Christmas Pudding

A flaming Christmas Pudding

Hallo! A great deal of steam!  The pudding was out of the copper.  A smell like a washing-day!  That was the cloth.  A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that!  That was the pudding!  In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered-flushed, but smiling proudly-with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

“Oh, a wonderful pudding!” Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage.  Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour.  Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.  It would have been flat heresy to do so.  Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (1843)

Traditions are tricky things; we like to think that they have been observed forever, but when we start tracking them we often find that they do not extend as far back in history as we thought.  One Christmas tradition in the UK, and in much of the United States until the late 19th century, is the Christmas pudding.  How old is this tradition and how has it changed over the years?  Let’s take a look and see if we can uncover the truth about the ghosts of Christmas puddings past.

WHEN DID THE TERM CHRISTMAS PUDDING BEGIN?

The name Christmas pudding appears to be a comparatively recent coinage, John Ayto’s book, An A-Z of Food & Drink  lists the first recorded use in Anthony Trollope’s Doctore Thorne (1858).  However, I did a Google Books Ngram search on the term “Christmas Pudding” and found an earlier reference in the 1745 Collection of Voyages and Travels edited by John Churchill.  One of the travels in the collection is a “Voyage to Virginia” made by a Col. Norwood in 1649 which says:

Many sorrowful days and nights we spun out in this manner till the blessed feast of Chrtstmas came upon us which we began with a very melancholy solemnity and yet to make some distinction of times the scrapings of the meal tubs were all amassed together to compose a pudding.   Malaga sack sea water with fruit and spice all well fryed in oyl were the ingredients of this regale which raised some envy in the spectators  but allowing some privilege to the captain’s mess we met no obstruction but did peaceably enjoy our Christmas pudding (Churchill)

Assuming that Mr. Churchill, in editing this collection, did not take literary license with the account, and put parts of it into the vernacular his time, then we could deduce that the term dates to at least the middle of the 17th Century.  Even if Mr. Churchill did substitute his own language in this case, we can say it dates to the middle of the 18th Century.  It is unlikely that the term dates further back than the 17th century however as shown by the lyrics of the 16th Century Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.  This carol is a remnant of a time when poor carolers would hit up wealthy listeners for handouts.  It’s a cheeky tune that recognizes the period dynamic between rich and poor, calling for figgy pudding and refusing to leave the wealthy person’s doorstep until some is delivered “right here.”

Our investigations so far have only managed to show that the term “Christmas pudding” is likely less than 400 years old; a mere youngster compared to some other cultural “traditions” in the world.  However, were there Christmas puddings earlier than that, just using different names?  The Aforementioned carol would seem to show that but we need something more solid than the words to a Christmas carol to nail it down.  Perhaps a better route for solving this mystery is to look into the history of boiled and steamed puddings.

THE HISTORY OF PUDDING

The term “pudding” seems to appear around 1300 AD as “a kind of sausage: the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, etc., stuffed with minced meat, suet, seasoning, boiled and kept till needed.”  This perhaps came from a West Germanic stem *pud- “to swell” (cognates: Old English puduc “a wen,” Westphalian dialect puddek “lump, pudding,” Low German pudde-wurst “black pudding,” English dialectal pod “belly.” (Harper)  Therefore, it seems that the earliest puddings were meat and suet sewn up in intestines or stomachs with various seasonings (think Haggis).

Haggis on a bed of Neeps and Taddies

A Haggis Served to Table

The origin of fig pudding is medieval.  Its possible ancestors include savory puddings such as crustades, fygeye or figge (a potage of mashed figs thickened with bread), creme boiled (a kind of stirred custard), and sippets.  (Austin)  These early ancestors evolved into medieval puddings.  What these puddings had in common was their plums or dried fruits (commonly raisins), breadcrumbs, beef suet, spice, and often spirits.  Their ingredients were expensive and connoted wealth and festivity; their technology originally required simple utensils but lengthy preparations.

By the early 18th century, as we found earlier, there are no puddings to be found under the name “Christmas Pudding,” neither in England or in America, but a rather long succession of other puddings that are similar, among them Suet Pudding, Plum Pudding, Bread Pudding, even Apple Pudding.  Almost all of these puddings were boiled puddings and it was the development of the pudding bag in the 18th Century that made puddings accessible to almost anyone.  The “bag,” made of woven linen or strong cotton cloth, was simply a square large enough to hold the pudding securely in a boiling water bath.  Martha Bradley, a mid-eighteenth-century English cookbook author whose works were also used in the Colonies, described the process:

“Let the Cloth be perfectly clean and free from any Taste of the Soap, for that is full as bad as Dirt.  Before the Pudding is put into it let it be dipped in hot Water and floured.  As to the tying, the Nature of the Pudding makes a difference; if it be a Batter Pudding it must be tied close, but if it be a Bread Pudding it is to be tied loose.  See that the Water perfectly boils before the Pudding is put into the Pot, and let it be stirred about from Time to Time, to prevent its sticking to the Bottom.”  (Bradley)

Cook putting a pudding bag into the copper to boil

Boiling a Pudding in a Bag

The genius of this method lay in getting the floured cloth quickly into the boiling water so that the grainy particles absorbed the moisture immediately and swelled to form an impenetrable barrier.  The pudding itself formed into a globe shape, the “cannonball.”

Also during the 18th Century we see the celebratory pudding moving from a “figgy pudding” to a plum pudding.  I really have not been able to decide why that is, perhaps just a change in tastes, but, based on an Ngram search of Google Books 30 million scanned books, we see figge die out around 1650, while fig pudding doesn’t appear much until around 1840.  Based on this, it seems that in England, our celebratory pudding transitioned to the Plum Pudding at around the beginning of the Georgian era.

We have to be careful in assuming that we know what a plum pudding was.  Words change meaning over time and do not always have the same meaning as they do today.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)- the 26-volume definitive record of the English language, one of the definitions of “plum” is:

A dried grape or raisin as used for puddings, cakes, etc.  This use probably arose from the substitution of raisins for dried plums or prunes as an ingredient in plum-broth, porridge, etc., with retention of the name ‘plum’ for the substituted article.

The OED then goes on to list occurrences of this use in literature, such as in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) where he also defined a “plum” as “raisin; grape dried in the sun.”  In looking at recipes in our period, plum puddings are almost exclusively made of raisins, giving further credence to the meaning as shown in the OED

One possible explanation for the transition from fig to plum may rest with the unlikely combination of the English Puritans and with King George I.  Banned by the Puritans in the 1600s for its rich ingredients, the pudding and its customs came back into popularity during the reign of George I.  When he celebrated his first Christmas in England, George I requested plum pudding as part of his royal feast after arriving from Hanover to take the throne in 1714.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in England, pudding technology once again changed.  Tin stamping companies turned out beautifully shaped tin molds with tight lids, where a pudding could be steamed instead of boiled, no longer requiring the demanding pudding bag process.  The deep kettle of boiling water was replaced by a lidded steaming pot; and some were specially designed with racks to hold a number of small molds at one time.

Fluted Plum Pudding that was steamed in a tin mold

Steamed Pudding from a Tin Mold.

The English in America continued their beloved pudding traditions, and made them here just as they had at home.  Early New Englanders, driven by their wish to reinstate religious fundamentals and to eschew what they considered to be corrupt excesses, did not recognize Christmas as a holiday, and reserved their puddings for secular occasions.  Eventually, the popularity of Puddings in America bounced back and they were, for a time just as popular as in England.  However, that began to change in the early Victorian period.

THE IMPOSTER – EUROPEAN PUDDING OR CUSTARD

Food historians generally agree that custard, the sweet almost pudding-like substance we Americans know today, dates to the Middle ages.  At that time custard was eaten alone or used as fillings for pies, tarts, pastry, etc.  European cooks introduced classic recipes for sweet custards to America and culinary evidence confirms American cooks readily embraced these recipes.  The distinction between European custard and American pudding became muddled sometime in the 1840s.  This happened to be when Alfred Bird, an English chemist, introduced custard powder as an alternative to egg thickeners.  It was not long before Americans began using custard powder and other cornstarch derivatives as thickeners for custard-type desserts.

In the last decades of the 19th century, some American social reformers and food companies tried to turn custard/pudding from dessert to health food.  They marketed American custards and puddings for their nutritional benevolence with special respect to invalids and children.  Late 19th century cookbooks and company brochures (Jello, Royal) were replete with “quick” custard and pudding recipes, often touting arrowroot and tapioca as the healthy ingredients.  By the 1930s instant custard & pudding mixes were readily available to the American public and the classic boiled/steamed pudding was all but forgotten.

A COUPLE OF PUDDING RECIPES

Now that we have looked at the history of the “Christmas” pudding, I’m sure you can’t wait to try your hand at making one yourself.  Here are a couple of links to videos from Jas. Townsend & Sons showing how to make them in an 18th Century manner.  The traditional pudding used suet for the fat in the pudding.  Suet, while quite common in England and other places in the world, can be hard to come by here in the US.  In the first recipe, our 18th century cook substitutes butter for the suet.

In this second video, our 18th century cook gives some guidance on how to get suet today, and uses suet to make another variant of plum pudding.

I hope you all enjoyed this look into the history of the “Christmas” pudding.  While, on the surface, making a boiled pudding may seem difficult, I have made small ones cooking over an open fire at living history events and the public was absolutely fascinated.  Most Americans are familiar with the Christmas pudding mentioned in ‘A Christmas Carol” but they have no idea that you make it by boiling.  I hope that this article will inspire you to try your hand at recreating this part of Georgian Era history.  Please let me know about your experiences with Christmas puddings, making them, or eating them.  One of my current interests is in Georgian era cooking so I am always looking for more information from my readers.

 

Chuck H.
© 2014

 

Works Cited

Austin, T. ed. (1964). Two fifteenth-century cookery-books : Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430), & Harl. MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS. 55. London: Oxford University Press.

Bradley, M. (1760). The British Housewife: or, the Cook, Housekeeper’s and Gardener’s Companion . London: S. Crowder and H. Woodgate.

Churchill, J. (1745). Collection of Voyages and Travels. London.

Dickens, C. (1858). A Christmas Carol. London: Bradbury & Evans.

Harper, D. (n.d.). pudding. Retrieved 12 07, 2014, from Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pudding

“plum, a., n., and adv.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford University Press.

 

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