I posted a version of this memoir in 2010. I’m happy to revisit a cherished childhood holiday memory with you.
On my mother’s side of the family, there was a coming-of-age-ritual that had to be endured each Christmas season: Plum Pudding. It was a 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 exuberant laughter.
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 and cousins), 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, writhing 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.)
From the archive, a photo of the 1971 pudding alight.
Then came the test: 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 contained nearly two pounds of suet. That, my friends, is food to sustain your family through a winter in which your diet 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 364. 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.
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.
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.
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 reached the stage at which I became an 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 probably wasn’t as persuasive as John, 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 anymore!”). 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!
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 Sir 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 gravely 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 failed utterly, lost the Grail, the king would die, and mankind remained unredeemed.
The point of telling Percival’s story is that all of us have an opportunity at some critical moment to ask. 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. If there is some tradition, story or history that they have in their heads, don’t miss your chance to ask them about it. When they do, write it down.
The next generation will rely on you to tell them.
I did listen to my grandmother, but I regret that I didn’t ask her 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 voices now long-silent sang that song in the dim light while a blue flame danced above the Christmas pudding.
And if you have a family tradition that includes a song, well, sing out!
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to you all.
Now … everybody!
© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016