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A Brief History of Figgy Pudding

The dense, spicy dish has been giving good cheer for centuries

(Morgans, Gareth/the food passionates/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Food makes an appearance in plenty of Christmas carols, from corn for popping to chestnuts roasting over an open fire. But as NPR reports, one of the most cited yet mysterious Christmas carol dishes is “figgy pudding”—a treat that neither contains figs, nor is a pudding in the American sense.

NPR points out that "figgy pudding" is in fact just a seemingly misinformed synonym for “plum pudding,” a British Christmas favorite. In fact, figgy pudding or Christmas pudding has a long, delicious history—one dating back to at least the 17th century. Here are a few great moments in the history of that holiday staple:

Meaty Beginnings

Oddly, today's sweet plum pudding hails from a meatier dish. As Maggie Black writes in History Today, the dish that eventually evolved into plum pudding originally contained preserved, sweetened meat “pyes” and boiled “pottage” (that is, vegetables) and was enjoyed in Britain as early as Roman times. By Elizabeth I’s day, writes Black, prunes had come into vogue, “and their name became a portmanteau label for all dried fruits.” As plums became synonymous with fruit, plum dishes with and without meat became party food.

“Stir-Up Sunday”

Steamed plum puddings soon became much-anticipated Christmas treats that required plenty of patience. By the 19th century, cooks traditionally gave their plum puddings at least a month to develop their signature spicy flavors. On “Stir-Up Sunday,” the Sunday before Advent which falls five Sundays before Christmas, entire families would make their Christmas pudding. The name of the day wasn’t derived from an actual need to stir up a pudding at all, but rather from a line traditionally read that Sunday at church. Back at home, pudding-making families would each stir the mixture and hope for good luck. NPR notes that the favored recipe had 13 ingredients, which represented Jesus and each of the Twelve Apostles.

Dickensian Delights 

Charles Dickens managed to almost single handedly revive old Christmas traditions with his 1843 book A Christmas Carol, which celebrated a nostalgic holiday of redemption and love. One of the traditions he upheld was that of the now-iconic Christmas pudding. In a long passage, he shows Mrs. Cratchit steaming and preparing the pudding for her excited family: 

Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! …All sorts of horrors were supposed….

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.

Maybe Mrs. Cratchit used this 1837 recipe, which features bread crumbs, flour, suet, sugar, currants, raisins, candied citron, orange peel, lemon peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, brandy, white wine and eggs.

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” 

It’s not entirely certain where the carol that contains the famous reference to a figgy pudding comes from. In 1939, a composer named Arthur Warrell received a copyright for the carol “A Merry Christmas,” but acknowledged that it was an arrangement of a traditional English song. The carol is thought to date from the 16th or 17th century, when carolers demanded refreshments like figgy pudding to keep them going throughout the chilly English nights. These days, carolers aren’t as insistent on their figgy pudding, and neither, it seems, are families—at least not for the homemade variety. The Telegraph’s Gary Cleland writes that two-thirds of British children have never stirred up a pudding of their own. 

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