Pudding and Beef Make Britons Fight
– So, wrote the 18th Century English poet, Matthew Prior[i] describing the kind of hearty foods that had instilled courage and strength through centuries of British warfare –
My sister recently sent me a light-hearted article entitled British Food Explained for Americans that had been written in an endeavor to Make the American understanding of British food, Great Again. It prompted me to write about one of many Transatlantic linguistic misunderstandings.
It has often been said that Britain and the United States are two nations separated by a common language. There are many words in our common vocabulary that have evolved different meanings as the years have passed. The culinary aspect of life is rife with potential misunderstandings and one such concerns pudding. For the American the word simply refers to a smooth creamy dessert item, but for the Brit it is a diverse cornucopia of sweet and savory dishes.
I’m a Brit who has lived in the USA for more than twenty-five years. I’ve raised my family here and my kids are American with a British twist; some who know me might say a twisted British twist! As the main supper course comes to an end my kids will ask what’s for dessert? As a child, growing up in suburban England, I would never have asked that; it would always have been what’s for pudding? You see, what Americans call pudding is only one small part of the compendium of Great British dessert items. For many a British meal the pudding is what’s in the dessert bowl when served at table and the American pudding is the custard that is lavished upon it. What the Americans call pudding is merely an addition to what the Brits call pudding.
When my son was two-years-old we were staying with my sister and her family in England. She served a treacle sponge pudding for “dessert”. A flour and egg-based batter is steamed in a pudding basin and soaked in golden sugar syrup. We have a photo of Daniel tucking into his bowl of treacle sponge pudding covered in English custard with his teddy bear sitting beside the bowl. He enjoyed the experience so much that he asked for the same pudding a few years later when we were visiting again. Over the years we have assembled a collection of pictures of him at different ages but always with a bowl of treacle sponge pudding and his teddy bear looking on.
British tea sommelier and specialist Jane Pettigrew writes: The pudding that takes pride of place on the table is oh, so much more than just the sweet course that ends the meal. It is comfort and home and family and indulgence and contentment and, for each person sharing it, a little slice of a dream come true[ii]. So, for the British, the pudding can be a steamed batter pudding such as the aforementioned treacle sponge pudding, or chocolate sponge pudding, or sticky toffee pudding, each served with its own sauce or custard or pudding. It can be a doughy, suet-based[iii] dessert, using animal fat rather than butter, such as jam roly-poly, plum duff, or spotted dick. The latter is so named for the dried currants that make the spots throughout the dough or dick. Pudding can be much lighter fare as well, ranging from the English trifle of fruit and sponge soaked in jelly – American jello – covered with custard – pudding – and cream, through the syllabub and the fruit fool, to a wonderful summer pudding of berries and bread bound together by the sugary syrup of the fruit juices.
Pudding can also be pie, and of course, as such, can be covered with a generous helping of the custard that Americans call pudding. So, pies to all the standards familiar in America; single crust, double crust, filled with fruit, filled with syrupy, sticky concoctions designed to tempt the palate, become pudding at the British dinner table. Lemon meringue, treacle tart, and mincemeat tart were all favorites of mine, along with variations on the pie theme such as rhubarb crumble and apple charlotte, differing only in the fruit and type of crumb-based topping under which they are baked.
Pudding has become a great way to use up leftovers. Bread and Butter Pudding bakes stale bread, dried fruits and spices with an egg and milk custard to a crispy golden delectation, while Queen of Puddings presents something similar but with jam – jelly – instead of dried fruits and emerges from the oven much softer.
Classification of pudding includes regional variants. Bakewell pudding is the precursor of the Bakewell tart, originating in the early 19th century in the Derbyshire village of Bakewell. Fruit jam or preserves are baked in a pastry crust under an almond flavored batter. Meanwhile the heavy Sussex Pond pudding has gone out of fashion because a heavy suet pudding filled with saturated fat, along with sugar, butter and lemon, does not present itself well to the health conscious.
Unlike the American understanding of pudding, pudding can be savory. A steak and kidney pudding combines cubed steak with chopped kidney in a rich gravy steamed in a suet crust. Another regional variant, the Yorkshire pudding, has been described as the most important food you will ever eat by the author of the article my sister sent me[iv]. It is a crossover between the savory and the sweet and its near equivalent in the USA is a popover. A batter of eggs, milk and flour (thinner than an American pancake batter) is baked in hot oil until it is a crisp golden brown. It is then served as part of a traditional Sunday roast lunch, either as an appetizer with onion gravy poured over and into it, or with the roast beef, roast potatoes and a selection of vegetables. Echoing Matthew Prior, the parents of the Brownlee Brothers, Alistair and Jonny, world and Olympic champion triathletes, joke that the secret of their sons’ success is “roast beef and Yorkshire puddings”[v] Yet Yorkshire pudding can also be a sweet dessert. As a child, my family ate it both with Sunday lunch and as a dessert sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice.
The word ‘pudding’, or poding in Old English has its origins in the Old French word boudin, referring to a sausage made by filling an animal intestine with a mixture of cereals and spiced meat. Modern European sausages have obviously evolved differently from the pudding; however, a continuance of the medieval idea survives in various savory puddings such as black pudding, a combination of pig’s blood, pork fat and oatmeal[vi]. White pudding is similar, but with pork meat and bread crumbs added in place of the blood, and Hogs pudding can be found in the south-west of England where the addition of black pepper, cumin and garlic make the dish much spicier.
The Yorkshire pudding has a third variation, that of the Toad-in-the-Hole. In this case, the pudding is baked in a large pan with sausages laid in the batter, however the idea of a pudding (Yorkshire) being a pudding (Baked batter) with a pudding (sausage) in it may just be too linguistically challenging!
By the fourteenth century a more refined recipe for pudding contained suet, cream, breadcrumbs, and spices as well as meat, and was variously spelt poodyng, podding, puddingh or pooddynge.[vii] Elizabethan England saw the skin pouch or intestine in which the pudding was boiled replaced by a cloth. A solid mass, both sweet and savory was rolled to the size of a cannonball, wrapped tightly in a cloth and boiled for hours in the same pot that the meat and vegetables were stewed. By the eighteenth-century Samuel Johnson in his dictionary could define pudding as both a kind of food very variously compounded, but generally made of meal, milk and eggs and as A bowel stuffed with certain mixtures of meal and other ingredients [viii]
This latter definition would include the sovereign of the stuffed skins. With origins in antiquity but surviving into the modern era, the Scottish haggis mixes oats, onions and spices with the chopped heart and lungs of a lamb, stitches them into a sheep’s stomach and boils them for a fine traditional dish. But Americans really need not concern themselves with this ‘pudding’ because it is illegal in the USA [ix]. Legal variations containing liver and kidneys are available.
The haggis is not only a tradition in itself, it is also a traditional dish to be paraded before the diners. As Scotland celebrates the poet Robert Burns, on Burns Night in late January, the haggis is paraded into the dining hall preceded by a Scottish piper.
The most famous of British puddings is the Christmas Pudding. This is the most natural descendant of the original Medieval pudding, as it most closely resembles those meaty, fruity, spicy mixtures. In my favorite version, dried fruits and nuts are mixed with flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, molasses, suet, shredded apple and carrot, spices, dried citrus peel, eggs, brandy and orange and lemon juices. Victorian cook Isabella Beeton says of the method: Let the suet be finely chopped, the raisins stoned, and the currants well-washed, picked and dried. Mix these with the other dry ingredients and stir all well together; beat and strain the eggs to the pudding, stir these in, and add just sufficient milk to make it mix properly. Tie it up in a well-floured cloth, put it into boiling water and boil for at least five hours [x].
Typical quantities from Mrs. Beeton’s recipe would have been huge, as the pudding, or puddings were intended to feed a crowd. This prompted more recent cookery author Elizabeth David to comment in 1970: Now, all those with their fine talk of the glories of Old English fare, have they ever actually made Christmas pudding, in large quantities, by old English methods? Have they, for instance, ever tried cleaning and skinning, flouring, shredding, chopping beef kidney suet straight off the hoof? Have they ever stoned bunch after bunch of raisins hardly yet dry on the stalk and each one as sticky as a piece of warm toffee? And how long do they think it takes to bash up three pounds of breadcrumbs without an oven in which they could first dry the loaves? [xi]
A Christmas pudding should ideally be made weeks in advance and allowed to mature in a cool place. It can then be reheated for the celebratory meal, placed on a platter and paraded into the dining room flaming blue from a dousing with brandy.
So, there you have it, all my American friends – An overview of what the Brits call: Pudding!
[i] Matthew Prior – Alma, or The Progress of the Mind, Canto III – Quoted in Robert Chambers’ English Literature Vol 3 – New York American Book Exchange, 1879 – p.157
[ii] The English Pudding – Jane Pettigrew – Jarrold Publishing 2006 – p.6
[iii] Suet is generally dried and dessicated beef fat from the dense area of fat around the kidneys, although some vegetarian options are now available.
[iv] British Food, Explained For Americans – Luke Bailey – Buzzfeed.com – April 27, 2018 – https://www.buzzfeed.com/lukebailey/british-food-explained-for-americans?utm_term=.kyWqBBd2pP&ref=mobile_share#.qizkRRMDgn (accessed May 7, 2018)
[vi] Something which I prefer not to mention in the presence of Muslim and Jewish friends.
[vii] The English Pudding – Jane Pettigrew – Jarrold Publishing 2006 – p.8
[viii] Samuel Johnson – A Dictionary of the English Language – London, Knapton and Longman, 1879 – Vol.II p. 1599
[ix] Livestock lungs shall not be saved for use as human food. – The Code of Federal Regulations – paragraph 310.16a p.366
[x] Isabella Beeton – Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – London, S.O.Beeton, 1861 – p.683
[xi] Elizabeth David and Jill Norman – Southwind Through the Kitchen: the Best of Elizabeth David – David Godine, 2006 – p. 273