Allied Tastes: A French soldier eats Christmas pudding in 1914
Foodtripper explores the web of symbol and superstition behind the Christmas pudding.
Christmas pudding has no agreed history. Myth melds with fact, invention with bias, and untangling truth and legend is as difficult, and almost as pointless, as trying to separate the ingredients of a finished pud. Nor, thankfully, is there a standard modern recipe. Families hand down their own 'correct' methods with the reverence shown to grandma's jewellery: secret ingredients and clandestine practice – it's the story, after all, of their kin. But somehow, everyone agrees that puddings are a telling narrative in English history, and part of who we are.
The ceremony of Christmas is of course part of its appeal: the childhood carols, the unchanging TV schedules, the familiar, comforting menu. The pudding itself stretches to the origins of what we could call an English cuisine: the primordial version was 'frumenty', a bog-wet puddle of minced mutton, onions, currants and prunes flavoured with wines and spices, which the food writer Florence White called 'England's oldest national dish'.
In the sixteenth century, recipes began to call for spirits and more dried fruits, and the archetype had shifted to something called 'plum pudding' – a name it partially retains today. Under Henry VIII, it became lighter, as chicken or veal replaced mutton and beef, until eventually meat fell away altogether. (We retain suet, of course, as testament to its origins.)
And by the 1670s, the pudding had a place in the calendar as "Christmas pottage". Despite what they told you in primary school, Oliver Cromwell didn't "ban" Christmas pudding or mince pies. In 1644 some Puritans – extreme even by their own standards – legislated that Christmas should be a fast day, like the other "holy-days"; but the pottage could be eaten outside the fast. A 1656 attempt to make celebrating Christmas itself illegal was quietly dropped, and the pudding survived.
Yet religious opposition to this indulgent, alcoholic dish persisted. George I, the original Hanoverian, ate a plum pudding in 1714, which Quakers called the "invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon". Methods of meat preservation improved in the eighteenth century, and by the ascension of Queen Victoria, meat had vanished altogether, perhaps regrettably. At last, in 1830, Eliza Acton published a recipe for "Christmas pudding", the first time the phrase appears in print. Dickens praised it in A Christmas Carol. And by this time, the dish's popularity had spread: as early as 1814, Antoine Beauvilliers included a recipe for 'Plomb-Poutingueone' in L'Art du Cuisiner.
Christmas pudding contains more lore and emblem than any other dish. Its history is a web of symbol and superstition. Folkloric Victorian practice mandated that it contain 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the Apostles, as well as a silver coin to symbolise wealth, wishbones for luck, a thimble for thrift and a ring for marriage. The pudding was always made on 'stir-up Sunday', the first before Advent. A holly garnish stood for the crown of thorns, and flaming brandy represented the Passion of the Christ.
Of course, these symbols were imposed retrospectively. The pudding seems beyond faith and reason: it has evolved naturally and irrepressibly through the centuries. Today's versions perhaps seem lighter, with a little less sugar and fat. But it seems in all an inviolable hallmark of the English Christmas, and long may that continue.