Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-grandson of the author Charles Dickens, present a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol. Gerald clearly resembles his namesake, and his facial expressions as he brought to life the different characters in the story were priceless. But my favorite part of the evening was when Gerald embodied Mrs. Cratchit as she prepared to serve the Christmas pudding to the assembled Cratchit family. Here’s the condensed version of the scene used by Charles Dickens himself in his dramatic readings:
“Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone, —too nervous to bear witnesses, — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.
“Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose, — a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
“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 pastry-cook’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.
“O, 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. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”
And many a modern British family would not think of celebrating Christmas without a traditional pudding. But this pudding is not at all like what we think of as pudding in the United States—a creamy smooth, relatively bland desert. “Pudding” is the generic term for “dessert” in the U.K. Christmas pudding, though, is a specific dessert with a rich history. Though I confess I have never tasted this treat, from the typical ingredients used, I can conclude that it must be sweet, spicy, dense, and chewy. Last week, I blogged about mincemeat and its mystery ingredients. Christmas pudding (a.k.a. plum pudding because it originally contained plums) seems to be a recombination of many of the same ingredients—suet, dried fruits, candied fruit peel, and spices—held together with flour, breadcrumbs, and eggs. The mixture is formed into balls, wrapped in cloth, and aged for a few weeks, during which time it is basted with brandy or rum. It is then steamed or boiled to soften the texture. Just before serving, the dining room is darkened and the pudding doused with flaming liquor before being ceremoniously presented to appreciative oohs and ahs.
The plum pudding trade cards in my collection, which date to the 1870s, suggest that the role of carrying the pudding to the table in households of means was typically performed by a servant. Below, the king instructs his serving-man where to place the steaming dessert:
On this card, the bearer resembles a liveried footman:
The woman below appears to be a cook, with cheeks flushed from standing over a steaming copper pot:
Sometimes the task was assigned to a child, as on this trade card, which depicts either a servant boy or a wealthy child in period clothing:
The most nerve-wracking choice would be to entrust the flaming pudding to two small children in the family. Don’t try this at home, kids:
If you are not inclined to light your food on fire this holiday, you’ll find a simplified, flame-free version of a classic English Christmas pudding here (along with sources for a few harder-to-find ingredients). But why not try the real deal instead? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Mince pie is one of those pastries I grew up eating but probably never would have eaten if given my choice of any pastry on the planet. At some point in my childhood, my mother must have come to the conclusion that her family all shared that opinion, because from then on, pumpkin and pecan were the only pies she made for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I always wondered what was in mince pie, though. Was there actually meat in mincemeat? I’m not a vegetarian, but mixing meat and fruit just isn’t my kind of tasty. I’m pretty sure my mother used canned mincemeat—most likely None Such brand. So I checked out the None Such label in the grocery store recently and found that it does indeed contain beef, far down on the ingredients list.
Turns out the None Such brand has been around for at least 100 years. I have a trade card advertising the brand from about 1895, when it was still owned by Merrell & Soule (it was bought by Borden in the 1920s):
As you can see, Victorian-era cooks were as fond of convenience as we are. “You make the crust, we do the rest” would still make a very good marketing slogan. Mince pie is among the most labor-intensive of pies. Traditionally, it includes several kinds of citrus peel and juice (grating, squeezing), minced meat, fat, and apples (chopping), spices (more grating), and reduced cider (boiling).
Most old recipes would give a cardiologist nightmares—they frequently contain great gobs of suet besides the meat. In addition, there were copious amounts of sugars in the form of fruit, apple cider, and brown sugar. The idea was to achieve just the right balance of fattiness, sweetness, and tartness. But making and preserving mincemeat did serve a useful purpose in the days before refrigeration: The sugars in the fruit and the antibacterial properties of the spices acted as preservatives, giving people alternatives to smoked and salted meats.
Cliff Doerkson of the Chicago Reader unearthed two vintage newspaper recipes for mince pie and gives his hilarious history of mincemeat and his attempts to recreate the recipes here. His article almost makes we want to make a mince pie this Christmas. Almost.
I think I prefer just looking at the beautiful mincemeat trade cards from my collection:
Surely one of the largest commercial producers of mincemeat in the Victorian era was Atmore & Son, which billed itself as the “oldest house in the trade,” having been established in 1842. Its average daily sales “during the season” numbered 12 tons! Yes, that’s daily. Here’s a selection of their ads:
My favorite mincemeat ephemera is this little booklet in the shape of a pie, advertising New England Condensed Mince Meat, made by T. E. Dougherty of Chicago, Illinois, and Port Byron, New York. “Mince pie properly made is delicious, wholesome and nutritious,” it states. “Mince pie poorly made is unpalatable, unwholesome and indigestible. Just the difference between high grade and low grade mince meat. New England Condensed Mince Meat is strictly high grade, prepared from the choicest fruits, beef, spices, sugar and pure boiled cider. All fruits washed, carefully picked over by hand and all raisin seeds removed [gritty mincemeat was a recognized problem]. Absolutely no adulterations [also a recognized problem]. It was first made in 1882…improved from year to year, and in 1895 made under an entirely new formula, in which is used a new combination of dainty and delicious fruits, found in no other condensed mince meat. It is now perfect, requiring no additions whatever except water, and makes larger and richer pies than ever; also delicious fruit cakes and puddings.”
Inside the booklet is a children’s story in which Mother Goose, taking pity on the poor children who have been lured from their homes by the Pied Piper and have nothing to eat, swoops down on her broom and scoops them up, promising to feed them whatever they want most of all. She asks them what that would be. The children all shout together, “Something that has every goody in the whole, wide world in a single bite.” At first, Mother Goose is stumped. Does such a food exist? Then the answer comes to her, and she aims her broomstick for New England. They sail through the open pantry window of a New England home, where she deposits the children and disappears in a flash.
“And what do you think they saw?” asks the writer. “And what did they smell? and what did they taste? Surely every goody in the world in a single bite.
“For they scrambled around a real New England mince pie and a beautiful pair of fairy hands and a bright silver knife cut the pie just to fit each waiting mouth. It was fairly bursting with spices and sweets and fruits and meats, and they ate, and they ate, and they ate and then they began to grow. And what do you think they grew into? Why, just what all good children grow into who eat mince pie made from Dougherty’s New England Condensed Mince meat: splendid American citizens.”
The next few pages of the booklet go on to describe the thrill of eating fresh mince pies and the quality of the ingredients used in Dougherty’s brand of mincemeat:
Maybe I will try making a mince pie after all!