Sunday, December 18, 2016

Oh, Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

The old song, 'We wish you a Merry Christmas" is familiar to most, and sung often at holiday gatherings. It dates back to the 16th century in the West Country of England, growing out of the tradition of the wealthier members of the community giving rich fruit-and-nut puddings to carolers who came to their door. ("Figgy" in this context means not literally figs, but any dried fruit, like raisins and plum prunes.)  
Children caroling on a Victorian Christmas card
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year.
Ref. Good tidings we bring
To you and your kin;
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year.
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,
Oh, bring us some figgy pudding,
And bring it right here.
Refrain
We won't go till we get some,
We won't go till we get some,
we won't go till we get some,
So bring it right here.
Refrain.
We all like our figgy pudding,
We all like our figgy pudding,
we all like our figgy pudding,
With all its good cheers
Refrain
Hear the carol sung here:
 
 By the late 18th century both the carol and the pudding had become holiday staples throughout Britain. From Charles Dickens to Blackadder, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas in England without Christmas pudding.
A servant carries a flaming Christmas pudding to the table. The clothes and furniture suggest early 19th century.
For the Busch family, Christmas was defined by several customs: trimming the tree, the singing of carols, midnight church service on Christmas Eve, opening presents on Christmas morning,  and eating plum pudding at Christmas dinner. 

But the Busch plum pudding wasn't just any old plum pudding. It was made from a recipe dating back to Victorian England and prepared in the kitchen of St. John's Lutheran Church (now SS Mark-John Church) in Homestead. My Uncle Jack Breakwell, husband of my father's sister Frances, contributed his family recipe for the church pudding-making. Uncle Jack was from Barrow-in-Furness, England--a town from which, according to Breakwell family lore, they could see the Isle of Man on a clear day.
St. John's in 1976. Photo by Ed Busch
I fondly remember going with my father in early December to check on the pudding production at St. John's. In the kitchen, my grandfather and Uncle Jack would be busy cracking walnuts and passing them on to the cooks--Grandma Busch, Aunt Frances, and other church women, who in turn would be mixing up the batter and pouring it into coffee cans. The cans were placed into gigantic kettles of boiling water to be steamed. The whole church was filled with the spicy fragrance of the steaming puddings.
Plum pudding batter mixed and ready to be steamed.
After the steaming was complete, the cans were cooled and placed on tables for people to pick up. People from all over the Homestead area reserved a pudding from St. John's for their Christmas feast. It was a tasty holiday fundraiser for the congregation.

For me, the best part was eating the pudding on Christmas Day--or on other days after Christmas when we had dinner with relatives. The pudding was usually served with lemon sauce, although the traditional British version is buttery hard sauce. I prefer lemon sauce, as it makes a nice, tart contrast with the rich, sweet pudding. Some people light brandy aflame on the pudding as they bring it to the table, but my grandparents and father, being teetotalers, did not.
A plum pudding I made.
My cousin Elsiemae, daughter of Frances and Jack Breakwell, passed on her family's plum pudding recipe to my daughter Ceridwen in a handwritten letter. In the 1880s they sold coffee in cans, but you may have trouble getting these cans today. However, you can use a metal mold or other suitable container. Most plum puddings are made with suet or, in more modern times, with butter. This one is different from the traditional version in that it has neither suet nor another animal fat, in effect, vegetarian plum pudding.
                                 
                                              1880's English Plum Pudding
Original recipe from Grandmother Hannah Breakwell, Barrow-in-Furness
1 c. white sugar                              1 t. cinnamon
1 c. flour                                         1 t. cloves
1 t. baking powder                          1 c. chopped apples
1 t. baking soda                               1 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 t. salt
1 cup bread crumbs (cubed)
can evaporated milk 

Mix dry ingredients. Add milk and mix together. Add fruit and walnuts. Mix.
Place mixture in 1 pound coffee can, 3/4 full. Cover with aluminum foil. Place can with mixture into bottom of double boiler or pot with water halfway up. Boil for three hours, making sure that enough water is always in boiler.  To serve, spoon out and serve with lemon or hard sauce.
--Elsiemae Breakwell Simmers
The Nativity Window in St. John's, made in Germany, 1917.

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