This tale does not take place at Christmas, but at a time when puddings had a regular place at every dinner. These were suet puddings, boiled in a cloth and meant to fill the belly, often with the specific purpose of ekeing out the more expensive meat – in which case they were ‘plain’ and served with the broth or gravy. Often of course they were the everyday version of the Christmas pudding – sweetened, and hopefully studded with raisins or apples or other fruit – and, if you were very lucky, perhaps served with a sweet sauce.
The heroes of our tale are none other than the famous Dr Samuel Johnson, and his young biographer James Boswell. We have met the pair before on a number of occasions, and already know Dr Johnson’s mindfulness of his belly, and his particular reverence for pudding. The story takes place during the journey the pair took to Scotland in 1773. It is related by “a traveller” in Scotland many years later, who, with a storm approaching, took refuge in small inn.
Dr Johnson’s Pudding.
The landlord I found to be as the Scotch generally are, very intelligent, and full of anecdote, of which the following may serve as a specimen.
“Sir,”said he, “this inn was formerly kept by Andrew McGregor, a relation of mine, and these hard-bottomed chairs in which we are now sitting, were years ago filled by the great tourists Dr Johnson and Boswell, travelling like the lion and jackal. Boswell usually preceded the doctor in search of food. Being much pleased with the cooks of the house he followed his nose into the larder where he saw a fine leg of mutton: he ordered it to be roasted with the utmost expedition, and gave particular orders for a nice pudding. ‘Now,’ said he ‘make the best of pudding.’ Elated with his good luck he immediately went out in search of his friend, and saw the giant of learning slowly advancing on a pony.
‘My dear sir,’ said Boswell, out of breath with joy and good news, ‘I have just bespoke in a comfortable and clean inn here, a delicious leg of mutton; it is now getting ready, and I flatter myself we shall make an excellent meal.’
Johnson looked pleased. ‘And I hope,’ said he ‘you have bespoke a pudding.’
‘Sir, you have your favorite pudding,’ said the other.
Johnson got off the pony, the poor animal relieved of the giant, smelt his way into the stable. Boswell ushered the doctor into the house, and left him to prepare for the delicious treat. Johnson felt his coat rather damp from the mists of the mountains, went into the kitchen, and threw his upper garment on a chair before the fire. He sat on a hob near a little boy who was very busy attending to the meat. Johnson occasionally peeped from behind his coat, while the boy kept basting the mutton. Johnson, moreover, did not like in the least the appearance of his head, when he shifted the basting ladle from one hand, and the other was never idle; and the doctor thought at the same time he saw something fall on the meat, upon which he determined to eat no mutton on that day.
The dinner being announced, Boswell exclaimed –
‘My dear doctor here comes the mutton. What a picture! Done to a turn and looks so beautifully brown!’
The doctor tittered. After a short grace, Boswell said, -
‘I suppose I have to carve as usual. What part shall I help you to?’
The doctor replied, ‘My dear boy, I did not like to tell you before, but I am determined to abstain from meat to day.’
‘O dear, this is a disappointment,’ said Bozzy.
‘Say no more, I shall make myself ample amends with the pudding.’
Boswell commenced the attack and made the first cut at the mutton. ‘How the gravy runs! What fine-flavoured fat, so nice and brown too! Ah, sir, you would have relished this prime piece of mutton.’
The meat being removed in came the long-wished-for pudding. The doctor looked joyous; fell eagerly to, and in a few minutes nearly finished all the pudding. And Mr Boswell said, -
‘Doctor, while I was carving the mutton, you seemed inclined to laugh; pray tell me what tickled your fancy?’
The doctor then literally told him all that had passed at the kitchen fire about the boy and the basting. Boswell turned as pale as a parsnip, and sick of himself and the company, darted out of the room. Somewhat relieved on returning, he insisted on seeing the dirty little rascally boy, whom he severely reprimanded before Johnson. The poor boy cried, the doctor laughed.
‘ You snivelling fellow.’ said Boswell, ‘why did you not put on the cap I saw you in this morning.’
‘I couldn’t sir,’ said the boy.
‘Why couldn’t you?’ said Boswell.
‘Because my mamma took it from me to boil the pudding in.’
The doctor gathered up his herculean frame - stood erect - touched the ceiling with his wig - squinted – indeed, looked any way but the right way.
At last with mouth wide open, and none of the smallest, and stomach heaving, he with some difficulty recovered his breath, and looking at Boswell with dignified contempt, he roared out, -
‘Mr Boswell, sir, leave off laughing, and under pain of my eternal displeasure, never utter a single syllable of this abominable adventure to any man living while you breathe.’ ”
[From The cyclopaedia of anecdotes of literature and the fine arts, by Kazlitt Irvine, 1856]
To sweeten the pudding, I give you a brief idea from yesterday’s recipe source, a 1939 edition of The Times.
Honey and Butter Sauce.
Mix a cupful of heated strained honey with a third as much melted butter and a tablespoon of rum.
Other Stories featuring Dr Johnson and James Boswell are to be found here, here, here, here, and here.
Quotation for the Day.
Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.
Washington Irving (1783-1859)