Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts

As the Christmas season sneaks up on us, more and more people turn to Notes from the U.K. for help in understanding the link between brussels sprouts and Christmas. (I’ll get to the pudding in a minute. Be patient.) It started as early as October. Or maybe that was September. Who keeps track?

If you’re not British, you’re thinking, Christmas and brussels sprouts? That makes as much sense as Easter and birthday candles, or Hanukkah and ham.

But brussels sprouts are a traditional part of the British Christmas dinner. I’ve explained all this at length before, with (please, do remember where you are) varying degrees of accuracy and insanity. So instead of repeating myself, let me refer you to that great authority on all things British, me, for everything you need to know on the subject. And more. You’ll find it here and here and yes, even here.

Done? Seat belts fastened? Good, but before we move on I have to tell you that I recently got a link from a website that seems to have believed me when I wrote that the Druids worshipped the Great Brussels Sprout. That’ll learn me, as they said where I grew up. Or it should learn me, although it probably won’t.

For the record, if the Druids really did worship the Great Brussels Sprout, I don’t know about it and neither does anyone else. Very little’s actually known about the Druids, but since I made up that business about the sprouts, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s not true.

I don’t know whether to collapse into a fit of giggles or a fit of shame. I really didn’t think I was in danger of being taken seriously.

You’re never in no danger of being taken seriously. If you don’t believe me, take a long, hard look at American politics.

Obviously relevant photo: This is the universal winter holiday penguin, worshipping the Great Brussels sprout. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, be patient. Winter’ll get to you eventually. Photo by Ida Swearingen. Fairly random cropping by me.

 

But let’s move on.

Every year, starting sometime in the fall, people all over Britain wake from their mental slumber, first in ones and twos, then in tens and twenties, and ask themselves an important question, Why do we eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? And some percentage of them are bothered enough to go online and type the question into their browsers.

Some subset of that group finds its way here, and each member of that subset registers as a tiny ping in my stats—the behind-the-scenes breakdown of semi-useful, completely addictive information that WordPress provides its bloggers. And that, my friends, is how I know what people worry about in this Brexiting nation. The mess that are Britain’s negotiations with the European Union? Nope. The prospect of a collapsing pound? Wrong again. The possibility of devastating economic shrinkage or the growth in immigrantophobia? Not those either.

Okay, how about the underfunding and endless reorganization of the National Health Service? No again.

They worry about brussels sprouts. As anyone would in that sort of situation.

Now, a lot of people will accept something as a traditional part of a meal just because it’s always been presented to them as a traditional part of the meal. That’s particularly true if they like the thing: They don’t ask why, they just eat. Take Christmas pudding. We eat that at Christmas because it’s Christmas pudding, they tell themselves. You can’t eat Christmas pudding all year long, can you?

What about itty-bitty mince pies? We eat those because they taste Christmassy. Don’t bother me with silly questions, just pass me the pies, ’cause I’d like another.

You can tell that’s not a genuine British quote because it doesn’t include a please. Or a thank you. And I’m sure for several other reasons, which you’re more than welcome to list in the Comments.

But sprouts are—well, they’re a kind of specialist’s food. If they were books, they’d be literary fiction instead of mass market. So every year, some number of sprout-hating people drag themselves out of their most-of-the-year-long serenity and ask, “Why do we do this anyway?”

And here I am, ready to answer.

The reason people are confused is that British Christmas tradition, as far as I’ve observed it, doesn’t explain itself (and keep in mind that I’m triply an outsider as an American and a Jew and an atheist, so I don’t get the final word on this). You just do things because that’s how they’re done. Talk about your religious mysteries.

That kind of approach leaves questions in people’s minds.

By way of comparison, take the Passover, where explanations are built into the tradition. The youngest child—it used to be the youngest boy and in some strands of belief still is—asks a series of questions and some designated adult (I forget which one) answers. Over and over, each year. Same damn questions. Same damn answers. The kid never learns. At the most traditional seder (that’s the ritualized Passover dinner) I ever went to, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough for the meal to end, because every twitch of the fork needed an explanation.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because we have all this food but we’re not eating it, we’re reading very long explanations out of a book.

Okay, I’m sure most families handle the seder with grace and joy and the food gets eaten before it’s older than the family members. My experience is absurdly limited. The point is that the holiday’s structured to teach its meanings and symbolism. No one walks away wondering, Yeah, but why matzo? Why salt water? They not only know, they’re tired of hearing about it.

Okay, that’s an assumption. Cup of salt, please. We’ll sprinkle it right here, since we need  salt water anyway.

But back to Christmas. I’m tired of explaining why brussels sprouts are part of the meal, so let’s go for a less predictable question this year: Why is Christmas pudding part of the meal?

Well, in the U.S., it’s not. All we know about the stuff is that Dickens wrote about it–and that’s only the people who read Dickens. As for the rest of the world, I’m betting the Christmas pudding’s a good way to measure how deep British influence goes in a culture. No Christmas pudding, minimal British influence. Let me know if I’m right, oh ye who live in countries that aren’t the U.S. or Britain.

Or if I’m wrong. That’s more fun anyway.

It turns out that Christmas pudding is the same as plum pudding. It also turns out that plum pudding doesn’t necessarily have any plums in it. Plum, in this case, means something-other-than-plums.

Are you with me? Pay attention here, because it’ll be on the test.

The Christmas pudding can be traced back to the 14th century, when it was a soup-like, porridgy thing called frumenty, made with beef or mutton plus raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices.

What’s porridge? (You only ask that if you’re not British.) It’s oats or some other cereal cooked in water or milk until it’s the texture of wallpaper paste. Mmmmmmmmmm. In Norwegian (sorry—Lord Google continues to offer me translations and I can’t help myself, I have to check) it’s called grot.

No comment.

Aw, go on, comment, Ellen. You know you want to: I love oatmeal, but only the stuff you make with thick-cut oats. The British, though, are addicted to fine-cut oats, which make the wallpapery stuff. They’ve even discovered that if they soak the oats overnight it’ll be even gluier. What can I tell you? It’s one of those cultural differences that make our world so interesting.

But back to frumenty: It was a fasting meal.

A what? Doesn’t fasting mean not eating? No. It’s kind of like plum pudding not meaning a pudding with plums. You could eat during a fast, but you couldn’t enjoy yourself, because all the good stuff was off the menu.

At the time we’re talking about, you got to Christmas by way of a month of fasting during Advent, and frumenty was something you ate during that month. It sounds horrible to me, but it’s full of things that would’ve been expensive back then—spices, dried fruit, wine. Not to mention meat (that may have been meat or fat or broth; I’ve read a number of sources and recipes and it all gets a little murky here), which the poor didn’t have even if they weren’t fasting. So I’m guessing this is deprivation eating for the rich.

By way of total transparency, the frumenty recipes I looked at include wheat, milk, sugar, and other stuff that’s not in the various lists of medieval frumenty ingredients. They also leave out the meat or fat, although stock is optional in some. So these would be the modern versions.

Skip forward to the almost-16th century and we find that frumenty’s morphed into a plum pudding, made with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and wine or beer. By 1640, it was a standard Christmas dessert and it tasted good enough for the Puritans to ban it, along with Yule logs, Christmas carols, nativity scenes, iPhones, and fun.

Or that’s one version of the tale. Another goes like this:

“Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible. The first records of plum puddings date to the early 15th century, when ‘plum pottage,’ a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal. Then as now, the ‘plum’ in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit—most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).”

Why does the plum in plum pudding mean things that aren’t plums? Because this is English we’re dealing with. Ask for a fruit scone in Britain and you’ll get a scone with raisins. Why don’t they call it a raisin scone? Because it’s called a fruit scone.

Feel like you’ve just gone in circles? It could be worse. Try asking why Britain’s called Britain. (Sorry, I’m referring you to that renowned expert, myself, again.)

In 1714, with the Puritans safely out of power, King George reestablished the Christmas pudding as an end to the Christmas dinner. He became known as the pudding king, which may or may not be a better than being called Ivan the Terrible.

All sorts of religious symbolism has been woven into various elements of the pudding over the years. Why do you pour brandy over the top, turn off the lights, and light the brandy? Because it symbolizes Jesus’ love and power.

Uh huh. And incidentally because it’s very pretty. And because you get to add a little more brandy to an already very boozy dessert.

I won’t go through all they symbolism. I suspect most of them aren’t passed down anymore—they’re something you have to look up online, or maybe hear from your mother who vaguely remembers, or possibly misremembers, what great-great-aunt Hetty used to say.

But whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—remember to eat all your Christmas pudding or you don’t get any brussels sprouts.

And if you need to know anything about Britain, just ask me. I don’t actually know much, but I can fill page after virtual page telling you that.

Maybe next year we’ll dig out the true history of the mince pie.

70 thoughts on “Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts

  1. This country is a lot odder than I gave it credit for…and I was dancing inside stonehenge last week with a bunch of druids…so I know odd…

    so…sprouts are only an xmas thing in britain too??? this is madness my whole worldview is being challenged…

    how does the reset of the world view yorkshire pudding?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Definitely avoiding sprouts. They have um… an ‘explosive’ quality post digestion that is nearly as disagreeable (and certainly louder) as eating them in the first place. This might be just me though, little green grenades armed by reluctantly chewing the little buggers and then going off in my stomach later.

    I fare better with pudding, although lighting it is possibly not wise after eating the sprouts so we don’t do that bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Too much this morning Ellen, my brain hurts… although that might be because I ate a dinner last night that included glazed chicken and brussels sprouts with some sort of balsamic goop.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Having survived eons, marauding hoards, invading armies and all the various religious leaders, I guess you’re entitled to have oddball holiday traditions. I like brussels sprouts, and I like pudding. But by pudding, I mean, you know, pudding – the stuff that comes in a box, gets mixed with milk and burnt on the stove.

    I hope you enjoy the holiday season and I wish you a wonderful new year.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have never been fond of any of those really traditional Christmas foods. I actually detest Christmas pudding in all its iterations, I loathe Christmas cake, and I only just about tolerate brussle sprouts. Happily my husband and kids hate pudding and cake too and 50% of them eat sprouts all year round which means we don’t necessarily have to pollute our annual Christmas dinner with them. One of my grandmothers always used to make clootie dumpling for Christmas. That is a boiled, dense, pretty bland, suet pudding. It’s another edible tradition I cannot stand and have not maintained. I do, however, love roast potatoes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We had Christmas pudding every year. The only reason I ate it (aside from the custard!) was to see if I had the sixpence. Although you could cheat by mashing up the pudding and searching for the sixpence without eating any (except the custard). Then They changed our money to decimal currency and for some reason you can’t boil the coins in a pud. Finding little tokens in the pudding didn’t have the same charm, and you couldn’t spend it at the milkbar. Now I rather like Christmas pudding, but the custard is still my favourite part.

    Have a joyful time with whatever you celebrate, eating whatever you would like to eat (and I am guessing it won’t be brussel sprouts), just make sure you are surrounded by people who you love and love you in return.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually like brussels sprouts, I just don’t think of them as part of a traditional Christmas meal. Actually, I don’t have any particular idea of what a Christmas meal should be, even though we do (sort of) celebrate it. One of our best Christmas meals was peanut butter sandwiches on Cornwall’s coast path, looking down at the sea from a cliff.

      I wondered why the business of hiding a coin in the pudding disappeared. Thanks for adding that to the conversation.

      Like

  7. One American food “tradition” that puzzles me and yet is not as ancient as most traditions is the Green Bean Casserole. When I was a kid on the farm, we grew green beans in the garden and ate them. Plenty of them. But we never made them into a casserole with mushroom soup and dried onions and only served them with Thanksgiving dinner. (I was born after WWII ended but too early to technically be a baby boomer.) Now this dish is de rigeur – even featured in the Rockwell-esque TV commercials leading up to Thanksgiving. Why ? Where did it come from ?Where was I when this happened ? My Mother never did make it – we’d just be invited to a relative’s house and it would materialize. But I still think green beans taste better than Brussels sprouts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m going to blame that recipe on the 1950s, which is more or less when my mother (who could put a meal on the table but would be the first to say she was no cook) discovered that she could use canned soup–usually mushroom–to make a casserole with instant rice, leftover meat, and frozen vegetables. She left out the canned onion rings, which I’ve seen used instead of dried onions. The think it was marketing campaign by one of the soup companies, and in the absence of any actual evidence I’m going to blame Campbell’s.

      Like

  8. Had another good Chuckle sprout there, Ellen.
    Weirdly, just under this post there are two posts on recipes by unknown (to me anyway) bloggers. One is for “Bacon Wrapped Dates with Roast Brussel Sprouts” and the other is for “Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad”! Wtf?
    Who are these people and why would they do that to our good old British (but really from Belgium?) sprouts?
    I am outraged. The only thing that should ever be done to a Brussels sprout is to cut a little cross on its bum before cooking. Why? No idea. But maybe you know, Ellen…
    Merry Christmas to you and yours. 🎄

    Liked by 1 person

    • With dates wrapped in bacon? Why did they leave out the jellybeans? I’m telling you, there are so many chefs and food bloggers running around out there that they have to do positively weird things just to keep from repeating the same old same old the every other chef/food blogger already wrote about. I mean, how many ways can you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before you have to start adding bacon or deep frying the thing.

      Okay, the little cross on the bottom: I used to believe it was to make the bottom–the densest part–cook faster, so you wouldn’t end up with a mushy top and a raw bottom. And (religious symbolism aside) I’m sure that’s the intention. But eventually I got too lazy to bother and they came out pretty much the same way as when I used to go through the whole pile cutting a mark in the bottom. So there goes another food myth down the tubes.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A local organic farmer in our area told me that it takes a touch of frost or maybe it was a hard freeze for the Brussels sprouts to produce their sugar. I suspect that many folks who were served the sprouts from Southern California had the special treat of ones that tasted and smelled more like damp socks. Don’t know if roasting might help or not!
    Happy holidays to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Brussels sprouts aren’t just for Christmas – but I did only buy mine yesterday. I’m going to have a mushroom wellington (which only strikes me now as a ridiculous name for something you eat), sprouts, carrots, potato and bread sauce (a fairly recent family tradition). It will be followed, several hours later, if not the next day, by a slice of bought Christmas cake.

    I’m not too sure about frumenty being a fasting dish, especially if it’s got meat in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Another interesting piece on food, language, and culture.
    I enjoy brussel sprouts. I know I’m supposed to write brussels sprouts, but I cannot. That’s not how we say it. I don’t think I’ve eaten them on Christmas, or on any holiday, just random evenings with cruciferous veggies how one does. Maybe it’s because there seems to be no Britain in my ancestry. Closest I get is a bit of Irish.
    I prefer my pudding to be the dairy sort, with a skin. However, today is my big cooking day, so I will simply make the instant pudding, layered with shortbread, for my family, so that I can more or less consume the entire pineapple upside-down cake by myself.
    I like mince meat pie, too, but I’m not having any today. I’ve not tried plum pudding. I would. I would try it.
    I need my oatmeal to be the consistency of tapioca. I cannot eat cream of wheat and certainly wouldn’t eat cream of oats. Wallpaper paste is for wallpaper.
    Enjoy your holidays, Ellen :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • My fingers want to leave the final S out of brussels when they’re sprout related–you’re right, that is what we say. What’s more, Word wants a capital B. But I was an editor too long, and that make me a hopeless nitpicker. If I don’t capitalize french fries, I can’t capitalize brussels sprouts. On the other hand, the city ends in an S, so an S there will be.

      It’s all kind of silly, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This reminds me that I was very disappointed to discover that “visions of sugar plums danced in their heads” probably referred to some type of hard sweet or dried fruit rather than plums dipped in sugar.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Also, there’s the Yorkshire pudding, which absolutely not a pudding of any type I recognize! Brussel sprouts can be made edible in two ways: either roasted with sriracha spice or wrapped in bacon and glazed with maple syrup. Either way, you can no longer taste the brussel sprout part of the recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I don’t want to even think about Christmas food for another year. I’m stuffed full of mince pies and sherry, and there’s still four boxes to go after we went on a panic hoarding frenzy, thinking the vegan version might run out in the shops.

    Meaty plum pudding, groo. Now that ought to be called grot.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Christmas is not a major holiday where I live, so I only ever enjoyed Christmas pudding as one of those Western curios you get once a year (that taste awfully good with ice cream). Then again, I find that meaning is often retrospectively attached to holiday foods – ask anyone in Singapore why the Chinese eat mooncakes around the Mid-Autumn Festival and you won’t get the same answer, hehe.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Since I’m from the country where pudding was a chocolate or vanilla or strawberry dessert that usually came out of the dust in a bag, I was astounded to learn of British usage. I still haven’t tried Christmas pudding but my disinterest lies in the fact that I connect it to black pudding too strongly. We have blood sausage in Slovenia too, it’s mighty popular and I’m not a fan. Neither am I a fan of dried plums or raisins. However, give me Brussels sprouts instead, not just for Christmas, and I promise I’d never ask why.

    Liked by 1 person

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