1x09 | Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

My favorite passage from A Christmas Carol appears in chapter three, when Scrooge enters his sitting room to find the Ghost of Christmas Present and a magnificent feast. "Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam."

Today I’d like to go into detail on a few of those items.

My name is Lenore and I’m The Victorienne.

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The main event in a Victorian Christmas dinner was the meat. If you weren’t wealthy, your meat of choice would likely be goose. Because so many poorer people didn’t have ovens, bakers would leave theirs running through the holiday so local people could come in to cook their geese. Having this Christmas goose was a big deal and still very difficult for plenty of people to afford, so Goose Clubs arose to help people save up money for a few weeks before Christmas specifically to buy their goose. The bird was usually served with cranberry sauce or applesauce, which we see the Cratchits consume in A Christmas Carol after retrieving their goose from the local baker’s shop.

Since a large part of the market for geese was located in London, at the beginning of the century they would have to be walked from farms in Norfolk into the city before being slaughtered. Since that journey was hard on their feet, a goose’s feet would be dipped in tar to make a protective shoe of sorts. By the end of the long walk, the geese would have lost a lot of weight, so once they arrived they were fattened up again right before being killed and sold.

At the beginning of the Victorian era, if you were wealthy, instead of goose you would have roast beef at your Christmas dinner, as the wealthy had done for hundreds of years. As the century progressed, turkey replaced beef as the meat of choice, though if you could afford it there would be an abundance of meats on your table and you didn’t have to choose just one animal to consume. Like geese, turkeys had to walk from farm to town and then fatten up again before being sold, but unlike geese the turkeys were given little leather boots for their feet instead of tar. The expense of the leather along with the already high price of turkeys meant they were only attainable for the middle and upper classes.

When railways became more commonly used, birds like geese and turkeys could be slaughtered at the farms before being sent by train into the cities. For most people this was a great convenience, but not for the wives of turkey farmers. On the farms, it was their job to prepare the turkeys for sale. This meant plucking out all the feathers, ripping out the tendons, and gutting every turkey. Lovely.

Once those poor turkeys got to most homes, they were served with bread sauce and sides like furmity, which was a spicy porridge with brandy in it. Other sides might be brown Windsor soup, boiled red cabbage, custards, vegetables, and various potato dishes. From the Christmas menus that have survived, it appears that the English middle and upper classes did not reduce their potato consumption during the Irish Potato Famine.

Along with the type of meat consumed, the types of vegetables made for Christmas dinner were a show of wealth. Grander homes and estates sometimes had "hot houses" like modern green houses heated by hot water pipes where out-of-season fruits and vegetables could be grown. Having asparagus at your Christmas dinner showed you could afford a hot house and a good gardener.

Along with a hot house, some people had kitchen gardens with orchards growing plums, pears, and apples so they had access to the best, freshest fruits to use in pies, cakes, and puddings. One type of pie the Victorians had at Christmas which we still eat today is the mince pie, which dates back to medieval times. Mince pies originally contained meat and those who could afford it would add things like raisins and spices to sweeten and flavor the pies. As time went on those ingredients, along with sugar, got less expensive so sweet flavors were used in the pies more than meat. Throughout the Victorian era, the meat was slowly taken out of mince pie recipes and they made the full switch from savory to sweet. The only part of the medieval version that still remains is suet, which is now sometimes replaced with butter. Victorian mince pie recipes feature a variety of ingredients including raisins, sultanas, currants, prunes, dates, apples, lemons, oranges, candied peels, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, milk, port, and/or brandy. The pie filling could be made well in advance and kept in jars because brandy was typically used in the recipe and this would keep the other ingredients preserved until it was time to bake the pies. Each individual pie was small and some people kept the tradition of eating one mince pie a day for each of the 12 days of Christmas to give them good luck for the next 12 months.

One of the most theatrical parts of a Victorian Christmas dinner was the presentation of the Christmas pudding toward the end of the meal. The origins of the recipe are disputed and it might date back to the middle ages. Christmas pudding went by many names. One is "figgy pudding" which we hear referenced in the carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". Figgy pudding is not to be confused with fig  pudding, which does actually contain figs. Another deceptive name for Christmas pudding was "plum pudding". People continue to point out that plum pudding doesn’t have any plums in it, but this is because during the Victorian era, the word "plum" wasn’t specific to what we know as the plum fruit. To them, a plum was just a small, dried fruit like the raisins which are typically used in plum pudding.

For a long time, Christmas pudding - or plum pudding - was a general winter recipe not specific to Christmas itself. It’s said that the popularity of A Christmas Carol, which does reference plum pudding, is what led to the food being associated specifically with Christmas. While the first recipe to call plum pudding "Christmas pudding" was from an American cookbook published a few years before A Christmas Carol, the first "Christmas pudding" recipe in a British cookbook was from 1845, a couple of years after A Christmas Carol was published. That particular recipe, in a cookbook by Eliza Acton, is called "the Author’s Christmas pudding", but it’s unclear whether the author she was referring to was herself or Dickens.

As with mince pies, there are varying Christmas pudding recipes from the Victorian era, but most contained some combination of raisins, apricots, apples, quinces, currants, orange, lemon, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Sometimes a silver sixpence coin was thrown into the mix, and was said to bring luck and wealth to whoever found it in their slice of pudding.

During the Victorian era, a new tradition began of making Christmas puddings on Stir-Up Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Advent. The Victorians were big fans of making up new things and labelling them ancient (or at least old) traditions when they had zero evidence to back up that claim. Stir-up Sunday is one example of this, where it’s unknown how exactly the tradition began but we know it grew in popularity during the Victorian era. The day is referred to as Stir-Up Sunday, not just because you stir up the pudding that day, but because there’s a verse in the Book of Common Prayer with the line "stir up our wills we beseech thee Oh Lord". It became traditional for each member of a family to give the pudding a stir while making a wish.

Part of making a Christmas pudding is boiling it for a few hours and one way of making sure it doesn’t boil dry and burn is to put a plate face down in the pot underneath the pudding itself. As long as there’s enough water in the pot, the plate will rattle and make noise. We can see this referenced in A Christmas Carol when Tiny Tim’s siblings take him to "hear the pudding singing in the copper".

When the pudding was served, it was turned into a great show. The pudding was doused with brandy and set on fire or could be adorned with holly around the bottom or stuck into the top. This is also referenced by Dickens when Scrooge says "If I could work my will every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart."

Because the alcohol in the recipe preserved it, Christmas pudding could be made well in advance. This made it an ideal gift for someone living in another part of the British empire. By the time they received the pudding months after you sent it, it was still edible. Because of this, Christmas pudding became a symbol of the British empire and it was used in political cartoons as such.

Aside from mince pies and Christmas puddings, Victorians sometimes made twelfth cakes. They were sort of like fruit cakes and they were to be served on Twelfth Night. The cakes often contained a few trinkets which were sometimes said to predict the future of whoever got one in their slice, and they were sometimes used to assign characters for games played on Twelfth Night. Instead of trinkets, twelfth cakes could also contain a bean or a pea. If you got the bean in your slice, you were "king of the bean" and king for the day and conversely if you got the pea, you were the queen. It’s unclear just how widespread Twelfth Night celebrations and foods were, but it’s now thought to have mostly been just the wealthy Londoners who observed it. The Twelfth Night holiday went out of fashion in the Victorian era partly because Queen Victoria thought it was too rowdy and also because people had shorter and shorter Christmas breaks as their work schedules began to adhere more to the new industrial and capitalist expectations.

Aside from those pies, cakes, and puddings, a Victorian Christmas might feature jellies, macaroons, chestnuts, candy canes, gingerbread, ice cream, and sugar plums. Along with all those foods the Victorians also enjoyed a good drink, but I’ll be telling you about those in the next episode, which will be coming out on New Years Eve.

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