This post is part of an occasional series about ethnography and folklore in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Find the whole series here!
In this previous blog post about foodways in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, we noted that the book’s protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge does not have a kitchen with any kind of stove or oven for preparing hot food. If he wants to cook anything, he must boil it in a pot over his hearth fire. For Scrooge, this is a lifestyle choice: he lives alone in a three-room flat even though he could surely afford a house with a kitchen and the domestic staff that typically went with it. He is able to eat cheaply every night in a “melancholy tavern,” ensuring that he gets a hot meal every day even without the ability to cook at home. But many Londoners in Scrooge’s day lived without cooking facilities by necessity, and couldn’t afford to simply eat out. In this post, we’ll see how they coped, by looking at the Cratchits, the only poor family depicted in the book in a detailed way. We’ll also look beyond the Cratchits to other London families in the same boat, and show how Dickens expresses social and political ideas about foodways through Scrooge and his interactions.
To begin with the Cratchits, the family consists of Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit, his wife (whose first name is not mentioned), and his children, Martha, Peter, Belinda, Tiny Tim, and another boy and girl whose names are not given. These eight people live in a four-room house which, like Scrooge’s flat, has neither stove nor oven. Despite this technological limitation, the Cratchits manage to produce a delicious Christmas dinner. Through the magic of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge, and by extension we the readers, are able to witness a good deal of the cooking.
Looking closely at the passage describing the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, we see that they use at least three different methods of cooking, each tied to a different location, to make up for not having a stove or oven. When Scrooge enters the house, he sees young Peter Cratchit plunging a fork into a saucepan of potatoes. Peter is surely checking to see if they are done enough to mash. They’re not, and Peter lets them cook longer, blowing at the fire, “until the slow potatoes bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled.” Later, we are told that Peter mashes the potatoes “with incredible vigor,” and that mashed potatoes and applesauce are the side dishes that turn the goose into a meal sufficient for eight people.
As for the location of the fire and saucepan that Peter uses to cook the potatoes, it’s in the same room where Mrs. Cratchit lays the table and the hustle and bustle of the household occurs as people come and go. People are able to talk to Peter as they also set up for the meal and warm themselves by the fire. In other words, the fire cooking the potatoes is the hearth fire itself. Later, we see the hearth fire also used to heat a warm gin punch and to roast chestnuts after dinner.
The hearth fire was clearly useful for a few dishes like these, but was limited by its size and by the kinds of cooking that could be done over an open flame in close quarters. A saucepan of potatoes could be heated there, as could a shovel-full of chestnuts and a jug of punch, but the family couldn’t cook a whole goose or pudding in the fire. To cook these dishes, they had to resort to other methods.
Let’s start with the pudding. Mrs. Cratchit’s is a traditional boiled pudding, which became accessible to most English people in the eighteenth century through the innovation of tight-woven cotton or linen pudding bags. Such boiled puddings were made of batter or of suet and flour, often with small pieces of sweet dried fruits or other goodies inside. In the eighteenth century they were known as “plum puddings,” even though the fruits inside were generally raisins, currants, and candied citrus peel.
Food Historian Pen Vogler has claimed that Dickens played a particular role in popularizing Christmas pudding, but there’s no good evidence of this. Vogler’s main item of evidence is circumstantial, and (as it happens) erroneous. She claims that the first recipe for a plum pudding in which it is called a “Christmas pudding” comes from an 1845 cookbook by Eliza Acton, who was an acquaintance and admirer of Dickens. I’m not sure why this is significant, since the dish is not called “Christmas pudding” in A Christmas Carol, but somehow it suggests to Vogler that Dickens is responsible for the name and the dish’s popularity at Christmas.
In fact, however, the dish was associated with the holiday and called “Christmas pudding” at least by 1819, when Dickens was 7 years old. In that year, Elizabeth Hammond published a recipe in her Modern Domestic Cookery, and Useful Receipt Book. Hammond acknowledges that plum pudding and Christmas pudding are the same thing, by calling it “Boiled plum or Christmas pudding.”
Another earlier reference depicting plum pudding as a Christmas tradition and calling it “Christmas pudding” comes from Thomas Hervey’s 1836 The Book of Christmas, which Dickens surely knew. The book’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, was simultaneously working with Dickens on The Pickwick Papers. Seymour drew two illustrations of Christmas puddings for Hervey’s original edition. In “Christmas Dinner,” which I’ve reproduced immediately below, a woman cuts into a plum pudding which is decorated, like the Cratchits’, with a sprig of holly. In the other illustration, which Seymour titled “Christmas Pudding,” the pudding is being boiled. I’ve reproduced it further below. See the 1836 versions of these illustrations at this link. Clearly, the plum pudding was already associated with Christmas and called “Christmas pudding” significantly before A Christmas Carol.
The boiled dessert known by 1819 as “Christmas pudding” presented Mrs. Cratchit with a challenge. To be successful, she had to tie the suet batter tightly in the floured cloth, have enough water at a vigorous boil so that the entire pudding and bag could be submerged, and drop the pudding and bag in all at once. When that is accomplished, the outer part of the pudding along with the floured cloth forms a tough barrier that keeps the batter from escaping into the water.
This method of cooking required a pot much larger than the household fireplace could accommodate. But many Victorian families, including the Cratchits, had another boiler where it could be done. The text reveals where this boiler was. The first time we hear about the Cratchits’ pudding is when Bob arrives home from church with Tiny Tim. While Bob and Mrs. Cratchit talk, Tim’s brother and sister pull him away to have a look at the pudding:
“The two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.”
Later, the family thinks about the pudding with some anxiety:
“Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose—a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.”
Finally, Mrs. Cratchit brings in the pudding, in one of the story’s most vivid and beloved passages:
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”
The first passage tells us that the pudding was made in something called “the copper,” which is in “the wash-house.” The second confirms that the pudding has been located in an outbuilding in the backyard, where a thief could theoretically have stolen it without the family hearing, while they have been eating dinner. The third shows that the pudding smells at once like a restaurant, a bakery, and a laundry.
In these passages, Dickens reveals the secret of how the pudding is cooked. Victorian houses typically had a large copper pot with a place under it for a fire. Its purpose was to heat water for washing, which could be used for laundry, house cleaning, and bathing. The copper was also the vessel in which laundry itself was soaked and agitated. The clever Mrs. Cratchit has boiled the pudding directly in the wash copper–the same method illustrated by Seymour in Hervey’s Book of Christmas, which Dickens surely knew.
Dickens clearly tells us that Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding was nearly perfect, though his insistence that “nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family” of course means it WAS a bit small. But his description of the pudding smelling a little like laundry is a humorous recognition of one drawback to this cooking method–it often wasn’t possible to completely eliminate the soapy smell from the copper or the cloth pudding bag. This was a known issue with this cooking method; Martha Bradley, a cookbook author who explained this way of making a pudding some 80 years before Dickens, wrote in her serialized book The British Housewife:
Let the Cloth be perfectly clean and free from any Taste of the Soap, for that is full as bad as Dirt.
Apparently, Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding had only a hint of that laundry smell; it was, as all agreed, “a wonderful pudding.” Mrs. Cratchit enhances its appeal with her attention to detail, pouring “half of half-a-quartern” (nowadays we’d say one ounce or 30 milliliters) of brandy over the pudding and igniting it, while also garnishing it with a sprig of holly. She could not have made the successful pudding without knowing how to use the laundry copper as an occasional cooking-pot, which shows her determination to provide a fitting dessert for Christmas, as well as her resourcefulness in doing so without a cooking stove.
This brings us inevitably to the main course, the goose, a delicious bird filled with sage and onion stuffing. For several reasons, the goose couldn’t be cooked in the hearth fire. Without some distance between the food and the fire, meat and poultry tends to burn on the outside without cooking inside. Moreover, grease from the meat dripping into the hearth could easily cause a conflagration. Although boiled goose was not unknown, boiling the goose in the copper was not a viable option either; Christmas puddings had to be boiled for hours, so the copper was needed for the pudding at the time the goose also needed to be cooking. Then too, the goose would transform the water into a kind of broth, which would spoil the pudding if they were boiled together in the same pot. Also, goose is so fatty it would have been very difficult to get the copper clean again!
We can see that the Cratchits had a problem, and of course many other people had the same challenge. Luckily, when many people have a problem, the marketplace of ideas sometimes furnishes a solution, and that was the case in Victorian London.
The very first mention of the Cratchits’ Christmas goose begins to explain this solution:
“And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own; and basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table….”
Later, just before the family eats the goose, Peter goes out with his two little siblings to get it:
“Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession.”
From these passages, we learn an interesting fact: rather than cooking their goose at home, the Cratchits take it to a nearby bakery to have it cooked in their oven. This was an unusual feature of Victorian foodways in London: bakeries ran a side business in which they used their already-hot ovens to cook food–especially meat dishes–for people who had no kitchens. It was the only way families like the Cratchits could have such a satisfying Christmas dinner.
The fact that the poor relied on bakeries to cook their dinners is mentioned elsewhere in A Christmas Carol too. When the Ghost of Christmas Present leads Scrooge through the city, they see many poor Londoners taking their dishes to bakeries:
“And at the same time there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops. The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker’s doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was! God love it, so it was!
In time the bells ceased, and the bakers were shut up; and yet there was a genial shadowing forth of all these dinners and the progress of their cooking, in the thawed blotch of wet above each baker’s oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too.”
A bit later, Scrooge and the ghost have the following exchange:
‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge, after a moment’s thought, ‘I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.’
‘I!’ cried the Spirit.
‘You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,’ said Scrooge. ‘Wouldn’t you?’
‘I!’ cried the Spirit.
‘You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day?’ said Scrooge. ‘And it comes to the same thing.’
‘I seek!’ exclaimed the Spirit.
‘Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,’ said Scrooge.
Here Dickens is highlighting a current social issue. Many poor people who used the bakers’ services to cook an evening meat dinner could only afford to do so once a week. Since working hours varied from job to job, often the only day families could eat together was Sunday, except for holidays like Christmas. But in Dickens’s time, there were pious Christians who believed it was their duty to ensure that the bakers’ shops remained closed in observance of the Sabbath and other holidays. During the years leading up to the publication of A Christmas Carol, legislation had been proposed several times to impose this and other restrictions on business being conducted on Sunday and on Christmas.
In the conversation between Scrooge and the spirit of Christmas present, Dickens merely alludes to these attempts to legislate religion. Outside the confines of his Christmas story, however, Dickens was more explicit about his own position. He was vehemently against shutting the bakers’ shops, and also opposed other restrictions on Sunday enjoyment. In 1836 he authored a pamphlet under the nom de plume of Timothy Sparks. The tract, titled Sunday Under Three Heads, argued against restrictive Sunday legislation.
In Sunday Under Three Heads, Dickens notes:
“Let us suppose such a bill as this, to have actually passed both branches of the legislature; to have received the royal assent; and to have come into operation. Imagine its effect in a great city like London.
Sunday comes, and brings with it a day of general gloom and austerity. The man who has been toiling hard all the week, has been looking towards the Sabbath, not as to a day of rest from labour, and healthy recreation, but as one of grievous tyranny and grinding oppression. The day which his Maker intended as a blessing, man has converted into a curse. Instead of being hailed by him as his period of relaxation, he finds it remarkable only as depriving him of every comfort and enjoyment. He has many children about him, all sent into the world at an early age, to struggle for a livelihood; one is kept in a warehouse all day, with an interval of rest too short to enable him to reach home, another walks four or five miles to his employment at the docks, a third earns a few shillings weekly, as an errand boy, or office messenger; and the employment of the man himself, detains him at some distance from his home from morning till night. Sunday is the only day on which they could all meet together, and enjoy a homely meal in social comfort; and now they sit down to a cold and cheerless dinner: the pious guardians of the man’s salvation having, in their regard for the welfare of his precious soul, shut up the bakers’ shops. The fire blazes high in the kitchen chimney of these well-fed hypocrites, and the rich steams of the savoury dinner scent the air. What care they to be told that this class of men have neither a place to cook in—nor means to bear the expense, if they had?”
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s realization that the Ghost of Christmas Present takes the side of the poor is a factor in his own change of heart toward poor people. The passage thus serves a purpose in Dickens’s overall story. But it also gives Dickens a chance to express to his readers his own opinion of the attempt to close the bakeries on Sundays and holidays, and of the people who were trying to do so. He put his opinion into the mouth of the usually jovial spirit:
‘There are some upon this earth of yours,’ returned the Spirit, ‘who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.’
Later, when Dickens shows us the Cratchits enjoying a Christmas dinner, he’s careful to show the important role the local baker has played in cooking the meal. This allows the passage about the Christmas goose to serve multiple purposes: it brings Scrooge closer to his realization that he has been wrong about many things. It also provides an example to support Dickens’s political opinion, expressed earlier in the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present, that bakeries should be allowed to provide their professional services on Sundays and holidays. Most importantly, the passage shows the joy the Cratchits take in their Christmas meal, and thus shares that joy with readers.
We should not deprive ourselves of this joy, so here is Dickens’s passage about the Cratchits’ goose:
“Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course—and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!”
The Cratchits’ Christmas dinner of stuffed goose, potatoes, and pudding, of course, is never really prepared or eaten: the whole passage, as we later learn, describes a vision granted to Scrooge of what WOULD have happened that Christmas if Scrooge had not changed his ways. But Scrooge does indeed change, and his change of heart prompts him to send the Cratchits the gift of a prize turkey. We never get to see what they make of the gift, but we can be sure their Christmas is even merrier for it. In their honor, in a future blog post we’ll take a closer look at the importance of turkey to the English Christmas.