“Just a half pound of suet, thanks,” I smiled at my friendly local butcher.
“Did you say a 10lb turkey?”
“Haha, no- a half pound of suet,” I replied cheerfully.
He looked at me evenly for a beat longer than necessary, then called out over his shoulder, “Mike, your customer…”
I understood the man’s confusion. It was four days before Thanksgiving and I’d spent the last hour in a socially-distanced line of eager, well-to-do New Yorkers waiting to spend wads of cash on ethically raised, locally sourced turkeys for Thursday’s traditional nosh-up. He wasn’t expecting an order for a 3 dollar wad of beef fat. In much the same way as I’m not expecting to bring him a slice of my delicious homemade Christmas pudding.
Christmas in Australia is a hard thing for Northern Hemispherics to grasp. We retain fairly strong emotional ties to our (almost) former overlord, the UK, and until fairly recently, our Christmas dinner was a traditional one: turkey, stuffing, roast spuds, cranberry sauce… We’d sit around on the big day, passing the gravy boat, admiring the fir tree dolled up like a chorus girl in the corner, eying off the tray of mince pies at the end of the table; all the while pretending we weren’t pouring sweat in high summer in a country with no turkeys or fir trees. For weeks down at the local shopping centre, Santa, in full North Pole get-up, had been slowly dissolving in his department store throne, flanked by ludicrous displays of fake snow and smouldering yule logs. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t joyful and heartwarming, but surely a blind denial of our surroundings. By the time I became sentient, things were changing. A burgeoning sense of individuality could be seen in many aspects of Australian life, and certainly at the Christmas table. In my family it was prawns, cold ham, and salad in the backyard, cold beers for the grownups, maybe a decorated eucalyptus branch stuck in a pot in the living room. But there was always a Christmas pud.
The majestic Christmas pudding has never really gained a toehold here in the US. Americans don’t agree on much these days, but a distrust of dried fruit seems to cross all social and political barriers; and the word “pudding” has a baffling range of definitions. Here in the US it’s some kind of gooey gelatinous custardy thing, sometimes chocolate, vanilla, or banana flavoured. In the UK and its colonies, it’s a generic word for dessert, and any number of sweet or savoury steamed dishes, of which the Christmas pud is one. And in the case of Yorkshire puddings, a baffling and disappointing cup made of baked dough to be ignored alongside a lovely roast dinner. But as much as you think you won’t like it, because it’s chock full of gross dried fruit, held together with beef fat, and has been sitting in a corner unrefrigerated for six weeks, it is an objectively wondrous thing, and you will love it. And you will ask for more.
The process starts on Stir-up Sunday (not to be confused with stirrup Sunday, which is an important day on the equestrian calendar), which as we all know is the Sunday before Advent. If you don’t know when Advent is, we have something in common. On this momentous day, a bunch of ingredients is chucked in a bowl and stirred up. Often this is a job for the kids, because it’s practically foolproof; plus the thing is loaded with booze and it’s fun to watch them get dizzy after licking the spoon. If you want to be really traditional, throw in a couple of coins- it’s a bit like the baby in a king cake- whoever finds it and doesn’t choke to death has good luck coming their way. My grandmother kept special old pennies for just this purpose, modern coins being poisonous, and valuable. I believe you’re supposed to give them a bath in Coca-Cola to burn off any impurities (diet Coke if you’re allowing for inflation.)
Once the ingredients are combined, and the kids are passed out under the table, scoop out the resulting gooey wodge, ease it into your pudding basin (like an earthenware mixing bowl), seal it up tight, and steam it in a giant pot for hours. Then send it to a dark corner to think about what it’s done until Christmas Day.
It’s the big day. The pious are groggy after dutifully attending midnight mass; everyone else is groggy because they started drinking at 11am. Santa’s crumb-flecked plate and empty beer glass languish unnoticed on the mantlepiece; disappointing presents have been gushed over, wrapping paper carefully folded for next year; lifelong family resentments are juuuust starting to make themselves known with rolled eyes and sarcastic sotto voce asides. An inadvisable amount of food has been put away, mums and aunties clear the table, uncles talk sport while Grandad snoozes quietly at the head of the table. Our pudding has been reheating in his pot for the last couple of hours, and it’s showtime. This is the fun bit.
Unwrap your pud and invert it onto its serving plate. Stick a sprig of holly on top if you can be bothered (I’ve only ever seen this in pictures), and place it ceremoniously in the middle of the table. The chatter has died down; an expectant hush hangs in the air, and Grandad slyly opens one eye. Grab a bottle of strong booze- brandy, whiskey, or vodka will do nicely. Pour a few slugs into a large ladle or metal jug (and a few slugs down your gullet while no one’s looking), then warm it over the stove. Take the jug to the table, light the warm booze with a match, ignore the smell from your singed eyebrows, and pour the flaming lot over your pudding. Like fireworks, bonfires, and lit farts, your blazing pud will illicit appreciative oohs and ahhs from all in attendance. Portion it out with ice cream and custard, and put this ridiculous day well and truly to bed. All that’s left is to volunteer to take out the recycling so you don’t have to do the dishes.
As with the rest of Christmas dinner, the best part is the leftovers. Any remaining wedges of pudding can be slowly reheated in a covered skillet, generously lubricated with butter. The sugars caramelise on the surface and you’ve got the perfect sticky gooey Boxing Day breakfast. Scoff as much as you can, then sink into the couch, bloated and heavy, fingers and face streaked with custard. At this point you’re more pudding than person, and the only thing left is to douse yourself in whiskey and set yourself on fire. Oooohhh!
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