Bah Humbug! The Proof is in the Pudding

With the coming of the Christmas season, we find ourselves revisiting our yearly traditions. Favorite Christmas songs fill the air and boxes of heirloom ornaments are unpacked, Charlie Brown discovers the true meaning of the season and Ralphie takes care of Black Bart with his 500 shot Red Ryder air rifle (with the compass in the stock). And along with all the other trappings of the season, we once again enjoy the immortal tale of Scrooge as told by Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

As we all know, through whatever incantation we gain familiarity with the story, Scrooge was a pretty nasty character. If it were not so, the story of his redemption would have less meaning. And, I think that when one considers the culinary aspects of the story, that redemption becomes even more meaningful.

Let’s first set the stage as that is certainly an important part of the back-drop behind the discussion of the culinary aspects. In 1843 when A Christmas Carol was written, the population of London was burgeoning at approximately 2.2 million. At the time, the housing of London was closely packed together, heated with coal-fired stoves and hearths which contributed a significant amount of soot to the atmosphere as well as the ground.

It was not until 1875 that London had an adequate sewer system and, indeed, at the time that A Christmas Carol was written, portions of the city had raw sewage flowing in open ditches into the Thames, which, by the way, was also the source of drinking water for much of the population. The streets were a crowded mixture of rich and poor, drunkard, pick-pocket and prostitute, all against the backdrop of tens of thousands of horse drawn cabs and wagons with their resulting manure deposits. Against that back-drop were the street vendors selling all manner of wares including food products.

In short, I would venture a guess that London of 1834 was not a particularly pleasant place to live. This is confirmed by the reality of numerous outbreaks of cholera and the legendary “Great Stink” of 1858, during which the stench from the Thames became so unbearable that Parliament was closed. As much as we have romanticized a Courier and Ives version of the Victorian era, in point of fact, living in London was a fairly miserable existence. It’s no wonder Scrooge was such a miserable character. And even the Christmas feast might not be sufficient to provide redemption. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. But before we get to the dessert of the Cratchits’ feast let’s review the main menu.

First of course, there was goose enjoyed by the Cratchit family. That goose was purchased from the poulterer where it had hung unrefrigerated in the window for any number of days. Speaking of that goose, while the romanticized versions and movies generally have the goose roasting over the Cratchit family’s open hearth, it is more likely that someone of the lower class would not have had a hearth sufficient in which to cook a goose and more than likely it would have been roasted in a nearby bakery’s oven at a cost of a few pence and then taken home to be eaten. It would not have been basted, and might well have been as dry as the Griswald family’s turkey

Assuming that the family had the wherewithal to purchase a bird large enough to justify stuffing, it was probably as simple as chopped pork fat, crushed cracker crumbs, egg, flour, milk, some sage, salt and pepper. If the finances made it possible, the stuffing might have included roasted chestnuts. To whatever degree there were side dishes, those would most likely have been turnips, parsnips or other root vegetables being stored from that fall’s harvest. Dickens mentions only potatoes and sweetened apple sauce. But certainly, even if the fowl was foul, and the foods that served as accompaniments less than fresh, culinary redemption would be experienced as Mrs. Cratchit proudly brought forth the feature of the feast, that flaming ceremonial dessert presented to the family must, indeed, have been a culinary delight. Don’t be too sure.

The ingredients which would typically have been found in a steamed pudding are not something that our present day palates would appreciate. From the authentic recipe included, you may well wonder why you would eat such a conglomeration…..much less profess to enjoy it. From my historical retrospective, clearly there was nothing for old Ebenezer in the food which could provide for his change of attitude. I can not only understand, but sympathize with his miserable attitude, especially considering the culinary aspects of the season. If someone were to offer me some of that Christmas pudding, I might well respond with a “Bah Humbug” myself!

Old English Christmas Pudding
(adapted from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1860)

One pound currants
One pound well stoned raisins
One pound chopped suet
¼ pound flour
3 oz. sugar
1 &1/2 oz. grated lemon peel
1 blade of mace
½ a small nutmeg
1 tsp. ginger
6 eggs

Combine the suet, raisins and currants. Beat the eggs and beat in the remaining ingredients. Add the suet mixture and mix together. Place mixture in a cloth, tie firmly allowing room to swell. Boil continuously for 5 hours.
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Volume 2, Issue 25, Posted 1:01 PM, 12.02.06