Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain?

Almost anyone who knows and loves the English language will agree that it’s mildly insane. Some of us admit that reluctantly and the rest of us think it’s what gives the language its eccentric charm. I’m in the second category, so I’m taking us all to play in a spot where linguistic oddity meets food. 

How far wrong can we possibly go?

Very, but let’s do it anyway. The question of the week is, What are the British talking about when they talk about pudding?

 

Irrelevant photo: a begonia flower

Definitions

As far as I’ve been able to tell after sixteen years of haphazard research, pudding means four very different things in Britain.

  1. Something sweet at the end of a meal. 
  2. Something made with a batter.
  3. Something either sweet or savory (savory being the opposite of sweet) that’s been tied into a cloth and steamed or boiled.
  4. A “sausage-like mass of seasoned mince meat, oatmeal, etc., stuffed into a prepared skin or bag and boiled.” (That’s from the Collins Dictionary.) 

If that last category doesn’t send you running to Lord Google for recipes, I sympathize. It doesn’t sound like my idea of what to cook on a slow Sunday afternoon either, although I’m sure someone will tell me that a mass of seasoned minced et cetera can be delicious, and I’m sure they’ll be right, at least if they’re serving it to meat eaters. I, however, live on raw carrots and the stems of organic herbs, so it’s not for me. Even if I ate meat, though, the word mass is what did me in. Any food writers out there? Put mass on your list of unattractive words.

And speaking of unattractive words…

 

The unfortunate origins of the word pudding

How did two ordinary syllables come to mean so many different things? Etymology Online takes us back to the year 1300, when pudding meant a sausage made of meat, blood, and all sorts of fun things, stuffed into the intestines of a pig, sheep, or other unfortunate, and then boiled. 

That explains meaning number 4, the boiled mass. 

The word may have come from a Germanic word meaning “to swell,” which means it’s related to words for all kinds of unpleasant swellings. But cheer up, it may come have a whole ‘nother source: a vulgar Latin word by way of an Old French word meaning sausage and having to do with animal intestines.

In the sixteenth century, in fact, if you talked about puddings, plural, you were talking about someone’s intestines, so we’ve got a pretty strong set of sausage-y connections here. But in that same century, pudding was slang for vagina. And–not to be outdone–for penis. 

I wouldn’t suggest holding out for any sort of logic there. Slang isn’t answerable to careful reasoning.

And now, let’s drop that thread before we give up on the topic altogether.

 

Moving right along

How did the word  transition from a sausage to a dessert? Well, in Tudor times it wasn’t unusual to sweeten a sausage, and to add dried fruit, and a sweet sausage-y thing is surely a step in the direction of what we know as a dessert. 

Also in the sixteenth century, a pudding became something involving flour, milk, eggs, and maybe some dried fruit. It could still be either sweet or savory. That points us to meaning number 1–dessert. The connection to those sausage-y things is that you could take those floury, milky, eggy things and boil them in pudding bags, because if you’re not going to stuff them into an intestine, you have to hold them together some other way. So that takes care of meaning 3, something tied in a bag and acquainted with hot water. 

 

Yeah, but what about meaning 1?

According to GreatBritishMag, calling something sweet at the end of the meal a pudding has to do with the British class system. 

Everything in Britain has to do with the class system. 

Traditionally, it says, puddings were rustic things eaten by the lower classes–things like rice pudding and (fasten your seat belt) spotted dick.

Yes, spotted dick. It’s a dessert–or a pudding, if you like–and no, you won’t get a funny look or a medical referral if you say you have or want some. 

While the rustic lower classes were eating spotted dick and wondering if anyone would get the joke, the upper classes were eating not pudding but dessert–chocolate mousse, sweet souffles, and that sort of fancified stuff. 

(Truth in blogging paragraph: Dick doesn’t seem to have become slang for penis until the late nineteenth century. EtymologyOnline says, “It has long been a synonym for ‘fellow,’ ” and dates that back as far as the sixteenth century.) 

Forget that, though. Somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure when or how, the word pudding not only jumped classes but appropriated the entire category of sweets-after-a-meal, and ended up being one of the few British words that doesn’t mark a person’s class. (Others in the category are and, of, or, but, and a scant few thousand others.)

Or so say one or two sources. Arguing against them, Country Living magazine lists pudding as upper class and dessert, afters, and sweet (as in (I think), “Should we have a sweet?”) as non-upper class, where they join declasse words such as couch and settee (instead of sofa), pjs (instead of pajamas), and movie (instead of film). Oh, the horror. How could one hold one’s head up–?

Who’s right? I haven’t a clue.

 

So what gets called a pudding?

Just about anything.

Okay, it does have to be edible–no chairs; no bike racks–and (I think) either solid or semi-solid. And it has to have more than one ingredient. I’m sure there are other limits, but hey, I’m a transplant. I’m doing the best I can here, but you wouldn’t want to trust me out of your sight. 

Now that I think about it, you might want to consult somebody sensible about this, and I invite comments on this from both the sensible and the senseless. 

But with that warning out of the way, foods that have pudding in their names include:

Yorkshire pudding. This is a breadlike thing generally served with meat, gravy, and all the sidekick foods. It used to be served before the meal to fill people up so they’d eat less meat. And it’s baked–it used to be cooked under the meat so it soaked up the drippings–not boiled. It lives in the flour-and-other-stuff room of the pudding house.

Christmas pudding. This is a fruitcake, and it’s steamed or boiled. [You’ll find an explanation of why is isn’t a fruitcake in the comments.] It can sleep in the flour-and-stuff room or the cooked-in-a-bag room, depending on the mood it’s in.

Black pudding. This is a blood sausage and it lives in the sausage room.

White pudding. Another sausage, but bloodless. It lives right near the black pudding.

Rice pudding. This has rice, milk, sugar, and whatever bits of flavoring you like to toss in. I learned to make it on the stove (that’s the hob in British), but most recipes I’ve seen in Britain toss it in the oven. Or, okay, slide in in carefully. It lives in the milk-and-bread room, even if it does substitute rice for flour. A starch is a starch.

Toad-in-the-hole. This involves sausages and a milk, egg, and flour batter, so it wanders from room to room at night, dragging its sleeping bag behind it.

Summer pudding. This is made of bread, fruit, sugar, and nothing else. It’s spectacular, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a pass to any of the rooms. It sleeps in the hall, mumbling that it was made in a pudding bowl so why’s everyone so mean?

I could go on but we wouldn’t be much wiser. I’ll stop. 

So what do the British call that stuff Americans call pudding?

Nothing. You won’t find it in Britain, so they haven’t given it a name. I’ve seen sites claiming that the British call it custard, but custard’s a whole ‘nother beast.

 

The Black Pudding Throwing Contest

It wouldn’t be right to leave the topic without mentioning the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, held in (you can’t make this stuff up) Ramsbottom in September. Legend has it that the contest dates back to the War of the Roses, when the houses of Lancaster and York ran out of ammunition and started throwing food at each other. 

Legend has it that a lot of legends were made up in the pub, but never mind. The tradition was revived–or started–in 1839 and then re-revived in the 1980s.

The idea is to throw black puddings at a stack of Yorkshire puddings and see how many you can knock down. 

My thanks to The Year without Wimbledon for making sure I didn’t miss this. The information’s spent a long time sitting on my list of topics I never get to. I’m happy to see it fight its way out.