Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 8, 2010

Plum Pudding to Englishman’s Taste

For generations of my family on my mother’s side, there was a single coming-of-age-ritual that had to be endured each Christmas season: Christmas Plum Pudding. It’s an English tradition courtesy of my English grandmother. Even after forty years in the U.S., she had lost neither her Yorkshire accent (Hull) nor her preference for tea over coffee. At the family Christmas, she was the center of a vast, lively throng. All of us remember her with enormous respect and joy for her indomitable spirit and her happy laugh.

Plum pudding, or Christmas pudding, as my siblings and cousins can attest, is not for the weak. Each year at the family holiday gathering (often numbering well over thirty aunts, uncles, cousins and all), the annual pudding emerged from mysterious rituals performed in the kitchen to be set with great fanfare upon the table. This is not familiar food to a lot of cultures. It appears as a rounded, dark brown mass, kind of like a dense cake, the surface peppered with candied citron, raisins and currants. The lights in the room would be extinguished, one of the presiding uncles would douse the dark mound of pudding with brandy and set it alight. For a moment, the pudding glowed with a blue flame, which danced in veils just above the surface of the pudding, and we would sing:

It’s a merry, merry Christmas and a happy new year/May it to all … bring forth good cheer./Let’s join in wishes to friends far and near./It’s a merry, merry Christmas … A a-a-a-and a Happy New Year!

(There’s a verse that follows, but I’m reserving that so that my cousins at least have to contact me once a year to remind them of it.)

Then came the tough part: eating that concoction. Plum pudding is a food from at least the 17th Century, maybe even the famines of the late Middle Ages. As you’ll see in the recipe below, it is not something you’ll find at the local bakery or … well, almost anywhere in our American culture of sweet desserts. Deeply savory, darkly-colored, its taste had a kind of burning richness provided not by shortening or butter, but suet: yes, good ol’ beef fat. The full recipe for the big pudding that served 30 people had nearly two pounds of suet in it. Now, that, my friends, is food to sustain your family through a winter in which your food might consist mostly of bread, bread, turnips and more bread, providing the flour held out.

The taste? Difficult to describe. I do not know of a young member of the Wharton family, recently grown-up enough to sit at the table and hold a fork, who ever — ever — took a bite and said, “Oh YUM! Is there MORE?” The first bite was an ordeal, a rite of initiation. It was an even greater ordeal the next year, since you knew what was coming. Every year Christmas would come, and the pudding would emerge, blaze, be sliced and served, and there would be your pudding. From age five or so, year after year, you would get your slice of pudding.

Not only was the pudding itself a flavor from the dim, chthonic past, but it was served with a hard white sauce beaten from sugar, butter and rum (a heavy hand on the rum, me lads) that only added to the perplexity of the neophyte Whartons who wondered how this could be considered food at all, much less dessert. Altogether, it was a challenge to those unaccustomed to such fare.

I was once one of those young initiates, confronted with the most ghastly-looking slab of indescribable stuff (Is it cake? Is there meat in there? Why does it smell like that?) I’d ever encountered. As if the pudding was not enough, it was slathered over with this weird white sauce, unlike anything one encountered at the table the other 354. Yet, there were my older cousins, John, Teddy, June — who I admired for being so grown-up — gobbling this stuff down like it was candy, “Come on, Cuz, dig in,” they admonished me. “You only get this once a year!” They knew what I was in for. They’d been through The Ritual themselves, and they had come through it to the Other Side. They relished my pain.

There was an inducement to at least put a fork to the gooey mass: If you had been good that year, there would be a dime somewhere under there, and you had to at least shove the stuff around enough and break it up to find your dime.

In time, my mother prevailed on Grandma Wharton to write down the recipe, and what emerged was not a list of ingredients and directions, but a poem: a mnemonic rhyme passed along through generations. Impressively, my grandmother could recall it from memory. Here it is, transcribed from her handwritten version. Read it with a lilting cadence:

Plum Pudding to Englishman’s Taste

To make plum pudding to Englishman’s taste,

So all may be eaten and nothing to waste,

Take of raisins and currants and bread crumbs all round

Also suet from oxen and flour a pound.

Of citron well-candied or lemon as good

With molasses and sugar, eight ounces I would.

Into this first compound, next must be hasted

A nutmeg well-grated, ground ginger well tasted

With salt to preserve it, of such a teaspoonful

Then of milk half a pint and of fresh eggs take six;

Be sure after that you properly mix.

Next tie up in a bag just as round as you can.

Put into a capacious and suitable pan,

Then boil for eight hours just as hard as you can.

There you have it! You still have time to make your pudding to delight and amaze your family. Traditionally, this dish was cooked up right after Thanksgiving (probably originally Martinmas or thereabout), and then tucked into a closed tin or pan in a white cloth, which you’d douse every week or so with a tot of rum or whisky. After six weeks of repeated soaking and curing, it would be ready to be heated up on Christmas day and brought to the table. Oh, yum. Granted, if you’re only starting now, you won’t have as many weeks of whisky-soaking, so I advise that you apply the whisky orally as you deem necessary.

Eventually, I can attest, you become tolerant of pudding, then reach a level of acceptance and, with enough time, you come to enjoy it. Not all initiates reach this state, but not all monks reach Nirvana, either. I did persevere and reach the stage at which I became the Older Cousin, already on my second helping (and second dime!) urging the younger kids, “Come on, Cuz, dig in. You only get this once a year!” I’m not sure anyone believed me, but I’m probably not as persuasive as John and Teddy and June were.

My mother carried on the pudding-making tradition after my grandmother was gone, and I helped her a couple of times (it makes for a memorable trip to the butcher counter to pick up a couple of pounds of suet: “Not much call for this any more!”). Eventually, Mom relented, first reducing the amount of suet and then entirely substituting butter for it, so that we had something a little more in tune with today’s diet. Now that Mom’s no longer here, I don’t know that I’ll ever make Christmas pudding again, but the memory is still vivid. If you’re cooking up a batch from the recipe above, give me a call, and I’ll bop on over! If you need actual quantities, I think I can enlist Piano Nan or the Main Cheese to help me find Mom’s recipe. Drop me a line. You have to sing the song, though. I’ll sing it for you upon request. It’s really not the same without singing.

One of my favorite Medieval stories is Percival (Parsifal … whatever) wandering the wilds in search of the Holy Grail. He comes to the castle of the Fisher King. The King has been seriously wounded, and appears to be dying. Percival has had a powerful vision that tells him that the Grail is nearby (and it is, right in that very castle). Yet, standing before the throne of the wounded king, he remains aloof, and fails to ask the one human question: “Why do you suffer?” Were he to ask the question, he would heal the king, restore order to his failing court, and attain the Grail. Failing to ask that one compelling human question, he fails utterly, loses the Grail, the king will die, and mankind will remain unredeemed.

The point of telling Percival’s story is that all of us have an opportunity at some critical moment to ask. If there is some tradition or story or history or other information that a member of the older generation in your family has in their heads, don’t miss your chance to ask him or her about it. When they do, write it down. I regret that I didn’t ask my grandmother how she learned that poem/recipe. I cannot ask her now, any more than I can transport myself back fifty or sixty years to the rooms in which we sang that song in the dim light while the blue flame danced above the Christmas pudding and voices now long-silent sang. The holidays are a good time to think about this; you might be seeing someone you rarely see: a grandparent or an older aunt or uncle. You have to ask. The first time you ask, they may give you a cursory answer. They think you already know, or don’t know how much it matters to you. Ask again, and write it down. The next generation will be counting on you to tell them.

But if they have a recipe that requires suet, start your search early. Not that easy to score!

And if you have a family tradition that includes a song, well, sing out!

Now … everybody!

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016

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Responses

  1. Thanks for a wonderful blog today which brings back many images and memories from the past.

    I also just walked out to the kitchen, past our dining room table, and remembered that there were Christmases where it held the pudding to be set aflame and sung over. How glad I am that we were to experience this tradition in our own home, with our son, you and his Grandparents; particularly his Grandmother who brought the tradition to us.

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  2. My family had a very similar tradition, but not with the song. My parents were from the Manitoulin Island, Little Current, Ontario, and the clan originated in York, England. The Morphets and Mylands came to Canada in the late 1800’s. I’ve mentioned this tradition many times, but no one else had ever heard of it until I read your report. I think they called our “Christmas Cake, and sometimes poured a thick rum sauce over it- but it also was lit. Thanks for the memories- !

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    • Donna,
      Hull, my grandmother’s home, is not far from York. We’re cultural cousins! Believe me, it’s rum sauce that unites us all! Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Right on the money Brad and thanks for the great images!

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  4. My favorite pudding-related tradition (besides the delicious flavor of course!) is singing in a simple and cheesy voice, “Now bring us some figgy pudding…now bring us some figgy pudding…!” haha! Warm Christmas wishes to all the Nixons!

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