We drove down to Virginia this weekend to make the Christmas puddings. They have to be made in advance, so they can sit. And ferment. Sound good yet?
There are no plums in Plum Pudding. I need to say this first, because it bothered me as a child. “Where are the plums?” I’d ask. “How can it be Plum Pudding without plums?”
In medieval England, “plums” referred to any fruits that could be cooked or dried to store for the winter. One way to save fruit was to make it into big round cakes, which were wrapped in muslin, boiled for hours, and stored with the salted meat and other supplies, to be eaten mid-winter. Some recipes were better than others, resulting in puddings that would last without getting moldy or crumbly. The best recipes were handed down from mother to daughter for generations. A really good recipe, with just the right ratio of ingredients, was a prize worth keeping a family secret.
My English great-grandmother arrived in America around 1900, still in her mother’s belly. Beatrice was born in New York City, and inherited her family’s prized recipe for “Plum Pudding.” Bea and her younger sister Mae both married and moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey in 1915. They carefully wrote out a copy of their mother’s prized recipe, ripping it in half and bringing the pieces together only at pudding time.
Today, my extended family still gathers each fall to follow the time-honored traditions of English pudding making, muslin and all. The recipe is finally kept in one piece – but with only one copy in existence, in my grandmother’s handwriting. She copied the two faded and stained halves together after her mother’s death. The family joked about “international pudding thieves,” but Bea made her two daughters swear never to share the secret recipe outside the family.
My grandmother and great aunt each had three children, who in turn had children and grandchildren. The family now stretches across America, from Cape Cod to Hawaii, with family in ten states and Germany. And each fall someone volunteers their kitchen, and the rest of us make the annual trek to participate in the “Pudding Party.”
Pudding is an all-day event, starting after breakfast and stretching well into the evening (depending upon how much wine is consumed in the process.) We grate stale bread, zest lemons, pick the hard bits from the suet, measure the dried cherries and yellow sultanas… we spread lard along the insides of heavy mixing bowls, and pack the pudding down on top with inches of unbleached flour… we wrap the puddings in muslin and boil them for hours… and we bask in the family togetherness, sharing stories of our present and telling tales from the past.
One tale from the past is of Sir Thomas Horner. According to legend, Horner was the steward of Glastonbury Abbey during the time of King Henry VIII’s Reformation of the Church. To finance his duel wars with the Catholic countries of France and Spain, the King passed the Dissolution of Monasteries Act, breaking apart church properties and selling them to lords more loyal to the throne than to the Pope. In Glastonbury, the abbot hid several such deeds within a Christmas pudding for safe transport, but Horner stole them and ended up as a titled man of property. The nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner tells the tale.
Little Jack Horner sits in his corner
Eating his Christmas Pie.
He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
One of the other families who profited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act was the Browne family, who received the title of Viscount Montague. They were cursed by the monks of Battle Abbey whom they displaced. A 1907 New York Times article recounts the “curse of fire and water,” and the various misfortunes to befall the family. After the manor house itself finally burned down, King George granted the Browne family plantations on the island of St. Vincent, where the curse of fire followed them. Their plantations were wiped out by an erupting volcano. Twice.
The curse seems to have lifted when William Browne, the youngest son of the family, journeyed to America and married Beatrice Taylor. Does this have anything to do with the family’s secret Plum Pudding recipe? Could Horner’s Christmas pudding be in any way related to the traditional pudding we still make and wish upon today? We may never know for sure, but it’s certainly fun to speculate.