Thursday, December 14, 2006

The "Cheap Christmas Pudding."

As the Christmas season is upon us, it seems appropriate to reconsider that most important element of the Victorian holiday season, the Christmas pudding. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least prior to the visitations of the Ghosts, could hardly have been described as a fan of such fare. "Every idiot," he tells us, "who goes abut with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" But Dickens himself waxed rhapsodic when describing the arrival of the rather small pudding at the Cratchit table.

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 of ignited brandy, and bedight 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.

For the Cratchits, like the "tens of thousands of respectable families whose life is one continual struggle with poverty" the Christmas Pudding was a considerable expense. Naturally, those who were always prepared to proffer advice to the poorer classes, considered this problem and, in The Times, on Christmas Eve, 1890, A. G. Payne stepped forward with his solution to the problem and his recipe for "A Cheap Christmas Pudding."

Now that eggs are 2d. each and sultana raisins 1s. a pound, a really cheap Christmas pudding would be a positive boon to many. The following recipe will not be found in any cookery book, as it is the result of some experiments I made with dates a few weeks ago. Dates are now retailed at 2d. a pound, and enable us to make a rich, nourishing, and wholesome pudding, closely resembling Christmas pudding in appearance and flavour, sufficient for six persons, at a cost of 4d.

Take a quarter of a pound each of suet, flour, and brown sugar (Porto Rico), one pound of dates, and a quarter of a grated nutmeg. Chop the suet finely, stone and cut up the dates, mix all the ingredients well together, moistening with as little water as possible; boil the whole in a buttered basin for four hours.

Within days, of course, another letter to The Times queried the provenance of the recipe pointing out that it “must be known and appreciated by nearly every cottager in England.” The author, C. P. C. claimed that he had known the recipe for many years but in the true spirit of the season and despite the fact that it was “by no means a recent discovery,” was prepared to say that the end product, the pudding, was indeed excellent.

Other writers strongly supported the view of the recipe’s excellence. Materfamilias, for one, could hardly contain her rapture, immediately taking pen to paper on Christmas Day to tell the world that she had “substituted a little sherry for the water” and she had “placed the dish before a distinguished member of the legal profession” who “was perfectly satisfied with it.”

The final letter in the great “Cheap Christmas Pudding” correspondence was dated December 30th, and pointed out that a group of gentlemen, including a Colonel in the Regular Army, a Bankruptcy Registrar, a Prison Surgeon, a Town Clerk and a Banker had enjoyed the pudding, albeit without benefit of the glass of sherry suggested by Materfamilias. They all agreed that “it was not so trying on their digestive apparatuses” as a real Christmas pudding but seemed at least mildly concerned that their cook had costed the pudding out to a halfpenny more than the original letter’s estimate. Even so, if they were to be believed, the portions were of an excellent size for the recipe was meant to create a pudding “sufficient for six persons” while these five gentlemen “only consumed half of Mr. Payne’s allowance for six persons.” Such restraint conjures up a vision of five elderly gentlemen sitting around a sparse dining room; each considering a thin sliver of Christmas pudding before their afternoon nap. Hardly the Christmas scene that Charles Dickens would have favoured!

To download a copy of the 1847 edition of A Christmas Carol, complete with the illustrations of John Leech, click here.

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