“Plum duff” is a slang term for plum pudding, which originated in medieval England, and is traditionally served as part of Christmas dinner.
In spite of the name, the pudding contains no actual plums. In pre-Victorian times, the word “plums” meant raisins. The pudding is composed of dried fruits held together by egg and suet, treacle or molasses, and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and rum or brandy. It’s usually aged for a month or more; the high alcohol content of the pudding prevents it from spoiling.
During the colonial period, the pudding was used as a symbol of unity throughout the British Empire. In 1927, the Empire Marketing Board obtained the recipe used by the Royal Household for plum pudding. First, the original recipe, meant to serve 40 people, had to be cut down to serve only 8. Second, the ingredients used to make the pudding had to be changed to reflect the ideals of the Empire. Brandy from Cyprus and nutmeg from the West Indies were incorporated and the final recipe included Australian currants, South African stoned raisins, Canadian apples, Jamaican rum, and English Beer, among other ingredients all sourced from somewhere in the Empire.
Traditionally, everyone in the household gave the mixture a stir and made a wish while doing so. It was also usual to add small silver coins to the pudding mixture. The coins were believed to bring wealth in the coming year. Once doused in brandy and flamed, the pudding is traditionally brought to the table ceremoniously and greeted with applause.
The term “plum duff” is first found recorded in 1830-40. The Telegraph reported that “Spotted Dog (or Dick), Plum-Duff, Figgy-Dowdy, Treacle-Dowdy and so on…are all varieties of suet pudding, the words dog, dick, duff and dowdy all referring to dough. On board ship in sailing days you wanted warmth and sustenance inside you whenever you could get it. The Navy loved its suet pud.
On the 7th of March, 1893, The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (New South Wales: 1843 – 1893) published the following story titled Origin of Plum Duff.
“There are many traditions respecting the origin of the name ‘plum duff,’ the great holiday dish of sailors. No feast on shipboard is considered perfect without it. According to the story given ln the history of the British navy, an English brig in the south Pacific was caught ln a series of awful hurricanes. All on board were anxious to reach a port in time for Christmas, but the holiday found them still off the Navigator islands. Worst of all, they had shipped a sea that carried away the hencoop containing a few chickens.
“When the cook saw the Christmas dinner floating ln the lee scuppers and ln danger of going overboard, he made a gallant charge down the slippery, sloping deck to recover It, but at that moment a great wave rose high over the bulwarks, broke with resistless fury on the very spot where he stood and, when it subsided, cook and chickens had both disappeared.
“This unfortunate accident left the crew not only without a Christmas dinner, but without anyone to prepare an ordinary meal. The sailors were heartily sick of “hard tack” and remembered with longing the famous plum pudding of merry England. They determined that somehow they must have a Christmas pudding and drew lots as to who should be the cook.
“The choice fell on the boatswain’s mate, a brawny son of the Emerald Isle. In the galley he found an old cookbook. This he solemnly pored over ln search of something promising, but for lack of skill or materials found, nothing he dared venture upon. At last he settled upon a recipe which began, “Make a stiff dough.” When he reached the word dough he said to himself, “If r-o-u-g-h spells ruff, d-o-u-g-h spells duff.”
“So he made the pudding, putting ln some fine Malaga raisins, and served it out with a generous quantity of rich sauce. The sailors hailed it with delight and appreciation. “What d’ye call it?” they asked. “Plum duff,” said the proud cook. And plum duff it has remained from that day to this.”
I don’t know whether this is a true story, but it’s a good one. And I’ll bet the plum duff was liberally laced and sauced with Navy rum.