaten safely for generations. And Guyanese say it wouldn't be Christmas without them.
To understand pepperpot and garlic pork, you first need to know that Guyana is part of South America but also part of the Caribbean. The native Amerindian population was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries and then by the British in 1796. The country was then further infused with enslaved Africans, East Indian indentured workers and Portuguese laborers.
All of these groups became part of the fabric of Guyana and its cuisine. And in the days before refrigeration, they came up with their own unique ways of both preparing and preserving celebratory dishes.
Pepperpot, the first course served on Christmas Day, comes from the native tradition. It's basically a stew of aromatics and tough beef parts like shanks, trotters and tails that benefit from a long cooking. They're tossed in with cinnamon and cloves from neighboring Spice Islands and peppers. And when we say slow cooking, we mean it: Pepperpot is cooked, off and on, for days. And between stewing, it sits out on the stove at room temperature.
Usually, leaving meat at room temperature would give bacteria — the sort that would land you in the hospital — a field day. But pepperpot has a secret weapon: cassareep.
Cassareep is a thick sauce made from the juice from cassava root, one of the country's oldest traditional foods. The juice is boiled down to a molasses-dark syrup, which has powerful antiseptic properties that's used in medicine as well. And it also contributes its own unique flavor.
"A really good cassareep is supposed to have the complexity you can find in a good caramel," says Guyanese food writer Cynthia Nelson. "There'll be notes of sweet, and notes of bitterness at the end." Nelson makes her pepperpot with the traditional beef cuts and cassareep, as well as cinnamon and cloves, and ginger and orange peel for brightness.
As the stew cooks, the meat breaks down, infusing the sauce with its essence, and vice versa. The end result is as richly layered as a Mexican mole.
The second essential Guyanese Christmas dish, garlic pork, comes from the Portuguese culinary tradition. As with pepperpot, it involves a preparation that seems to fly in the face of food-safety common sense: The pork sits out at room temperature for weeks. In this case, it's not cassareep that keeps you safe: It's salt and vinegar.
This puckery preservation method is similar to Portuguese adobo recipes, and the vindaloo dishes in the former Portuguese colony of Goa. In this case, chops are rubbed with a paste of garlic and a Guyanese varietal of fresh thyme.
Matt Thompson, deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com and the former director of vertical initiatives at NPR, grew up on the dish. "You can't really overdo the garlic and thyme," says Thompson, whose parents and siblings are Guyanese. (He was born in the U.S.) The seasoned meat is then covered with a salt and vinegar solution, and aged for weeks.
After at least two weeks in the brine, the meat is fried. The long bath (and a heating of vinegar) creates some pretty distinct flavors and aromas. "It's a very intense dish," says Nelson. "And you always know whether or not your neighbor made garlic pork."
Usually the pork is sliced into small pieces and fried up, giving a flavorful jolt to your ham and eggs. "I can't remember a time when we had garlic pork left over after Christmas morning," Thompson says. "And it's not because we made too little, it's because the stuff is irresistible."