Ye olde Christmas: British holiday foodEnglish hold traditions near and dear to their hearts.
By: Jeff Tiedeman, Grand Forks Herald
We all probably have sung the line, “Oh bring us some figgy pudding,” which is from the holiday carol, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
But do you know what figgy pudding is?
If you grew up in Great Britain as Adam Kemp did, the answer is probably yes.
Kemp, a Grand Forks artist who runs the You Are Here art gallery on South Fourth Street in downtown Grand Forks, came here to attend graduate school at UND. He recently told me that “figgy pudding” or plum or Christmas pudding, a traditional English dessert that’s doused in brandy and served during the holidays, always was just as much a part of his family’s Christmas celebration as Christmas crackers, the brightly colored paper tubes (with a “banger” inside) that are twisted at both ends so that when pulled (often during the meal) by two people will create a loud snapping “crack” or “bang.” (Christmas crackers were invented by Thomas Smith, a London pastry cook in 1846.)
The English are great at keeping holiday traditions alive. And figgy pudding is one of those traditions that have survived. Probably more like fruitcake than pudding, it more than likely started off as frumenty, a spiced porridge, enjoyed by both rich and poor back in the 16th century.
The pudding became specifically associated with Christmas when it was introduced to the Royal Christmas dinner table by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. (In some locales, people like to hide a coin or trinket in the Christmas pudding. )
The closest I’ve come eating figgy pudding is the fruitcake that former co-worker Dan Rylance’s usually sends to me just about every Christmas.
Other English traditions, such as the Christmas goose (this dates back to Victorian times; remember the Christmas goose in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) and mincemeat pie (often known as Christmas pies), have fallen in and out of favor over the years.
Mincemeat pies, which generally contain apple, dried fruits, spices and either suet or vegetable shortening, were banned in the 17th century but eventually came back into existence after the Restoration. (See mincement pie recipes at www.grandforksherald.com/ event/tag/group/Features/tag/food/)
These days, a typical British family on Christmas Day is most likely to have turkey as the main course, although goose has been making a bit of a comeback. The bird normally is served with potatoes (roasted, mashed or bakled), vegetables (Brussels sprouts or roasted parsnips) and stuffing with gravy and bread sauce.
This main course usually is bookended with appetizers such as shrimp or smoked salmon on the front end and a dessert — Christmas pudding, what else — on the back end.
One tradition that seems to have lost its luster in Great Britain but has fared much better in the U.S. is eggnog. (Some say it had it roots in the United Kingdom as a drink called “nog,” an Old English ale.)
Eggnog made its way across the Atlantic in the 18th century to the English colonies, where inexpensive rum was coupled with plentiful dairy products, making the drink very popular. Our first President, George Washington, was quite a fan of eggnog and devised his own recipe that included rye whiskey, rum and sherry. It was reputed to be a stiff drink that only the most courageous were willing to try.
I’m going to stick with Dan’s fruitcake and the kind of eggnog you can buy at the supermarket.
Tiedeman is food editor at the Herald. Reach him at 780-1136 or toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.