This branch of the Austrian Hesch family is descended from Johann Hesch and his wife Marya (Schlinz) Hesch, who came to America from Oberschlagles, Bohemia with three sons: Paul, Mathias, and Anton. +++Johann & Marya settled in Buffalo County, Wisconsin but moved to Pierz, Mn in about 1885. .+++Mathias settled in Waumandee, Wisconsin and moved to Pierz in 1911. +++Anton never married but farmed with his dad in Agram Township, where he died in 1911.+++And Paul, my great grandfather, settled five miles away, in Buckman, Minnesota. He died there in 1900.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holiday Feasting & Traditions in England

...including "Stir Up Sunday" and Christmas pudding.

Dear Marlys,
It is an afternoon of such dank and dripping Novemberousness, the fog thickening every minute and the light so dim that we have already shut the curtains and blinds to make ourselves feel more cheery.  However deep the gloom of November, it is that much more tolerable than early February because Christmas is on the horizon.  We do not have the festival of Thanksgiving to relieve the gloom of November or distract us from the planning of the Christmas Feast so I am deep in my cookery books and making occasional forays to the store cupboards to check on the stocks of festive ingredients for the making of seasonal foodstuffs.  The Christmas cakes are already made (a large one for us and a small one for each of the girls) and being force-fed Guinness and sloe gin like a Perigord goose, but Stir-Up Sunday (this year on the 25th November) approaches and I want to be sure we are well stocked.

I understand that some Americans do eat Christmas pudding but since your ancestors came from mainland Europe rather than England I'm assuming that you don't.  Stir-Up Sunday is the day on which the Christmas puddings are traditionally made to give them time to mature for Christmas.  It is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, is usually at the very end of November, and is said to take its name from the Collect read on that day in the Anglican Church.  A Collect is a short prayer 'collecting' together the themes of the service's readings for that day as set out in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, essentially the book of Office of the Church of England.  The Book of Common Prayer was published in the reign of the short-lived Edward VI, son of Henry VIII who split England from the Church of Rome because the Pope would not grant him the divorce from his long-suffering and sadly son-less wife, Katherine of Aragon.  In the words of that old and beautiful text it runs thus:
"Stir-upwe beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; 
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, 
may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

which many, many children have reduced to:
Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot;
And when we get home we'll eat the lot.

The starting words were said to have been taken by housewives as a reminder that it was time to make the puddings!
Both the King James Bible (published in 1611 with a later well used version in 1769) and the Book of Common Prayer have since been supplanted in many churches and schools by more recent translations.  They may be more understandable to the modern ear but they are very much less poetic and beautiful.  They were both written at the time of a great flowering of the English language when Shakespeare was learning and writing and although I have not a religious bone in my body they are both very deeply imbedded culturally and it is vital to know something of their texts to understand English Literature and much more.

There are other traditions surrounding the making of the puddings, particularly that every member of the family, as soon as they are capable of holding a spoon, should take a turn at stirring the puddings and make a silent wish.  I haven't always made the puds on Stir-Up Sunday but I have always made an effort to include the family in the process and it is usually a very jolly, cheery business.  Flicking cooking fat all over the kitchen window is not obligatory, but once rendered No 2 daughter and I quite helpless with laughter, however that may possibly have been the surreptitious sips of the brandy and Guinness set ready for incorporating in the mix as much as culinary and festive high spirits. Now that the offspring are too busy and live too far away to come home for the making of the puds, they do at least get a proxy wish thanks to the mobile phone.  I send a text while I am doing the mixing and they are expected drop what they are doing, make stirring motions, close their eyes and wish, which they assure me they do - no doubt to the utter confusion of all around them particularly as they both have many friends not of British origin.  Puds are not difficult to make, no whipping or beating or complicated techniques - just a matter or weighing out ingredients and mixing them together.   The basic recipe has changed little over the years and may vary a bit on what is available but it is still much like the one served to King George I (who was German) on his first Christmas in England in 1714: a mix of breadcrumbs, flour, sugar, sweet spices, some form of cooking fat and dried fruit moistened with liquid of your choice.   My grandmother used something called Noyau -which as far as I could understand was some sort of barley wine - a very refined strong beer but now unobtainable.  The recipe in my mother's cookery book suggests 'Brandy, old ale or milk' but pencilled in her handwriting is (stout) which is a heavy bitter black beer very similar to the Guinness that I use and which helps to improve the colour and taste.   In the war years our family were eternally grateful to our Canadian relatives who kindly sent the essential but so hard to get dried fruit. A Christmas pudding or cake without dried fruit would be no celebration at all and even if they were so sparse as to look as if 'the cook had thrown them in off London Bridge', to quote my great-Granny, their presence guaranteed good eating to come.  A Christmas pudding should be nearly black with a very slight bitter edge to the taste and this is achieved by long cooking. It is this blackness and bitterness that is the essence of a really good mature pud, but it is not a taste that seems to appeal to more modern tastes and I find commercial ones far too sweet and frankly bland.

A thoroughly cooked, well-wrapped pudding improves with age and stores perfectly well in a dry place for several years.   Rob's Mum used to make a pud for next Christmas and one for each of the family's birthdays in the coming year but they would eat one that was at least a year old at Christmas! I have, in the past, made more than four at a time and it requires a very large mixing bowl but I am fortunate in having an enormous, heavy, thick, glass bowl that was once the bottom half of a laboratory desiccator.  In case you don't know this is an almost spherical glass vessel that comes in two halves at the middle with flat ground glass edges used to dry and store laboratory chemicals. The drying process is accelerated by creating a vacuum inside and it is spherical to withstand the pressure.  The tap on the top of the lid was also made of glass and was very easily broken so we had a lot of broken desiccators piled in the corners of the laboratory.  There was no way of either getting new lids to fit or disposing of them and no one was going to notice the absence of something so useless so I stuffed the biggest in my rucksack and staggered home with it and ever since it has been a most useful giant mixing bowl trotted out for mixing puds and wedding cake and similar giant culinary projects.

So, having stirred and wished the mix is covered with a cloth and left overnight for the fruit to plump up and the flavours to blend.  Next day the mix is spooned into greased pudding basins, then covered with carefully pleated greaseproof paper lids tied on with string.  Mum and Gran would have put a cloth lid on as well, something of a hangover from the time before pudding basins when the pudding mix would have been wrapped in a greased and floured cloth then hung in a saucepan of boiling water to cook.  However, if the paper is well greased it is not necessary and washing pudding cloths is a revolting job, particularly if traditional suet (the grated fat from around the kidney of a beef animal) has been used.  The puds are either steamed over boiling water or cooked in a pressure cooker for many hours- no wonder we jokingly call it 'Steam Up Monday'!  Before the days of the automatic washing machine, and my Mum did not have one until after I left home, washing day was a very steamy process and a little more added by the puds didn't make a lot of difference.

Once cooked, cooled, dried and fitted with new lids and finally wrapped in a plastic bag the puds are stored in the back of a cupboard and fished out as required.   The older ones can get a little dry but are soon refreshed by the addition of cider, or sherry or the alcohol of your choice and leaving to soak for a day or so before use  Rob's Mum stored hers on the top of her wardrobe and some years after her death we found one, cooked it and ate it and raised a glass to her memory; a fitting tribute to an excellent cook and an excellent pud.

On Christmas Day the pudding is steamed for a further hour or so to heat through. By the time we have cooked and eaten the main dinner and had a little rest to recover it is usually mid-afternoon and getting dark, so the lights are put out leaving just the candles, the pudding is turned out onto a hot plate and, with a sprig of holly stuck on the top, is bought to the table. A small ladle of brandy  (or even better - vodka) is heated over one of the candles until the vapour can be seen rising.  Everyone watches very carefully - too soon and it won't light, too late and the whole ladleful may catch fire at once - spectacular but not the proper performance! Someone swiftly removes the holly, the hot spirit is poured over the pudding and someone else standing by with a lit match sets fire to it.  It is the most magical and beautiful spectacle as the spirit burns with little bluish flames that chase all over the surface of the pudding and round and round the dish where the excess spirit has collected. Then they gently gutter and die leaving just a whiff of burnt sugar and alcohol and it is all over for another year.  Several years ago Daughter No. 1 bought home two American friends who were stranded on this side of the Atlantic for Christmas.  They were charmed by the sight and we had to have so many repeat performances that I was quite worried the pud might become case-hardened!  I have to admit that they were less charmed by the pudding itself, but it is a strange beast and even Daughter No 1 doesn't like it although the rest of us think she is just a philistine.  In our family it is served with cream or hard sauce (something like a butter cream icing- brown sugar beaten with butter to which is added orange rind and rum or brandy) never dull old custard - Christmas pudding is a noble and ancient dish and should be honoured with something special. 

When Rob and I were children, a sixpence (small silver-coloured coin) was slipped into each portion as a good luck token for the coming year but by the time we had children the currency had changed to the decimal system and there was no suitable coin to use.  The five pence piece, which was originally quite large, has now been reduced to the size of the old sixpence and will do the job nicely so I hope that if there is a next generation we may be able to revive the custom.

Presumably you are making preparations for Thanksgiving and I sincerely hope your taste buds have recovered sufficiently to enjoy the feast.
Happy Feasting to you and your family,
love Su

Btw, when Su was actually making the 'puds' on Stir-Up Sunday this year, she emailed that I should close my eyes, and with a stirring motion, make a wish.  Aww, that felt SO sweet and special ☺  Thanks again, Su!

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