Monday, August 12, 2019

In Defence of Christmas Pudding - Part Two

The Australian newspapers of the 1830s carried advertisements for all the ingredients necessary for a luxurious Christmas pudding – French plumbs, Turkey figs, Zante (Greek), currants and raisins from Spain, Smyrna (Turkey) or South Africa, along with candied orange, lemon and citron peel, and imported spices – making it an exotic and likely expensive indulgence.

Australia began producing its own dried vine fruits in the 1880s on the Murray River at Renmark and Mildura, thanks to the irrigation scheme promoted by Alfred Deakin and realised by the Canadian Chaffey brothers.[1] As Wishart explains the irrigation scheme itself was less than successful and the dried fruits industry ‘developed by default as the most reliable and practical way of getting fruit to markets on the coast’.[2] From the commencement nearly 80 per cent of production was exported[3] and, by the early twentieth century, Australia was the Empire’s largest dried vine-fruits producer.[4] But the industry had its ups and downs. The economic depression of the 1890s saw the Chaffeys go bankrupt and a Royal Commission set up to inquire into the failures of the irrigation scheme. Meanwhile. the prices for dried fruits plummeted and the Australian Dried Fruits Association was formed in 1907 to protect the interests of farmers.

The market for Australian dried fruit boomed and the returns skyrocketed during the First World War when products from traditional suppliers, such as Greece and Turkey were interrupted.[5] However, by 1923, an ill-conceived post-war soldier settlement scheme, designed to help returned service men establish themselves on the land in the area known as ‘Sunraysia’, resulted in dramatically increased production and an inevitable plunge in prices. A solution to the industry’s woes lay in promoting Australian dried fruit both overseas, especially in Britain, and in the local market, with Christmas pudding at the forefront.

The idea that British consumers should give preference to goods produced in those countries which were members of the Empire had a long history, and by 1850 the Christmas pudding, with its wide range of ingredients from all over the Empire, was well-established as a symbol of both nation, as in Britain, and its Imperial wealth.[6]

After Federation (1901) the Australian government lobbied hard for preferential trade agreements with Britain to give special access to Australian primary produce and raw materials. There was also considerable public enthusiasm in Britain for the promotion of Empire goods. For example, The British Women’s Patriotic League held the first Empire Shopping Week in London in 1922 to coincide with Empire Day in May.[7]

The entry of Californian growers into the British market in 1924 presented a significant challenge to Australia producers, who counteracted with heavy advertising.[8] The theme of the Lord Mayor’s Show in London in 1924 was ‘Imperial Trade’. Australia contributed a giant Christmas pudding, paraded through the streets on Lord Mayor’s Day drawn by six white horses (one for each state) and bearing the slogan 'Make your Christmas Pudding of Empire Products’. From the illustration below it is clear that, at least in the minds of Australians, it could just as easily have been the promotion of an Australian Christmas Pudding. As Ivan Day describes it the pudding was ‘spiked’ with both the Australian flag and the Union Jack and sandwiched between a stuffed emu and a stuffed kangaroo.[9]


The British government was determined to maintain a policy of free trade but in 1926 bowed to continuing pressure from members of the Empire for preferential access to British markets by setting up the Empire Marketing Board to formally promote empire products.[10] Again, the Christmas pudding made a significant and highly successful contribution to the Board’s efforts. The publishing of the recipe for the King’s Christmas Pudding, based on a recipe supplied by the royal chef André Cédard, in 1927, was one of the highlights of their promotional activities. For the British audience the preparation of the Christmas Pudding was portrayed as uniting the royal family, the nuclear family, the national family and the Empire family.[11]

Meanwhile, in Australia, the Christmas Pudding was regarded as less Imperial and more national. Cyril Pearl writing in Wild Men of Sydney claims: ‘The word “Empire” had few sentimental overtones in the ‘80s [1880s]. It had not yet been linked with God and the throne. The weaving of the bonds of Empire were done by hard-headed manufacturers and merchants who made no bones about their purpose’.[12]

As early as 1904 Perrybingle, writing in the Weekly Times (Melbourne), commented on the promotion in Britain of an ‘all-British pudding’: 
Christmas pudding and Imperial sentiment do not appear to have much to do, one with each other, but as Imperialism in these days is, in some quarters, a subject always uppermost, we find one English paper seriously discussing a discovery. It was said “the English people have had, for a long time, to depend upon the foreigner for many of the ingredients that make up 'our national delicacy'" – meaning plum pudding, not refinement in the abstract. “It is pleasant knowing,” continued the writer, “that English people may now consume an all-British pudding.” The flour, it appears is imported into England from Canada, the suet is a home production, the sugar is obtained from the West Indies, and the citron peel and raisins from Australia. The argument seems to be that a patriotic pudding should feed Imperial thought.
While the writer acknowledged that Australians in general and ‘our friends at Mildura’ in particular would no doubt welcome increased sales of citron peel and raisins, and to that extent encourage ‘Imperial feeding’, nonetheless ‘the Imperialists should remember that we in Australia can make our own Christmas pudding entirely without the foreigner, for the whole of the ingredients mentioned are produced within our own country. Pudding and patriotism may be nearer allied than pudding and Imperialism.’[13] These comments carry the clear implication that Christmas pudding could be considered as an Australian pudding and also that the British Christmas pudding might more correctly be called the Australian Christmas pudding, a symbol of Australia's progress and achievements, and something of which the new nation could be proud. 

The Empire Marketing Board’s activities extended to Australia but enthusiasm for empire was tempered here. As Gavin Souter says of the celebration of Empire Day (first introduced in 1905) ‘such was the duality of Australian self-perception that the nation did not seem to be diminished by this celebration of empire. On the contrary, it was enhanced: as far as most Australians were concerned, to praise the whole was automatically to praise the part’.[14] Helping Australia could also be interpreted as a way of helping the Empire. 

While the Empire Marketing Board was promoting imperialism, Australians were being encouraged to buy local. For example, The Australian Made Preference League was founded in New South Wales in 1924, with the pledge: 
I believe Australia can become self-sufficient and prosperous through the development of primary and secondary industries; to assist that end I pledge myself to give reference at all times to “Australian-made” goods and products, all things being equal, and never to make a purchase without stating “Australian-made preferred”.[15] 
Flinders Street Station c. 1925 VPRS 12800/P1, H1614.
Similarly, in her introduction to A Sunshine Cookery Book, a publication of the Australian Dried Fruits Association, Flora Pell encouraged the use of local products, and by extension the making of Christmas pudding, as a patriotic act:
by making daily use of these appetising and nourishing fruits, you will not only be building up your own health, but will be assisting in maintaining a valuable national industry with which the successful repatriation of large numbers of returned soldiers in inseparably bound up.[16]

Despite all these initiatives, the soldier settlement scheme was a spectacular failure. The Empire Marketing Board was wound up in 1933 after tariffs were introduced and gradually the idea of Christmas pudding as a symbol of Australian patriotism seems to have faded away. Florence James writing in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1938 thought Australians should make their own traditional Christmas and suggested jellied turkey followed by fruit salad flavoured with passionfruit, pineapple and paw-paw which may have been exotic for the times.[17] Similarly, Mary Forbes proposed a frozen pudding set with gelatine.[18] Once refrigeration became common, recipes for chilled and frozen puddings appeared regularly but none of these achieved any level of popularity, certainly not enough to become a widely recognised ‘tradition’.[19] Various forms of commercially pre-prepared puddings either canned or fresh have been marketed over the years. The most common home-made alternative to Christmas pudding today is more likely to be pavlova or trifle.

So why does the Christmas pudding ‘tradition’ persist? It remains a perennial symbol of the Christmas season even though incongruous in the Australian climate, and even though it may not be widely consumed.

In Australia, in 2019, a decent percentage of Australians do not celebrate Christmas at all and those who do bring with them many more traditions than the ones bequeathed by our British colonisers. That said of course, for no small proportion of the population honouring British traditions is honouring their personal ancestry. 

Part of the reason for the longevity of a ‘traditional’ Christmas pudding is surely that it tastes good. With all the improvements in kitchen technology a boiled pudding may not be any easier to prepare today than it was in 1920 but it can be made well before the hot weather commences, stored in the refrigerator until required, and then reheated in the microwave. Its easy portability also remains one of its more desirable characteristics. No less important, it can still be made from ingredients sourced from local producers. As its history in Australia suggests, eating plum pudding at Christmas can hardly be taken as evidence that Australians are not at home here. Making and eating Christmas pudding remains more aligned to patriotism than to imperialism.

So rather than ask why some of us still persist with a tradition which seems outdated and unsuitable perhaps we should ask why not. In this case the story of the Christmas pudding is a very good example of Bell and Valentine’s contention that ‘the history of what we eat is the history of the nation’.[20] You do not have to like Christmas pudding or eat Christmas pudding or have Anglo-British ancestry to know that the Australian celebration of Christmas is grounded in an Anglo-British heritage and recognise Christmas pudding as a reminder of that heritage. Whether we like it or not Christmas pudding acts as a flag, a symbol of nationalism found in the routines of everyday life, to us, Australians, and to other nations, which signals our cultural and historical heritage.[21]

[1]Evening Journal (Adelaide) 8 May 1873, p. 2 reports the first consignment of Australian raisins sent to London.
[2]Alison Wishart, 2016. ‘“Bottled Sunshine”: The Birth of the Australian Dried Fruits Industry’, Locale: The Australasian–Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies, 6, pp. 41–70.
[3]Wishart, 51
[4]Kaori O’Connor. 2009. ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globilization, Recipes and the Commodities of Empire’, Journal of Colonial History 4, p.140.
[5]Wishart, p. 49
[6]O’Connor, pp. 132–3.
[7]O’Connor, p.139. See also Frank Trentmann. 2007. ‘Before “fair trade”: Empire, Free Trade and the Moral Economies of Food in the Modern World’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, pp. 1079–1102, in particular pp.1082–1086.
[8]O’Connor, p.140.
[10]As Ward puts it the Empire Marketing Board ‘operated not through preferences but through propaganda’. Stuart Ward. 2001. ‘Sentiment and Self-Interest. The Imperial Ideal in Anglo-Australian Commercial Culture’, Australian Historical Studies 32 (116): pp. 93–4.
[11]O’Connor, p.153. For more on the Empire Marketing Board see Felicity Barnes. 2014. ‘Bringing Another Empire Alive? The Empire Marketing Board and the Construction of Dominion Identity, 1926–33’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 42 (1), pp. 61–85; David Meredith. 1987. ‘Imperial Images: The Empire Marketing Board, 1926–33’, History Today, January, pp.30–36.
[12]Cyril Pearl. 1970. Wild Men of Sydney, Universal Books, p. 17.
[13]‘Perrybingle Papers’, Weekly Times (Melbourne), 31 December 1904, p. 21.
[14]Gavin Souter. 2001. Lion and Kangaroo. The Initiation of Australia, Melbourne: Text, p.129
[16]Flora Pell, forward to A Sunshine Cookery Book, c. 1926, quoted in Wishart, p.59.
[17]Florence James, ‘Australians Should Make Their Own Christmas Tradition’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 December 1938, p.14.
[18]Mary Forbes, ‘Such a Delicious Christmas Dinner’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 December 1939, p. 5.
[19]For example, Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 December 1946, p. 73; 20 December 1947, p. 38; 6 November 1968, p. 8
[20]David Bell and Gill Valentine .1997. Consuming Geographies, London: Routledge, p.168.
[21]Michael Billig. 1995. Banal Nationalism, London: Sage.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

In Defence of Christmas Pudding - Part One.

In One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons calls the eating of Christmas pudding as part of an Australian Christmas ‘[t]he continuation of a quite unseasonable feast’ and suggests this eating of ‘plum pudding at 100 degrees in the shade’ is ‘perhaps the most oft-remarked Australian food oddity’. While he condemns the practice as eating against both the climate and the seasons he also sees it as ‘clear evidence that we had not made a home here’.[1] Other commentators similarly deride continuing what they see as imported traditions as symbolic of an inability to shake off the shackles of Empire. For Charmaine O’Brien, for example, eating Christmas pudding on Christmas Day represented ‘a connection to the values of Empire, a way of staking a claim to the mission of “upholding civilisation” on the far side of the world: weather be damned, this was serious cultural nourishment’.[2]

There is however ample evidence to suggest that, at least from the middle of the nineteenth-century, colonists in Australia were beginning to see their Christmas traditions as Australian rather than simply imitations of imported practices and were starting to reinterpret their relationship with ‘home’. When Ken Inglis says, ‘it would long be an Australian tradition to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it’[3] the important point is that, at least by the 1870s, colonists did appreciate the absurdity of the practice but persevered with it nonetheless. Subsequently, the Christmas pudding also became a symbol of Australian progress and national pride.

By the time English colonists arrived here in 1788 plum pudding was already a well-established celebratory dish for any festive occasion.[4] The connection with Christmas was cemented with the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) and the magazine, which he ‘conceived, commissioned, and compiled’, ‘Household Words’ (first published 1850).[5] As O’Connor notes 
The Christmas issues of Household Words are of particular interest, for they show the Dickensian English Christmas in the process of construction and also demonstrate the extent to which Christmas, the Christmas pudding, nationalism, commerce, and empire were already, by 1850, conflated in the common culture.[6]

So, we might well ask what other dish could Australian colonists have served at Christmas dinner? A steaming boiled fruit pudding might well be considered 'a triumph of sentiment over environment' [7] but what other suitably celebratory dishes were there which didn’t involve literally slaving over a hot stove? What other pudding would substitute in a world without refrigeration and limited kitchen facilities? Fresh or stewed fruits with blancmange or creamed rice might be alternatives but hardly scream celebration.[8] Christmas plum pudding also had the advantage of being portable, prepared well ahead of time and acceptable to eat at room temperature.

One local tradition was celebrating Christmas out of doors. As Inglis demonstrates eating outside became accepted practice, and, for those born in the colonies, ‘knowing no other climate or society’ this form of Christmas festivity was not perceived as ‘an exotic institution transplanted but a round of activities performed spontaneously by Australians’.[9] While it was true that it was ‘no easy matter to set about the celebration of the holiday in the true English style’ it had to be admitted that ‘the substitute may, in all reality, be as good as the original; and to a native Australian may be far better than a vain and imperfect mimicry of customs his climate and his hemisphere will never permit him to reproduce’.[10] By 1859, in an article entitled ‘The Comicalities of an Antipodean Christmas’, the Argus admitted that ‘[i]n some sense an Australian Christmas is slowly being established’ conceding that ‘Plum pudding may be eaten in the open air’ (emphasis in the original).[11]

In the 1860s, the Illustrated Sydney News was extolling the pleasures of the Australian Christmas:
Christmas is bright and sunny; the flowers of midsummer deck the garden; all nature seems to woo us to enjoy ourselves out of doors and all seem eager to respond to the invitation – hence picnics and excursions by land and water are arranged as being a propos of an Australian Christmas.[12]
and illustrated the same with this sketch which clearly shows (at bottom right) a Christmas pudding being consumed in the great outdoors.

Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that in Melbourne on Christmas Day ‘thousands made their way out of town to sylvan retreats or sea-side nooks in which to enjoy their Christmas pudding’.[13]

In December 1866 readers of the Illustrated Sydney News were assured that: 
We know of no English institution which has become so thoroughly acclimatised … Christmas cheer may be as well enjoyed under the shade of a spreading gum tree as cooped up in the heated atmosphere of a close room; and if it is not the most fashionable way of spending the day, it is at least the most seasonable and the most Australian, and as such we feel no hesitation on recommending it.[14]

Of course, not everyone thought the traditional Christmas meal worth preserving. There were, no doubt, many who would have agreed that ‘no dish was ever invented so wholly unsuited to the tropics as plum pudding’.[15] Melbourne Punch claimed the heavy traditional fare, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and Christmas dinner, was both ‘dangerous to health and fatal to festivity’ but was optimistic that change would come ‘when we have sense enough and self-reliance enough to form our own ideals, and to uphold them’ and Australians would eventually turn to ‘light meals, light cakes and unnumbered fruits’.[16]

However, as the preceding illustrations demonstrate, there is evidence to suggest that in the years before Federation, as Nicole Anae puts it, the Christmas pudding was emerging as ‘a uniquely ambivalent “national dish’”’.[17] Anae interrogates selected verse-poetry of the late nineteenth-century and argues that it ‘offers a rich memorialization of the competing struggles between, on the one hand, the communal preserving of English modes of Christmas observance practices as the reference point for colonial celebrations, and, on the other, the communal realisation of the incongruity of such attempts in a new and alien land.’[18] The pudding becomes ‘both a sign of the “Mother Country” on the one hand and a problematic pejorative of Australian colonial identity on the other’. In other words, the Christmas pudding was becoming a symbol of not just John Bull Englishness and Old England[19] but was also being used to define Australian-ness as Australians began to see themselves as both part of the ‘imagined community’ of the Empire and their own colonial ‘imagined community’.[20] Anae’s discussion and the examples above also confirm that we should not underestimate the role of the press in creating and fostering these ideas of imagined communities.[21]

By the 1880s one newspaper declared: ‘We delight in keeping up the sacred festival of Christmas and we have transferred as a national heritage the home “bill of fare” for merry Christmas as the proper cheer for Christmas in the Antipodes.’[22] While the coming together of the Australian colonies to form one nation in 1901 was perhaps the realisation of the colonial ‘imagined community’ if anything Federation complicated the reconciliation of this community with the community of the Empire.[23] The Christmas pudding continued as a symbol of this ambiguity.

[1]Michael Symons. 2007. One Continuous Picnic. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, p. 27.
[2]Charmaine O’Brien. 2016. The Colonial Kitchen: Australia 1788–1901. London: Rowan and Littlefield, p. 127.
[3]Kenneth Stanley Inglis. 1974. The Australian Colonists: An Exploration of Social History, 1788–1870.Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, p. 109.
[4]Ivan Day, ‘One family and Empire Christmas Pudding’, 30 August 2012, Ivan Day’s wonderful blog, Food History Jottings, has two fascinating articles (the first of these is on plum pudding with many links to other resources.
[5]Kaori O’Connor. 2009. ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globilization, Recipes and the Commodities of Empire’, Journal of Colonial History 4, pp. 127–155.
[6]O’Connor, p. 132.
[7]Inglis, p. 109.
[8]The Christmas Dinner’, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 22 December 1883, p. 1186.
[9]Inglis, pp. 109, 110.
[10]‘The Empire Christmas’, Empire, 26 December 1853, p. 2.
[11]‘The Comicalities of the Antipodean Christmas’, Argus, 27 December 1859, p. 4.
[12]‘Christmas in Australia’, Illustrated Sydney News, 16 December 1865, p. 3 and 8.
[13]‘Our Melbourne Letter’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Jan 1870, p.  5. See also ‘The Christmas Holidays’ Argus,27 December 1873, p. 5: 'On Christmas Day … many families spent the day in the open air, in marine excursions and otherwise, carrying their previously boiled Christmas pudding with them'. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser even suggested that cold plum pudding cut into slices and fried in a little butter then sprinkled with sugar ‘is preferred by many persons to boiled pudding’ (22 December 1883, p. 1186.)
[14]‘Pic-Nic Party’, Illustrated Sydney News, 15 December 1866, p. 3.
[15]‘John Bull in the Colonies’, Empire, 27 March 1861,p. 2.
[16]‘Christmas in Australia’ Melbourne Punch,28 December 1893 p. 4
[17]Nicole Anae. 2018. '“101 in the Shade”: Christmas Pudding in Australian Popular and Literary Verse 1830–1910', in  The Routledge Companion to Literature and Food, Lorna Piatti-Farnell And Donna Lee Brien (eds) New York: Routledge, pp. 113–126.
[18]Anae, p. 123.
[19]‘The Christmas Pudding’, Geelong Advertiser, 25 December 1849, p.1.
[20]As in Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as an ‘imagined community’. Benedict Anderson. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised ed.,Verso: London and New York.
[21]See Anderson. Also Peter Putnis, 2010.  ‘News, Time and Imagined Community in Colonial Australia’, Media History, 16 (2), pp. 153-170.
[22]‘The Christmas Dinner’, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 22 December 1881, p. 1186.
[23]See essays in Australian Historical Studies 2001, 32 (116): Neville Meaney, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity. The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’,pp. 76–90; Stuart Ward, ‘Sentiment and Self-Interest. The Imperial Ideal in Anglo-Australian Commercial Culture’, pp. 91–108.; John Rickard, ‘Imagining the Unimaginable?’, pp. 128–131.