Recollecting the joyous smells of Christmas in the old farmhouse, such as the mixture of fir balsam and popcorn-ball molasses, made me think also of Grandma Lane's bag pudding. It always smelled like the weekly wash stewing on the stove top, as washes did before appliances, conveniences, and soap that would dissolve.
The pudding was delicious beyond compare, and the analogy derived from the cloth "bag" in which the bag pudding steamed for four hours, or while Grampy Mack tuned his bagpipe in preparation for the ceremonial piping of the generous pudding to the prandial purposes.
Held high on a platter, aflame and with a sprig of holly, the pudding had left its bag in the kitchen. Percussion was by wooden spoons on pots and pans. Grandma Lane was long lost in the past tense, but we blessed her as if she were with us, as she was, and we still do.
Yet there was always this harsh, bejangled smell of a Christmas morning that outranked the ardent wafts from the roasts, the bakes, and the other benefits of Christmas dinner. This "bag," actually, was a yard-square piece of new cotton cloth that had not experienced Christmas till now. I believe the state included the word "unbleached."
Grandma Lane's pudding was - is - no doubt just another history-riddled treat from the British Isles, where Good King Arthur (who was a goodly king) stole three bags of barley meal to make a bag pudd-DING. A bag pudd-DING the king did make, and stuffed it well with plums, and therein he put lumps of fat as big as my two thumbs. The king and queen had some, and the noblemen, and what was left her majesty fried for breakfast on Boxing Day.
You can look it up, but not in the Mort d'Arthur. Nobody's going to attempt a reproduction, so I'll skip the pudding till the time came on Christmas morn to dump the mix from the mixing bowl.
Betimes, a big kettle of water had been brought to boil and was ready. The square of cotton, soaked in water and wrung out by hand, was floured and laid out flat on the breadboard. With ample and able help, Grandma Lane and her successive multitude of descendants would then dump the mixed pudding from its bowl onto the cloth and lift corners to bring the pudding mix into the shape of a basketball, but not so large, and with a stout cord she would tie the corners so the pudding was completely enclosed.
The knot was a square, or reef, knot, but fashioned so a loop of maybe three inches was prominent. This was for retrieving the bag and pudding four hours hence from incredibly hot water.
Upon seating the cover, Grandma Lane would look at the clock and say, "There!" Then we could smell the Monday laundry.
The roasting roosters, the turnips, the pies, the composite with-its all did their Christmas-morning duty, and it was possible, if anyone bothered, to separate them into differing whiffs. But wash-day prevailed, and for four joyful hours we waited. And waited. Uncle Mack would continue to tune, and once in a while would squawk off a bag of melody, just to be sure.
There was always a cribbage game. The young-uns compared gifts, and the older ones would start reading a Grosset & Dunlap 25-center about Joe Strong, the boy fish, or the Bobbsey Twins at Meadow Brook. Does anyone believe that a generous aunt could provide her loving nephew at Christmas with a summer's hardcover reading for less than $2? That included a couple of Zane Greys and at least one Horatio Alger.
And while we waited for Christmas dinner, an attentive ear could hear the cover on the pudding pot clip-clip-clip as the working steam pushed and subsided, as if a washing were about to be decanted and "rensed out."
CALLED from their cribbage game at last, two strong men would stand face to face and lift the pudding pot to the sink shelf, where the presiding Grandma Lane had tools ready for the retrieval. Now the loop by the knot was transfixed by the long handle of a wooden spoon, and by lifting the spoon by its ends the pudding prospectors would put the red-hot pudding bag on the shelf.
Since just enough space had been left in the bag for "rising," the pudding had swelled that much and was now a full ball in shape. As the knot was undone and the cloth peeled away, the orient pudding, resplendent and glorious, was revealed with its "plums" sticking out in a Tom-Swift smirkingly.
What in the world do the poor people do on Christmas? Uncle Mack had his bagpipe ready, and his drones proved it. Up went the platter, "Scotland the Brave" out-doodled all the Christmas carols being sung worldwide at that moment, and Grandma Lane's bag pudding was again on its way to a Christmas feast.
Well, if you don't know, you haven't lived right, and if you do know, you've no need for words from me. Hard sauce and soft sauce and "a wee bit o' both if ye don't mind, thank-ee" were available, and seconds were encouraged. While we never fried any the next morning, there was enough left so we could have. Along about Epiphany, we'd run out. The cloth could be used again, but we always felt like a new bag every time. Grandma Lane, 'tis said, always remarked, "Now remind me to lay away a cloth for next Christmas." Then she threw the used one away.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society