The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, December 31, 2018

Historic Cooking: Fig Bread Pudding from 1907 and the history of Figgy Pudding.

Happy New Year!  "Time flies ..." and all that.  I have settled in to my new place -- a vintage Airstream trailer from 1967 -- but haven't got the oven up and working yet (it runs on propane and involves open flame every time you use it ...) so the only historic cooking I've done so far has been on the stovetop (also propane, involving open flame) and I haven't gotten many photos of the projects.  I am working on a Twelfth Night Cake for the coming week (I'll bake it in my mom's regular electric oven), so hopefully I'll get that written up and posted within the month.  One Historical Food Fortnightly challenge which I made this year, I also did last year but didn't get around to posting about it -- Figgy Pudding.  I decided to use a different recipe for figgy pudding, one that didn't take as long to boil as the one I usually use, so the research for that sent me down the rabbit hole of figgy pudding history.  I ultimately decided that I like the flavor of the Victorian recipe better than this one, but it was still an interesting recipe.

Just after Thanksgiving I made another figgy pudding for my Christmas caroling choir – the Lyric Theatre Victorian Carolers – as I have for the past several years, but this year I wanted to try a different recipe.   In researching other recipes, I followed one of the many "bunny trails" that I remembered from my previous research on the topic of figgy pudding: what is it and how old is it? 

Fig Bread Pudding.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
Figgy pudding seems like such an old-fashioned treat, the kind that dates back to at least the 18th century, but my own investigation into period cookbooks has turned up surprisingly few recipes for it -- under the name "figgy pudding" -- that date before the Victorian era. In The Monthly Magazine: Devonshire and Cornwall Vocabulary from 1810, it defines "figs" as: "Figs, raisins. A "figgy pudding"; a pudding with raisins in it; a plumb pudding." Also, there is a somewhat sniffy (in my opinion) entry in The Oracle—A Weekly Journal of Response, Research, and Reference from December 1882, which states, in answer to the question "In Somersetshire the poor people call raisins figs and a plain pudding they speak of as a figgy pudding. Why is this?" that "It would be hopeless to seek a rational explanation of the error. We can only surmise that in the days when communication was less facile than at present, the rural population having little acquaintance with colonial produce, used figs as a convenient generic term for the dried fruits sold by grocers. ... We do not think the error is peculiar to the poor: it is rather characteristic of the rural population." Well, la di da!

The authors of most "history of figgy pudding" articles on the Internet seem to agree that figgy pudding, plum pudding, and Christmas pudding are all names for the exact same thing, that none of those dishes actually contain figs or plums, and that this somehow made sense to the people of the past because they were weird like that way back then.  However, that kind of explanation for "why people in the past did things a certain way" always makes me suspicious, because it so often turns out to be totally untrue!
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)