Loved and hated in equal measure, Christmas pudding’s cultural and political clout have extended far beyond the dining table.

It has been called a “gastronomic paradox” – the most British of all dishes largely made from non-British ingredients. Today, Christmas pudding, the dense, fruit-packed confection that is boiled for hours and served with brandy butter or steaming custard just once a year, is loved and hated in equal measure, like Brussels sprouts or Marmite. Its cultural and political clout, however, have extended far beyond the dining table.

Starting out as an affordable gruel enjoyed by the British working class, by the first half of the 20th century Christmas pudding had become a call to arms – a potent propaganda tool and a boastful symbol of British imperialism. Containing such exotic fare as candied orange peel from South Africa, raisins from Australia and spices from India and Zanzibar, the dish was sent into economic battle by the state and used to promote the empire’s family of nations with a simple message: just look at the wonders we can achieve when we all pull together.

While the origins of Christmas pudding extend back to the Middle Ages, modern business terms such as “globalisation”, the “international supply chain” and “free trade between nations” were not tripping off the tongue of the average English peasant back then, when a working man’s meal might include frumenty, a savoury oat porridge thickened with breadcrumbs and perhaps dotted with scraps of mutton or beef.

By the 16th Century, English merchants were active in the spice trade and importing exciting new foodstuffs from Africa, India and Southeast Asia, and this previously unappetising gruel might now include prunes, currants and raisins instead of gristle. Frumenty was the ancestor of plum pudding, it is claimed by no less than Fortnum & Mason, the 18th-Century London department store celebrated for its gourmet groceries, with plum once being a generic term for any dried dark fruit.The ingredients in Christmas pudding were a boastful symbol of British imperialism (Credit: Catherine MacBride/Getty Images)

The ingredients in Christmas pudding were a boastful symbol of British imperialism (Credit: Catherine MacBride/Getty Images)

Then, in the 17th Century, Brits began wrapping doughs in cloths and boiling them to make more solid puddings. “The artisanal, working-class aristocracy – people like stonemasons, who earned a bit more than most – might add some apple,” said Cambridge-based historian Lizzie Collingham, author of The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. “And as more goods arrived in Britain, they would add cloves, or cinnamon or currants, whatever they could afford.”

Large-scale sugar production was introduced to the Caribbean islands in the 1640s, with the establishment of massive cane plantations worked by enslaved people from Africa. These were crucial to pudding becoming a sweet rather than a savoury dish. “Sugar becomes widespread by the early 18th Century,” Collingham said. “Now the [British] poor could afford sugar, or at least treacle, or molasses – the residue that remains when refining sugar.”

Plum pudding finally became key to Christmas tradition during the Victorian era, in no small part thanks to Charles Dickens’ 1843 literary blockbuster A Christmas Carol. The culinary treat of the parable-like novel’s warm-hearted Cratchit family came to symbolise irrepressible cheer in the face of hardship: “In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

This was the time of what Collingham calls “the invention of Christmas [as a] cosy celebration of Englishness”, with the arrival of the Christmas tree, Christmas cards and “Stir-up Sunday”, when each member of a family gave their pudding mixture a stir while making a wish. Meanwhile, the British hunger for better grub was quietly shaping agricultural policies of nations across the planet. Back then, the Brits relished the might they enjoyed through their sea power and reach, not only to import delicious fare but also to have what Collingham described as a “civilising influence” on their overseas colonies and other far-flung countries.The Victorian era saw the arrival of "Stir-up Sunday", when each family member gave their pudding mixture a stir while making a wish (Credit: Amoret Tanner/Alamy)

The Victorian era saw the arrival of “Stir-up Sunday”, when each family member gave their pudding mixture a stir while making a wish (Credit: Amoret Tanner/Alamy)

This was exemplified in an essay entitled A Christmas Pudding that ran in Dickens’s weekly journal Household Words in 1850. Through a dream of the essay’s protagonist Mr Oldknow, each scene considered a single ingredient and was a lesson on the benefits of free trade and the folly of protectionism.

When the dream’s ghost-like “Genius of the Raisin”, for example, grumbled that the Spanish grapes sent to England would have been better used for locally consumed wine, Oldknow argued that labour was most productive when it could be used to buy the results of other labour, because that permitted the local worker to access desirable overseas goods they would otherwise never know and enjoy.

The plum pudding was thought of as ‘a truly national dish’ not in spite of but because of its foreign ingredients… To be a Victorian Englishman was to possess the power to eat the world

“The pudding at this time symbolises the ability of Britain to suck in all of these foodstuffs,” said Collingham, who also writes in The Hungry Empire: “The plum pudding was thought of as ‘a truly national dish’ not in spite of but because of its foreign ingredients… To be a Victorian Englishman was to possess the power to eat the world.”

This, then, was a thrilling period for the British not just of increasing gastronomic plenty but of diversity, complexity and culinary adventure, with “the empire effectively feeding the British working class”, according to Collingham.The Empire Christmas Pudding was the brainchild of the Empire Marketing Board, whose main purpose was to encourage trade among the empire nations (Credit: Chronicle/Alamy)

The Empire Christmas Pudding was the brainchild of the Empire Marketing Board, whose main purpose was to encourage trade among the empire nations (Credit: Chronicle/Alamy)

Come the 20th Century and World War One, however, shortages saw less delectable ingredients rising to the fore: grated carrots and passed-its-prime bread acted as pudding filler, for instance, recalling the thrown-together frumenty of old. And once the fighting had stopped, there was a currency crisis, a massive trade deficit, growing unemployment and social unrest to contend with.

AN EASY-TO-TRANSPORT PUDDING

Wherever Britain’s empire-building traders went, they took Christmas pudding with them. With its pleasingly long shelf life, a pudding could journey to the hill stations of Kashmir or the bloody battlefields of Crimea. A convict in Sydney might, with a well-placed bribe to a guard, receive a pudding in the mail.

Cheap goods flooded Britain from the US, South America and even from Japan, which angered the empire nations that demanded protection from London for their labours. Then, in the early 1920s, a recipe leaflet distributed by the British Women’s Patriotic League urged cooks to “make your Christmas pudding an ‘Empire Pudding'”, with ingredients sourced accordingly.

The national government stepped up in 1926, establishing the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) quango to further promote imperial unity, again turning to the much-loved Christmas pudding to convince the British public to be patriotic in their spending habits.

The board’s “Empire Christmas Pudding” recipe was quickly promoted in newspapers and magazines, annoying nearby Wales, Scotland and Ireland because no ingredients were listed as originating from those countries, while Australia (currants, sultanas, raisins, brandy), South Africa (sultanas, raisins, candied peel) British Guiana (sugar) and others played starring roles. Cyprus was also miffed to be left out of the mix. The Mediterranean island’s colonial commissioner made an urgent December call to the EMB, demanding that the pudding should be served with its brandy butter.

Nevertheless, the Empire Pudding captured https://itusiapalagi.com the imagination, with no less than King George V declaring that the entire royal Christmas dinner that year would only feature ingredients from the British Empire. And just days before 25 December, publicity-savvy Lord Meath, organiser of the Empire Day movement that also pushed for patriotic purchasing, made a massive Empire Pudding at an extravagant filmed event in London.Lord Meath's massive Empire Pudding was stirred by representatives of the empire nations (Credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

Lord Meath’s massive Empire Pudding was stirred by representatives of the empire nations (Credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

“Each ingredient was carried in by turbaned men and announced as if it were a guest before being added to a gigantic mixing bowl,” said Collingham. “Representatives of different empire countries then stepped forward to give the pudding a symbolic stir.”

And the EMB’s efforts were ramped up the following year, when it distributed a pudding recipe provided by the king’s chef, Henri Cedard. Again, this could not please everyone: Canada complained that its listed contribution was just five ounces of minced apple; Cyprus grumbled that it now shared brandy responsibilities with Australia, historical Palestine and South Africa; and poor New Zealand was forgotten completely.

This “King’s Christmas Pudding” was a great success, however, remaining immensely popular with British families until World War Two, when the sun finally set on the empire. Today, few British households make Christmas pudding from scratch, preferring the ease of purchasing a ready-made product – in the same way that a modern Italian might shop for panettone, or Germans stock up on stollen. And while this writer still relishes a heaped serving of Christmas pudding, Collingham is not a fan.Today, Christmas pudding is loved and hated in equal measure (Credit: esp_imaging/Getty Images)

Today, Christmas pudding is loved and hated in equal measure (Credit: esp_imaging/Getty Images)

“I like the flavours but it’s too stodgy,” she said, also pointing out how the propaganda of the Empire Pudding does not tickle her political tastebuds almost a century later. “The 1930s presentation of the empire as all one family making the Christmas pudding together conveniently elided or ignored that the empire was not one big family but rather an exploitative system,” she said.

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