Posted on January 3rd, 2013
A thin veil of fear and mystery, like the snowy fog that half hides slick black tree trunks at the dark end of December, clings to the very mention of Christmas pudding. It rattles like a strange and bony relic of a past half forgotten, one of hams pierced a thousand times with the blunt brown tips of whole cloves, sideboards sagging with tawny port, Armagnac and Amontillado in bottles that glisten like crown jewels or the pride of a dragon’s hoard, and, in the kitchen, a sleeping beast at the bottom of a stockpot snoring on the stovetop since the first glint of Christmas dawn—the pudding itself, belching out clouds of steam so thick you could cut them with a trowel, and dreaming, nestled in its tin bowl, of holly sprigs, flaming brandy, and a family of barristers or street urchins or maybe the Cratchits themselves staring wide eyed with wonder at the final wink of writhing blue fire in the snow-thick Christmas darkness crowding in from fern-frosted windows before hacking it apart, merrily, with the best silver cake knife.
It was a foreign thing to us, a food-worshipping, half-heathen New England family obeying the ancient rites of Gaul and the southern Alps year after ice-rimmed year with humble offerings of fish chowder white for a long eve’s snowbound vigil, meat pies ground from beasts unknown since the Pleistocene, lasagna thick as a family bible, Bûche de Noël left to rot in the greenwood now ripe with marzipan mushrooms, and a little Frangelico at bedtime to make us dream of past years’ feasts and feasts still to come, oven-warm and unchanging until the hungry sun should swell and swallow old Earth for its antipasto.
But Christmases change: feasts blur and merge and marinate in the memories of other feasts from other Christmases, and when a morsel from a distant and mostly imagined land or time makes its way onto our crowded table we stare, shrug, and welcome it with open mouths and stamping champing forks, never quite hungry and always eager. And so we found ourselves, three years ago today, staring down our very first Christmas pudding, hauled by my Irish brother-in-law out of the long memory of a hundred Dublin Christmases, stirred and potted and boiled and left to sit, stewing in its own succulence, for a month or more in a cold, dark corner of their Cambridge apartment.
There may have been a wary murmur from the skeptics among us. We were unused to months-old edibles, and the fermentation or transmutation or dark alchemy involved is as mysterious to me now as it was then. The catalog of ingredients was no less frightening: a bottle of stout dark as the solstice night, a pound or more of butter, a henhouse of eggs’ yolks, currants, raisins, cherries, sultanas, and whiskey enough to wake the dead or floor the living, all bound by a dash of breadcrumbs and a lump of sugar fit for fifty reindeer. But come Christmas Day we listened to it rattle and huff as it boiled again in a great pot on the stovetop till my brother-in-law extracted it with blacksmiths’ tongs and coaxed the pudding, whole, onto a platter, and poured flaming brandy onto it and half the table cloth, and put out the fire on the table cloth, and then we ate the pudding. It tasted like the pith of every Christmas the world had ever known settling warmly into our bellies, and our doubts vanished as we picked the crumbs from the platter, saving a little to fry in butter the next morning.
But in time we learned that the ancient rites of pudding are neither simple nor foolproof. Things went right that first year—things went perfectly. Things can, and do, go wrong. Last Christmas my sister arrived in New England exhausted by a late-night flight across the country, suitcase in tow full of presents, packages, bundles, bows, and, carefully swaddled and nearly watertight, the Christmas pudding, which, we discovered when she went to get a sweater—a sweater now coated in a sticky brown gloop that smelled of candy and old beer—had somehow melted in the weeks since its creation, collapsed into a formless pudding-paste and crept like a sentient slime out of its cage and throughout my sister’s luggage. We salvaged the remains and fortified it with crumbs, and boiled it for days on end until it was a pudding again—a pudding good as any, which we ate with the glee of willful forgetting.
This year the lot has fallen to me. Even as I write this, a steel bowl sits on my desk, shrouded in plastic wrap and foil, bound round with twine and weighed down with a stack of thick books to keep the cats at bay. It has been there for a month, and not once have I lifted the veil to peek at my dark creation. I fear what lurks therein. I have trouble believing that it hasn’t grown a long green beard or soured like cider turned the wrong way. My fingers are crossed, and what little faith I have lies in the extra jiggers of whiskey I sprinkled on its forehead before I tucked it in for the winter, which I hope will keep it safe and merry till we set it ablaze again on one more flame-bright, stout-dark, age-old ever-returning Christmas night.
(apologies to D.T. & C.D.)