21 Dec

Map of the Week: Christmas Pudding and the British Empire

By James Mallinson

It was British colonial administrator George Macartney who is the first person recorded, in 1773, to have described Britain’s worldwide reach as “this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained.” This poster from the Empire Marketing Board from around 1927 artfully illustrates the point. The British holdings are highlighted in red on this stylized map of the “Highways of Empire,” featuring not just the far-flung territories, but the trade routes that would criss-cross the globe to connect people with each other and the goods and products that became available to the citizens of the empire.

The profundity of this cultural – and culinary – revolution can sometimes be forgotten. The diet of the common British man or woman changed dramatically from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, most especially during the nineteenth century when the empire reached its peak.

But if Macartney made his observation about the reach of the British Empire in its ascendancy, this map comes from a time when the empire’s unraveling would be just coming into view. As Britain and Europe as a whole recovered from the tragedy and deprivations of World War I, the Empire Marketing Board was formed to promote products from the empire to the British public.

Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator in any marketing effort, but it’s especially potent during the holiday season. And the Empire Marketing Board took this to heart when it began a campaign to remind its constituents of the importance of imperial trade in providing that most British of holiday treats – the Christmas pudding.

Image Courtesy Simone Walsh

The Christmas pudding has deep roots in English cuisine, from a time when the word “pudding” meant something very, very different from the heavily-sweetened, semi-gelatinous desserts Americans know. As described in this history from Mental Floss, pudding was originally a combination of dried fruits native to Europe mixed with breadcrumbs, bits of meat, and plenty of meat-derived fat all stuffed into intestines for cooking. If the principle sounds familiar to other famous dishes of Great Britain, you may recall that Scottish poet Robert Burns once called the similarly-composed haggis the “great chieftain of the pudding race.”

With the expansion of the British Empire, the dish became something far less meaty and evolved to the sweet and spicy delicacy still widely enjoyed in the United Kingdom today. Its place in tradition was cemented during the nineteenth century, which saw the convergence of the availability of exotic ingredients from across the empire with the rise of a uniquely British cultural affectation for Christmas fed by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the holiday celebrations of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children as they were presented in the British press.

To stoke feelings of nostalgia and national pride, the Empire Marketing Board published the recipe for the “Empire Christmas Pudding,” as composed by the chef to King George V. The advertisement highlighted the global sources of the ingredients that filled the confection, to remind the British public of the many benefits that Britain’s global reach provided to them at the most celebratory time of the year.

The British Empire as it was known at the time didn’t last much longer from that point. The component parts today have spun off to independence with many varying degrees of connection to the Crown either emotionally or politically. But that hasn’t stopped the streams of global trade, and in a few days time, in Britain and across the world, families will gather to celebrate with seasonal treats composed of ingredients, sourced from far-flung locations, that are commonplace today but would have boggled their ancestors.

And however you are celebrating, the staff and Council of the American Geographical Society wish you and your loved ones a holiday season of joy and renewal, remembering the ties that connect us across the world that can be strengthened with friendship and care.