Mirth, Jollity and a Monticello Plum Pudding
By Diane Ehrenpreis, Assistant Curator
Details of how the holiday was observed at Monticello are scarce. I recently made a discovery in a set of Jefferson family letters that takes place at Christmas, and provides insights into the comings and goings of the household.
In December (date), Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph composed a hasty letter to her sister, Virginia Randolph Trist, asking her to send the family recipe for plum pudding as quickly as possible.
While Cornelia’s letter does not survive, her request and its urgency are clear in Virginia’s surviving reply. Virginia’s response, which was written in Philadelphia, is dated December 22, probably in 1860. She says, “I received your letter last night and hope the directions for the pudding may reach you to-morrow morning.” And despite having a sick headache, she transcribed and annotated the recipe so that her sister, who may have been with family in Alexandria, Virginia, could have the plum pudding that they both remembered from their childhood.
Once Virginia had copied out the ingredients, the sugar and flour, bread crumbs from a penny loaf bread, the dozen eggs, the cinnamon and citron, the suet and the brandy, she added one powerful word: “Monticello.” Virginia specifically associated this Christmas pudding with Monticello, and by extension, her Christmas past and present. Perhaps Virginia and Cornelia felt the same way about this exact pudding, as I do about my Nana’s Swedish pepparkakor recipe: it is not Christmas without this food.
When I read this exchange between sisters, I was struck by how modern the events seemed. I immediately empathized with Cornelia’s evident upset at not being able to find the pudding recipe. Have we not all been there, especially this time of year? I was also immensely touched at her sister’s reaction to promptly share and send the recipe, despite feeling poorly. And, what about the U. S. Post Office, and the one-day turn-around time, in 1860!
Just as the Internet has changed how we stay in touch, and it has dramatically changed how I do much of my research. I found this letter while reading scans of the family correspondence available online from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I can now sit at my desk and have access to seemingly unlimited primary material, from here and other collections.
Earlier this year, this same collection yielded a reference to the Randolph family looking forward to playing whist and drinking eggnog at a Christmas gathering in the 1850s. While this may seem too late to apply to Monticello, it likely reveals a tradition that the family had kept for quite a while, considering that both whisk and eggnog first became popular in the 18th century. When I saw the recipe for “plumb pudding” and the date of December 22, I knew this was another discovery to add to our Christmas file.
Please enjoy reading Virginia’s version of the Christmas pudding, and do not overlook her helpful hints for making it a success. Do people still boil pudding for an entire day? I am hopeful that some one of you will take time to create this Christmas dish, so do let us know how it turns out.
“Proportions of a plumb pudding”
4 spoonful of brown sugar-
½ lb of currants-
1lb of raisins-
1 lb of suet- (*modern substitute: butter)
3 spoonfuls of flour-
crumb of a penny loaf of bread grated-
+ cinnamon 1 spoonful-
1 teaspoonful of salt-
1 wine glass of brandy.
The ingredients must be prepared and the pudding boiled a long time…a day’s boiling, it is better for it, but when made with bread it is not so necessary as when made with four + is lighter + more wholesome.
The suet should be grated fine and every string…taken out of it (*modern substitute: cream the butter)-the ingredients carefully and thoroughly mixed.
Virginia house wife recommends rubbing the raisins for pudding and cakes in a little flour to prevent their settling to the bottom, taking care the four should not stick to them in lumps.
The cloth in which the pudding is boiled should be wet + floured + the pudding tied up…
Put into boiling water and cover…
If the pudding is boiled some hours the day before it is wanted it may be again put into the pot the following day + boiled as long as necessary.
It should be kept in a cool place.
Interested in hearing more about Monticello holiday traditions? Visit monticello.org for information on holiday programming and events.