Hearth to Hearth: Christmas Pudding

Hearth to Hearth: Christmas Pudding – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – January 2002

In the great celebratory feast, a highlight of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas Plum Pudding is described as only Dickens could do it:

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! the pudding was out of the copper [boiler]. A smell like washing –day! That was the cloth [the pudding bag]. 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…”

The Dickens’ Christmas Pudding is a prototype for our modern visualization of the dish. Mrs. Cratchit carries it, aflame with brandy, into the darkened dining room. What a presentation this must have been in the days before birthday cakes and candles.

The Christmas Pudding was indeed an icon of the Victorian holiday. Christmas celebrations as we know them are, in fact, surprisingly recent, and in the Victorian era were just developing the rituals and trappings we all take for granted. Cookbooks give some evidence of the changes in the English culinary Christmas as it evolved in the nineteenth century. Early in the period there are no puddings to be found under the name “Christmas Pudding,” neither in England or in America, but rather a long succession of other puddings that are similar, among them Suet Pudding, Plum Pudding, Bread Pudding, even Apple Pudding. These were all derivatives of much earlier Medieval puddings, which survived in British cookery as one of its signature foods along with characteristic pies, ales and beers, particularly fine cheeses, and all the exotic ingredients brought by far flung trade. What these puddings had in common was their plums or dried fruits (commonly raisins), bread crumbs, beef suet, spice, and often spirits. Their ingredients were expensive and connoted wealth and festivity; their technology originally required simple utensils but lengthy preparations.

The Christmas variation was simply an earlier pudding with a name change. Queen Victoria’s husband Albert greatly desired to bring the familiar German Christmas observances of his youth to the British court. Albert was also extremely partial to the rich pudding he was served in England, and Victoria, as always, desired to please him. The resulting opulent table now merged his cookie-cutter cookies, special gingerbreads, and goose with the British boar’s head, mince pie, and wassail. The flamed pudding was given a place of honor. Now, throughout England, families adapted the Christmas Pudding to their means, and Dickens, sensitive to the ways in which court fashions found their ways into ordinary homes, recorded its splendors.

For collectors of Christmas memorabilia, the first artifacts that held the pudding are not to be found. At first they were organic—animal bladders or casings, the farmes noted in seventeenth century recipes. The eighteenth century pudding bag indicates progress in its day: made of woven linen or strong cotton cloth, it 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 Soop, 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.”

The ingenuity 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 was formed into a globe shape, the “cannonball.” It was a striking sight aflame on a platter, garnished with holly leaves.

The English in America continued their beloved pudding traditions, and made them here just as they had at home. New Englanders, driven by their desire 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. Even in the middle nineteenth century farmers’ diaries recorded full days of work and no feasting, entertaining, decorating or gift exchanges, and consequently no foods with the word “Christmas” in their titles. But as the century moved along, and as American industry created new holidays for the purpose of selling greeting cards, candies, decorations and gifts, Christmas Pudding became part of the new observance.

The pudding bag now became passé. Cookstoves had supplanted hearths, and growing industries found new ways to make Christmas Pudding in simpler ways. Tin stamping companies turned out beautifully shaped tin molds with tight lids, in which a boiled pudding could now be steamed, and no longer needed the demanding pudding bag process. For example, Dover Stamping Company, 1858, offered them in a number of sizes. The popularity of these tins shows in the many kinds of catalogs in which they were offered and their regular place in today’s antique shops. 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.

And it wasn’t too long before one could buy commercially-made miniature plum puddings in a can, completely bereft of the odors Dickens described, but typically tainted with that all-too-familiar tin taste.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com

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