November 19, 2020

Traditions are not things of the mind. They’re tactile, in a way that’s often missed by our bloodless modern way of relating to the past, and nowhere is this more so than in the foods we eat. As Proust famously evoked, a childhood favourite can carry a payload of memory near-impossible to convey in words.

As a child, I loved the festive ceremony of pouring brandy over the Christmas pudding, watching the blue flame lick across its surface and (usually) setting the spring of holly alight. That mixture of fire and burning foliage seems a trace of a more ancient English winter festival than the Christian one we officially celebrate in midwinter.

But I never much liked the taste of the pudding. As an adult, though, I’ve acquired a deeply nerdy obsession with the making of it.  I have scoured recipes of bygone eras, and have a growing collection of antique cookery books. It’s a very sensory kind of bookishness: flicking through recipes created for long-gone palates and lifestyles, imagining the scents, picturing the kitchens where they were prepared and wondering about the lives and dinner-tables of the people who ate them. I wonder if they, too, made their pudding on “Stir-Up Sunday”— this Sunday, the last before Advent and the traditional date for the making of the pud.

As well as those culinary traditions which have disappeared, the ones which persist are equally intriguing. They gather not just personal associations of the Proustian sort but shared ones, redolent of the culture from which they emerged.

Nothing speaks more eloquently of modern Britain’s embrace of globalisation than the cookery section in a modern bookshop. Our ever more varied national diet is a cliché oft trotted out to justify globalisation’s less charming side effects. From this vantage point, our culinary history seems a blandly beneficial flow of ideas, peoples and foodstuffs: the high-gloss, neutered ideal of international trade.

But take the lid off the pan and the scent is far stronger: a potent stew of warfare, religious violence, class conflict and political brutality. Cooking Christmas dinner for my own family as an adult, I found myself delving through old recipes for a pudding I liked — and discovered this story clearly visible, in aromatic microcosm, in the story of Christmas pudding. For like many of the things we consider “British” today, this story is both less traditional than it seems — and also more ancient and fierce.

One of my most treasured belongings is a gift from the grandmother who taught me classic English cookery: a 1784 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. First published in 1747, it’s the first mass-market modern cookery-book, and includes a “Plum-Pudding” clearly recognisable as the Christmas pudding of modern times:

The dish described here reportedly took its place at Christmas dinner first in 1714, thanks to the Hanoverian George I. In the following century, plum-puddings became inseparable from Christmas, as captured evocatively by Charles Dickens in his 1843 A Christmas Carol, a story that’s probably done more than any other literary work to shape our modern picture of a “traditional” Christmas. But by the time Anthony Trollope made the first literary use of the phrase ‘Christmas pudding’ in Dr Thorne (1858), he was referring to a dish that had been “traditional” for barely 150 years.

Our modern monarchy seems likewise to have been in place forever: a classic, abiding symbol of traditional British identity. But like the pudding whose contemporary form George I instituted, much of that grand impression was in fact conjured after the deposition of our last absolute monarch, James II, in 1688, by a British royalty that wielded considerably less power than James did.

The German George I, who spoke no English at the time of his coronation, was leap-frogged over a queue of some 55 eligible Catholics to take the throne. He reigned against a backdrop of bitter religious power-politics, that leaked into every facet of English political life and prompted numerous violent uprisings. That his version of Christmas pudding triumphed to become the definitive “traditional” pudding today is testament not to the glory of culinary cosmopolitanism, so much as how conclusively the Hanoverians won their particular power-struggle.

George’s plum-pudding didn’t appear in a vacuum though. A cousin of the now-traditional Georgian dish was well-established as part of the festive culinary repertoire, long before George I was imported from overseas to embody a suitably neutered and Protestant constitutional monarchy. And much like English monarchs prior to the Glorious Revolution, the pre-Hanoverian version of Christmas pudding was considerably meatier and more pungent.

Its origins lie in the mobilisation of England’s early-medieval military elite (who, to complicate matters, were Norman French) through the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries to fight in the Crusades. Somewhat like a bloodier version of 1970s package holidaymakers, returning from Corfu with a Demis Roussos record and a taste for taramasalata, the crusaders returned to England from the Middle East with a taste for spiced food, and dishes that mixed meat with fruit.

It’s to the Crusaders’ medieval efforts to recreate the taste of their Holy Land adventures in the comfort of their own castles that we owe the forerunner of the Christmas pudding: “pottage”. This was a spicy, soupy mixture of meat, grains and fruit that would have been served on in large, round hollowed-out “trencher” loaves, like edible bowls. Forget benevolent cultural exchange — this ancient act of cultural appropriation evokes not Gary Lineker style liberal-internationalism so much as that worldview’s more red-blooded ancestor: evangelism at swordpoint.

By Tudor times, Christmas Day was well-established as the start of twelve days of riotous celebration, in which a central role was played by “plum porridge”. This was a stew made with slow-cooked beef shin, dried fruit and wine, thickened with bread and spiced with mace, cloves and nutmegs. It’s clearly a descendant of the crusaders’ efforts at Middle Eastern cuisine.

After the execution of Charles I, the Puritans made a concerted effort to wean the English off the plays, pub-going, dancing and general “misrule” that made for a typical Twelve Days of Christmas at the time. Cromwell’s government sought to crack down on this pagan impiety in a December 1644 ordinance that Christmas Day should be a day of fasting and humility, instead of “giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights”. Naturally, fasting and humility meant a crackdown on the consumption of plum porridge, now deemed a “heathenish and a papistical practice”.

The high-mindedness didn’t last. The English yearning for strong drink and stodgy food in midwinter was not to be denied, and the Puritan ban on all things Christmas didn’t last much beyond the 1660 Restoration. In 1662 the diarist Samuel Pepys’ Christmas dinner was “a mess of brave plum porridge and a roasted pullet”.

And yet, some 50 years later, George’s dish drew a line under the wild revelry of a medieval Christmas of “misrule”. The Hanoverian update stripped the meat from the Crusader-style plum-porridge in favour of a fruit-only dessert, even as George cemented the role of English monarchs as ceremonial: an act inseparable from the inauguration of modern Britain.

So the story of plum-pudding, both ancient and modern, cuts to the dark, ambiguous heart and irrepressibly pagan edge of English winter revelry. It encompasses not just the steam of the Cratchits’ kitchen or the mawkishness of a John Lewis advert, but long ages of political and religious violence and a complex interplay between elite and popular tastes. It’s just a pudding; but it captures in miniature how national habits that seem to have existed forever in fact evolve with glacial slowness — and sometimes also with sudden, astonishing savagery.

As for “Stir-Up Sunday”, which lands this weekend, not even this name is as it seems. It refers not to the kitchen — though it’s traditional for all the family to take a turn stirring the pudding — but to the collect for the day, in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If you’re tempted to spend next Sunday stirring up not just the wills of God’s faithful people, but also a Christmas pudding, my personal favourite comes from another ground-breaking culinary classic, Eliza Acton’s 1845 Modern Cookery for Private Families.

Acton’s recipe is exceptionally light and unctuous, with none of the grittiness or bitter note that currants can inflict on a Christmas pudding. In homage to the Georgian name “plum-pudding” (even though the Georgian one actually contains no plums) I swap dried fruit for gin-pickled damsons, a byproduct of the infused gin we make with fruit from our garden. On Stir-Up Sunday I’ll strain a jar of this pungent pink brew, then pit the boozy damsons and use them in the pudding. It gives a soft headiness and deep, almost cherry-like aroma that’s quintessentially Christmas in our household.

Today, there’s a tendency to think the foreign or self-conscious elements of a tradition render it meaningless. But as with the innovation of damsons in a (traditionally plum-less) “plum-pudding”, a living tradition blends foreign and domestic, violent and festive, ancient and modern into something living. Christmas pudding will no doubt go on evolving into the future. Because sneered at though they might be, the traditions of a place have a persistent life of their own — even as they change over time and under new pressures.

New elite influences may give a tradition new forms, as with the crusaders popularising Middle Eastern spices. Traditions may mellow over time, as under George I. But if there’s a silver sixpence in the pudding for today’s anti-traditionalist elite, it’s the lesson from Cromwell’s Protectorate: that a prudent ruling class seeks to shape, not to abolish, the tastes and practices of those they rule. Otherwise, they will likely find themselves outlasted by the tastes and preferences they sought to extinguish.