Newfoundland has taken many things from its mother countries Ireland and England. We have the rich language and culture, the amazing music, and the scrumptious food. (At least, we think so.) For many years generations of people sat down to Sunday dinner composed of boiled vegetables, salt beef or pork, and steamed pudding. The meal usually consisted of putting all your vegetables into one large stock pot with the salt beef and letting it simmer on the stove until all was tender. The salt from the beef would flavour the meal and you could take the liquid left over, commonly called the “liquor,” and make gravy, soup, and the like. Dessert, called a pudding, is cooked in the same pot with the vegetables in a cheesecloth bag.
The common name for this meal is called Jiggs dinner, or boiled dinner, and is thought to be named after the main character Jiggs from the comic Bringing up Father which ran from 1913 to 2000¹. Boiled salt beef and cabbage was his favourite meal. Jiggs dinner usually consists of salt beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and turnip. Putting the beef in a brine solution meant that it would keep a lot longer than fresh and could travel easily. Root vegetables kept for longer periods, especially in root cellars, which many Newfoundlanders had. This meant that a family could have a hearty and fairly nutritious meal, even in the middle of winter when food could be scarce. The leftovers were even used the next day, mashed together and fried as a hash.
What accompanied this dinner was a boiled pudding. Usually a collection of fruit and nuts loosely held together with flour and some sort of fat. More often than not, the fat of choice was lard or suet. It was readily available and less expensive than butter. Nowadays we have our choice of fats at a relatively low cost for all. One of the few times we indulge in a steamed pudding is during the holidays. Hearkening back to the 16th century, figgy pudding, made famous with the Christmas song We Wish You a Merry Christmas, is now made with raisins instead of figs, although you can still get some made more traditionally.
I made a Christmas steamed pudding last year and it called for suet. I didn’t have any on hand (who does, really?) so I just threw some shortening in the freezer and grated it into the pudding before I cooked it. Christmas seems to be the one of the few times we indulge ourselves with labour and time intensive meals and I think that we are richer for it.
There are two possible puddings that can be made to accompany Jiggs dinner: pease pudding and figgy duff. Instead of using figs in your figgy pudding, figgy duff is made with raisins. Figgy, or figgie, is an old Cornish word for raisin and the name probably came from the settlers of that area who now lived in Newfoundland. Made from a collection of flour, bread crumbs, raisins, molasses, spices, and fat. They are placed in a puddling bag, wrapped in cheesecloth and then boiled along with the vegetables. Now, though, you can get pudding tins which clamp closed and don’t absorb the flavours of the liquor.
The other pudding is pease pudding. Pease pudding, or pease porridge, is not what we would now think of as pudding. This is a savoury dish, more like today’s hummus. You may remember the nursery rhyme Pease Pudding Hot
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
Yellow split peas are cooked with water, salt, and spices, usually with the salt meat, until they are mush. This dish originates from the North East of England and is still served today. It’s a classic ingredient in the saveloy dip which is found in many stores in the North East.
So before you hang up your apron, surprise your family and friends with a steamed pudding. It comes together quickly and then gently steams on top of your stove for a couple of hours. While it not be as fancy looking as today’s showstopping desserts, I think the simplicity of the pudding speaks for itself. Of course you’ll have to serve a nice sauce with it, but that’s for another day.
If you want to try making your own steamed pudding. Please try my steamed carrot raisin pudding. It comes together quickly and is great with a nice custard or butterscotch sauce.
Footnote: 1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiggs_dinner