'Twas the day before Christmas, and Caryn Kaufman was having serious menu anxiety.
Each Christmas, Kaufman invites friends and family to her Milford, Conn., home for finger foods, good cheer and fa la la la la. But this year, she had planned something different — and the morning headlines made her wonder whether she should break with tradition after all.
This year, she had intended to make Swedish meatballs.
The high-caloric holidays always have posed hazards to the weight conscious. But all of a sudden, Christmas feasting seemed an especially risky business to people like Kaufman — people who had planned to serve beef, but found the newspapers and the airwaves full of reports that a cow in Washington state was believed to have contracted mad cow disease (search).
Some, unwilling to take any chances, turned to other options.
"I was going to have a roast for Christmas Eve dinner, but when I saw the news I decided not to," said Selina Gross, 69, who bought a rack of lamb for her family holiday meal from a butcher at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. "I'd rather have the lamb or chicken."
Mike Board, a 30-year-old night stocker at a Denver grocery store, said he's not nervous about mad cow, but his wife was rethinking Christmas dinner. "Usually we just eat steak or something like that. This year, we think we might just do a turkey," he said.
It might come as a surprise to some that beef would figure in Christmas dinner at all.
Italian-Americans often serve seafood on Christmas Eve. Ed Coppola, preparing his dinner in Florham Park, N.J., on Christmas Eve, says mad cow disease would not be the Grinch that stole Christmas dinner for a family that feasts on fish, calamari, lobster and shrimp.
"I think we're all right, unless there's a mad fish disease," he said.
Marilyn Johnson, mother of seven, grandmother of 10, native of Tennessee, has been making Christmas dinners for 48 years, but never once has had beef on the menu.
"Not in my house. We always had turkey, ham. We've never had anything else. Maybe it depends on where you're from. If I was from Kansas City, I might have steak. But coming from the South, no," said Johnson, who now lives in Montclair, N.J.
James Poll, co-owner of William Poll catering in New York, said 70 percent of his customers order the turkey. But he says 20 percent order beef — rib roasts, tenderloins, beef bourguignon. And December's food magazines — Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook's Illustrated — feature roast beef.
Bruce Aidells, author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook," says beef has gained as a holiday main course in recent years. At his Berkeley, Calif., table, Christmas dinner will include a dry-aged prime rib roast, ordered from Chicago three weeks ago.
He has no qualms, and thinks most beef eaters will be similarly undaunted on Thursday.
"Food traditions are so strong about the holidays, and because so many people are committed to putting beef on the menu, I think they'll just rationalize through it," he said. Since just one cow has been diagnosed, he said, "that's not a bad rationalization to make."
Anthony Vojkovich, manager at Crescent City Steak House in New Orleans, said there have been no reservations canceled for Christmas, and he didn't expect any.
"I think most people understand it's an isolated incident ... If they have a couple more cases in the next month or so, then people will be frightened ..."
For Linda Brown's family, it's been a Christmas Day (search) tradition for 25 years to have a "haunch of beef," as her father used to call it. Her parents were children of the Depression: "Red meat for them was the ultimate luxury," she says.
And so the family will gather at her brother's Novato, Calif., home for prime rib and Caesar salad. Until she sees more evidence of a real outbreak, she's unconvinced.
"We have one cow here and the whole country's supposed to go crazy?" said Brown, 56. "We have good sources of meat. I'm not an alarmist."
Tom Hull of Beloit, Kan., also will eat beef on Christmas — steak, in his case. His family eats beef once or twice a day. "I think it's about the healthiest food there is," he says.
(It should be pointed out that Hull owns 1,100 head of cattle.)
Others were fatalistic. Beef was not on the menu for the dozen friends and family members who were to gather at the home of Gary Brauer in La Crosse, Wis., on Thursday. Instead, they were to dine on hot elk sandwiches and elk jerky, meat from a 600-pound animal Brauer shot in Colorado.
Some elk (search) in Colorado have been found to be infected with chronic wasting disease (search), which is similar to mad cow. There is no evidence that the disease can harm people. And neither chronic wasting disease nor mad cow disease cause Brauer much concern.
"We're going to die from something, regardless of what it is," Brauer said.
Others admit to a little apprehension, though not enough to lead them to ditch the rib roasts and head for Chinese restaurants, as many of their Jewish brethren do. Caryn Kaufman said she would probably go head with her Swedish meatballs, but she's still leery.
"I won't be going out to any steakhouses for a while until I understand exactly what is going on," she said.