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 (1 oz.) of ignited brandy, and bedight (adorned) 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 us look and see if we can uncover the truth about the ghosts of Christmas puddings past.
When Did the Term Christmas Pudding Originate?
The name Christmas pudding is 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 some research 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.”
Assuming 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 implore wealthy listeners for handouts. Overall, it is 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 managed to show that the term “Christmas pudding” is less than four hundred 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. So, a better route for solving this mystery is to investigate 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.” Therefore, it seems likely that the earliest puddings were meat and suet sewn up in intestines or stomachs with various seasonings (think Haggis).
The origin of fig pudding is medieval. Its 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. 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,” either in England or in America, but a long succession of other puddings that are similar; among them Suet Pudding, Plum Pudding, Bread Pudding, even Apple Pudding. Almost all these puddings were boiled puddings, and it was the development of the “pudding bag” in the 18th Century that made puddings accessible to 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.”
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.”
During the 18th Century, we also see the celebratory pudding moving from a “figgy pudding” to a plum pudding. I have not been able to decide why that is, perhaps just a change in tastes or the fact that plums (raisins) were available year-round, but, based on a Ngram search of Google Books, we see the term “figge” die out around 1650, while fig pudding does not appear much until around 1840. Based on this, it seems that, in the English-speaking world, our celebratory pudding transitioned to the Plum Pudding at around the beginning of the Georgian era.
When conducting historical research, we must be careful in assuming that we know what a word means. The same is true for “plum” in plum pudding. 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.” Looking at recipes in the Georgian Era, plum puddings are almost exclusively made of raisins, giving further credence to the meaning as shown in the OED.
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 several small molds at one time.
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 avoid 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 New England 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 as pudding, 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.
Some Pudding Recipes
Now that we have looked at the history of the “Christmas” pudding, I am sure you cannot wait to try your hand at making one yourself. First, there is a link to a video from Jas. Townsend & Sons showing how to make a pudding in an 18th Century pudding bag (or cloth). I would clarify one thing that Mr. Townsend says in his video. While Zante Currents are a small variety of grapes, Red Currents are not grapes/raisins and should not be confused with the other. 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. It is, however, available online from Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Atora-Shredded-Suet-200G/dp/B015Q9XCAO), US Wellness Meats (https://grasslandbeef.com/collections/tallow-marrow-broth) among other online sources.
Another recipe for an English Plum pudding comes from the 1836 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife: or Methodical Cook by Mrs. Mary Randolph.
AN ENGLISH PLUM PUDDING.
Beat eight eggs very light, add to them a pound of flour sifted, and a pound of powdered sugar; when it looks quite light, put in a pound of suet finely shred, a pint of milk, a nutmeg grated, and a gill of brandy; mix with it a pound of currants, washed, picked, and dried, and a pound of raisins stoned and floured—tie it in a thick cloth, and boil it steadily eight hours.
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 join us in January 2024 when, as out follow-on to the November post on the use of medicinal herbs by the European settlers here in North America, we will examine Native American use of Medicinal Herbs.
Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Austin, T. (Ed.). (1964). Two fifteenth-century cookery books: Harleian MS. (ab 1430), & Harlleian MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 533, & Douce MS. 55. London: Oxford University Press.
Ayto, J. (2002). An A-Z of Food and Drink. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bradley, M. (1760). The British Housewife: or the Cook, Housekeeper, and Gardener's Companion. London: S. Crowder and H. Woodgate.
Churchill, J. (1744). A Collection of Voyages and Travels: Some Now First Printed From Original Manuscripts, . . . . London: H. Lintot.
Dickens, C. (1858). A Christmas Carol. London: Bradbury & Evans.
Harper, D. (n.d.). Pudding. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from Online Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pudding&type=0
Johnson, S. (1755). A dictionary of the English language: In which the words are deduced from their originals. London: William Strahan.
Randolph, M. (1836). The Virginia Housewife. Baltimore: John Plaskitt.