An 18th-Century Christmas Dinner

by Nancy Means Wright

     Hello, out there, and Merry Christmas! I’m probably talking to myself today, for who wants to read a blog on Christmas day?  What shall I write about?  Well, I figure, once the presents are unwrapped and the room swirls with fragments of  holiday paper and ribbon, there is just one subject of interest to most of us.  Food.

      Since I’ve been virtually living in the 18th-century in my last three books, I’ve decided to serve a period dinner this holiday. In my new novel for “tweens,” my three hungry siblings are walking up into Ethan Allen’s Republic of Vermont in search of a captive father. They are also driving a cow, so the journey through unsettled wilderness  is both dangerous and slow. At one point they stumble upon a log cabin kitchen, filled with the fragrance of steaming samp. Haven’t heard of samp? Well, it’s a pudding of sorts, made with Indian corn and butter. The exhausted housewife had boiled the maize for twelve hours, pounded the grain in a mortar or hollowed rock, then sifted it in a woven basket. And pounded and sifted some more–only (in my novel) to have the kettle upended by a mother bear and her cubs–a true life disaster I lifted from a local Vermont town history.   

     I promise you I will do no pounding or sifting today–just cook the buttery corn on my electric stove. An organic turkey is already in the oven, with stuffing inside and in a separate dish for the vegetarians in my huge extended family. We”ll have pumpkin bread made from my daughter’s homegrown red “sweetheart” pumpkins, and an apple-sweet potato casserole glazed with maple syrup. The colonists were evidently suspicious of white potatoes, or if some did offer them, they’d lace them with butter, sugar, grape juice, lemon, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. A bit over the top, to my thinking.


     For dessert we’ll have a variety of fruit pies, of course, and an Old English Figgy Pudding which my English protagonist, Mary Wollstonecraft, with her more sophisticated tastebuds, preferred to plain corn, beans, turnip and pumpkin. My spouse makes this pudding with a delicious, rum-sprinkled foamy sauce, and right after we  clear the table, our seven grandchildren will bellow out the Johnny Cash lyrics to the age-old tune: “We Wish you a Merry Christmas.” You know how it goes: “Oh bring us a figgy pudding, / Oh bring us a figgy pudding, / Oh bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer./ We won’t go home without it / We won’t…”   And so on.  Needless to say, the troops are quickly served just to shut them up! If anyone would like our recipe, here it is below–a sure winner for Christmas or New Year’s day!        

Ingredients: 12 oz dried figs, 5 slices white bread, 1 stick butter, 1 cup chopped pecans, 3 eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup molasses, 1/2 cup cream sherry, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp salt.  Oh yes, and a pudding “mold.”

Simmer the figs 30 minutes & cool. Remove stems & chop the figs finely. Toast the bread lightly, & break into small pieces. Set figs & bread aside. Cream the butter & sugar in a double boiler. Add eggs & beat 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Mix together molasses, sherry, cinnamon, salt–then blend in figs, bread, pecans with a spoon.

Butter and sugar the mold, then pour the mix into it. Place a trivet in the bottom of a large pan; fill with enough water to 1/2 way up the mold. Seal the mold with foil, and cover the pan. Steam for 3 hours, then remove the mold from the kettle. Uncover mold, place plate upside down on the open mold & turn over to release the pudding from the mold. 

Foamy Sauce recipe: 1/3 cup butter, 1 egg, 1 &1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 2 tbsp rum, 1 cup whipping cream. Beat egg & butter. Add sugar, vanilla, rum. Mix well. Fold in whipped cream. Chill until ready to serve.  Oh, ’tis divine!

                                                                                          HAPPY HOLIDAYS  TO ALL!  



4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the recipe, and merry Christmas!

  2. You’re an early bird, Sheila! Or perhaps you haven’t yet gone to bed after a noisy Christmas eve party… Anyway, Merry Christmas to you as well–I didn’t expect to hear from anyone today (except family, who won’t be lurking on this site)!

  3. You are ambitious! I’m glad I didn’t read this earlier; I would have really bad about what I served my 18 guests. Thanks for posting on the first day of Christmas!

  4. Thanks for your note, Camille! You’re too kind to check in this on Christmas day! Everything went well, except that the house–especially kitchen–is an unholy mess this morning after 19 adults, kids, and two dogs (the cats hid under beds) got through with it. But they ate up the figgy pudding and the rest of the old fashioned dinner. Happy New Year to you!

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