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18 february 2013

Though it's a "global history" like other Reaktion Edible books, Jeri Quinzio's Pudding is strongly Anglocentric. And why not; England is the world bastion of pudding, even if Scotland to the north boasts the "great chieftain o' the puddin'-race," haggis.

In fact, Pudding could not have been written as a coherent book except for some wide-ranging accidents of the English language. If there was ever a time to bust out the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it's in the presence of the word "pudding." The English refer to so many different things by that name that it would make utter nonsense to the proverbial Martian to group them together in a single book. And that's true even though Quinzio for the most part omits any of the things that Americans call "pudding."

There are five main dishes grouped under the English catchall term "pudding." The first includes black and white puddings, small sausages with lots of starchy extensions, with blood (black) or without (white) as the main ingredient. The second is a suet-and-starch concoction, well-wrapped in cloth (or in an animal's stomach, like haggis) and then baked, boiled, or steamed: the great line of English puddings, including spotted dick and the archetypal Christmas plum pudding, are in this group. The third includes rice and bread puddings, usually cooked without wrappers, looser in texture, famously insipid. The fourth is the hasty puddings: quickly-stirred starches that can include some of the stuff (raisins, syrups) that make slow-cooked sweet puddings so nice. And the fifth is Yorkshire pudding: floury batter oven-fried in grease. Factor in that the English word "pudding" nowadays most commonly means just plain "afters" or dessert, and you see why nobody non-English would think for a moment of writing a book like Quinzio's.

As an American, of course, I grew up thinking of pudding as a creamy semi-liquid dessert. The pudding of my youth was gummy (some might have said slimy) and ultrasweet. It could be made by pouring powder out of a packet, adding milk, and cooking awhile. Or you could make pudding, as my grandmother did, "from scratch," which consisted of pouring several different powders out of canisters, adding milk, and cooking awhile. Instant pudding, says Quinzio, was developed in the 1940s, and involved pouring the powder into the milk, but skipping the cooking. I reckon most pudding eaten in the US today comes directly from storebought tubs, and doesn't even need powder-pouring: just remove the lid and dive in.

But wait, why is Quinzio talking about instant pudding at all? She started by forswearing American puddings. In her final chapter (117-118), she seems confused about the nature of instant pudding. She traces the decline of the spotted dicks and their allies to the invention of pudding mixes and instant puddings, but surely there isn't such a thing as instant spotted dick.

No, I think that the decline of the homemade English pudding was occasioned by prepared puddings from tins – or, as Quinzio reasonably suggests, by the rise of fresh foods, and a postmodern disdain for stodge. Quick and instant puddings are American things (Bird's Custard is the closest English equivalent). Quick, instant, and readymade puddings have emerged, at times, as practically a food group unto themselves in the United States. I associate the 1990s with a great proliferation of pudding in America: pudding pops, pudding cakes, pudding in plastic squeezetubes for those who can't even be bothered to get a goddamn spoon. Since the turn of the 21st century, though, American pudding has been largely displaced by yoghurt, which in most of its forms is just as sugary and equally bad for you, but strikes a sour note that Americans seem to like, and often comes with assurances that its busy little bacteria are good for what ails you.

That leaves, of course, everything else that Quinzio talks about, the peculiar range of stuff that the English call "pudding" and the rest of the world calls by many separate names, if they eat it at all. The various sausages, cakelike affairs, porridges, grits, and dumplings that the English group as "pudding" seem to share cultural rather than culinary connections. Pudding is above all filling – and easy to eat. Even black pudding, which requires some cutting into, is usually sliced into rounds before frying. Chewing is optional. Quinzio includes (108) an etching from the year 1670, showing laborers stunned by satiety in the Land of Cockaigne, having just eaten their way through a hillside of pudding. Everything nowadays seems to be comfort food to somebody, but old-fashioned puddings really were.

Quinzio notes that English pudding morphed over the years into a dessert from an earlier stage as an appetizer. Or rather, a deappetizer. Hungry families (which, if they were tradesmen's families, might include even hungrier apprentices) would be given pudding as a first course. They'd fill up on that (mostly suet and breadcrumbs), and then the week's meat would go further. Again, pudding represents immediate creature comfort. And simplicity, which is why the various light porridges eaten by breakfasters, children, or invalids are called "puddings": something you can spoon into your mouth without a whole lot of effort.

When homemade along traditional lines, pudding has been anything but immediate, however. Fortified by strong beer and/or brandy, plum puddings at their best sit around for months before Christmas, acquiring a homogenous texture like coarse paste, radiant with all kinds of dark, winey, umami sweetness. An acquired taste, particularly for those of us who grew up thinking of pudding as butterscotch custard.

Quinzio, Jeri. Pudding: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.