Pudding – an endless source of Anglo-Scot-American confusion

Pudding – an endless source of Anglo-Scot-American confusion


Our food tours have seen a recent surge in guests from North America. We figured this was a good excuse to look at the different vocabulary that Brits and Americans use to talk about certain dishes. Especially pudding. It’s a meaty subject. Or is it?

George Bernard Shaw once said that ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language’. The same could be said of Scotland and America. Especially when it comes to the language we use to describe food.

Even the simple differences are not straight forward. We all – Brits and Americans alike – know that a British chip shop serves what American visitors call fries. And what Americans call chips is what Brits classify as crisps.

Haddock or cod?

Where it starts getting more complicated is decoding the difference between the menu in an English chip shop and that in a Scottish chip shop. Fish and chips in England usually means cod and chips while ordering a fish supper in Scotland will result in being served with haddock and chips. Historically, Scots have had a sweet tooth and haddock is slightly sweeter than cod hence the difference.

There is more confusion to be had when it comes to simple ingredient names. With vegetables such as courgettes or aubergines, the English etymology comes from the French language. In the States, courgettes become zucchini after the Italian while eggplant refers to the original white aubergines which settlers brought to North America. Apparently, they looked like white duck eggs. More fun can be had exploring why Americans use the word arugula for what the Brits call rocket or cilantro instead of coriander.

The great pudding debate

If we really want to get into a tangle then we need to start poking around puddings. In the States, a pudding means a creamy, custard-like dessert or sweet. Certainly, it is something eaten after the main course.

In Scotland, pudding can mean a sweet dish eaten after the main course or it can refer to a savoury item such as a black pudding or a white pudding. The former is a blood sausage or what the French call boudin noir. The latter is a sausage stuffed with suet – beef fat – plus cereal and spice.

Arguably the most famous Scottish pudding is our old friend the haggis. In his poem Address to the Haggis, Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, refers to it as the ‘Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’. Just to stir the pot a little bit more, few Scots would now refer to a haggis as a pudding. The usage is perhaps becoming archaic.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

The roots of the pudding go back to the Greeks and the Romans. Both of whom were partial to a sausage or two. In Latin, sausage was botellus. A word which also meant small intestine. After being washed thoroughly, small intestines were often used as sausage casings. Just as a sheep’s stomach was traditionally used as a cooking container for haggis.

Through several linguistic twists, botellus became boudin in Old French and then black pudding in Middle English. Eventually, in English, pudding came to denote any recipe in which the ingredients were boiled or steamed in a casing, wrapping or pudding cloth.

So pudding could apply equally to a black pudding made with blood, fat and oats or a traditional Christmas pudding made with dried fruits, suet, sugar citrus peel and so on.

As to when the British and American meaning began to diverge, this is a little more fuzzy. Although some point to the 1840s when a certain Mr Alfred Bird and his custard powder started to become rather popular in the United States.

Don’t mention the Yorkshire puddings

So, in Scotland, a pudding usually means a sweet dessert served at the end of a meal. But in certain circumstances, it can also mean a savoury dish which is usually boiled or steamed in a bag of some sort during its preparation. By contrast, an American pudding is almost always a sweet, creamy dish.

Of course, that is not the end of the debate. We could mention Yorkshire puddings, clootie dumplings and the great biscuit versus cookie debate. But let’s leave them to another blog, shall we?

This is an interesting piece on the way the word ‘pudding’ entered the English language.

And if you really want to get your linguistic fork stuck into the whole pudding thing, then get your chops around this.

Along with local colour and social history, food history always plays a part in our culinary walking tours of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews. IF that tickles your appetite, you can buy tickets here.

The main pic is from this wikipedia page.

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