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A pudding with history

From frumenty to ‘the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon’

"Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here; we won’t go until we get some..."

I always thought this Christmas carol was too demanding in tone and emphasis. It’s a pretty rude request to make of a host/ess. What is figgy pudding anyway?

Plum pudding, also called Christmas pudding, is what the lyrics refer to. Not so much a tradition in North America but a holiday necessity in Britain, Christmas pudding is steeped (no pun intended) in history and symbolism.

Modern Christmas pudding is very different from the original dish it started out as. Pagan ritual during the winter solstice was celebrated with an unusual excess of food for people longing for spring and its promised abundance. The blood of a sacrificed animal was boiled with spices in an open cauldron to make a thin gruel, called frumenty. By the 14th century this porridge-like mixture had evolved to include beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes and wine. In preparation for Christmas festivities it was eaten as a fasting dish.

Frumenty became closer to plum pudding around 1595 when it was thickened with breadcrumbs, eggs and dried fruit and made more flavourful with the addition of ale, spirits, milk and cream. It was a very rich dish made even more so by the giant silver and gold tureens it was presented in at the tables of the great houses. Celebrations of this sort were banned by Cromwell in 1664; indulging in the pagan, lewd custom was sinful for the Puritans and the rich ingredients were described as unfit for God-fearing people.

In 1714, plum pudding was restored to its rightful place at the table but instead of a porridge it was substantially solidified. This change probably came about following the Christmas tradition of preparing haggis, a sheep’s stomach lining stuffed with a mixture of animal organs, onion, suet and oatmeal, and boiled for 24 hours (now six) before being eaten. A lazy cook who had not begun preparations early enough would be dragged around the market place for all to see.

The resurrection of Christmas pudding continued to be objected to by Quakers at this time, referring to the dessert as "the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon". This may be the reason why plum pudding was not adopted as the Christmas dessert in the New World.

In imitation of boiling a sheep’s stomach lining, the ingredients of plum pudding were tied up in a "pudding cloth", several layers of muslin, tied off and either boiled in water or steamed above it. The tied pudding, when unwrapped, revealed the characteristic rounded shape of the puddings we associate with Victorian Christmas. Ingredients, even in Victorian times, varied from household to household. Not surprisingly, wealthier households produced puddings with more dried fruit, spices and wine than poorer households that turned out puddings with more flour and cereal. Ale was always added as most people brewed their own at home. Modern day puddings are usually made in bowls or moulds with a variety of dried fruits, spices and spirits.

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