Pudding vs Dessert – The Prosecution & The Defence

Little did I know when I posted my blog-post ‘Pudding people in their place’ that it was going to cause such a ruckus between my Canadian professional-colleague, Jay Remer (‘The Etiquette Guy’), and me. To précis my last blog post, I stated that the course after the main course is called pudding and never dessert; dessert being the fruit course and entirely different from pudding. Jay disagreed and after a few sling shots were fired to each other on Twitter and comments on my original blog post, we have decided to present our cases below for your delectation and for you to decide who is right and who is wrong.

Pudding v Dessert

The Prosecution, given by the Honourable John H. Remer, Jnr…

According to British tradition, pudding is defined officially as the dessert course of a meal. It is usually made with eggs and milk and flour and other ingredients and is baked or steamed or cooked in some fashion before being served either hot or cold. Pretty straight forward, right? Not exactly. There are some puddings, such as Yorkshire pudding which are not served as dessert at all but as part of the main course, often with Roast Beef.

Now why would anyone think to argue about something so clear and simple. Enter my worthy and trusted colleague William Hanson who has decided in his infinite wisdom that pudding is so erudite that it should not be relegated to the lowly ranks of mere dessert, but should have its own very exclusive place on the menu. He mistakenly goes on to insist that only fruit served absolutely plain without the benefit of a pie crust of other delicious accoutrement is dessert, full stop. Is he mad?!

But I am just a simple man from the other side of the pond and pudding over here is altogether considered a sweet dish eaten at the end of a meal, as clearly defined by The Oxford English Dictionary. I grew up on butterscotch and chocolate pudding; there was also rice pudding and bread pudding. But by today’s definition, puddings encompass every gooey, sweet or otherwise delicious dessert.

I understand that in another age there existed a peculiarly British class distinction whereby ‘dessert’ was eaten by the upper classes and ‘pudding’ by the lower classes. Mind you, it was the same food, just with a different name attached. Early in the 20th Century this mysteriously flipped, sort of like upside down cake. And this, my friends, seems to be where William is mired. Today puddings/desserts are no longer labeled separately nor as a matter of class, but rather by flavor, consistency or even season.

As far back as the 16th Century, dessert and pudding were considered to be identical and were definitely eaten at the very end of the meal, often even in a separate room. Later a final cheese course became de rigeur with the swish folks who also enjoyed it with Port. And this marked the real end of the meal. This cheese/Port course was never considered dessert (nor pudding). It was called the cheese course. Pretty simple, eh?

I think one piece of this puzzle which my learned adversary may not willingly share is that he would live on pudding alone if given half a chance. As a budding domestic cook, he has gravitated into the dessert realm with gay abandon where he may just be suffering from sugar shock.

I mean how seriously can you take someone who calls something they eat at the end of a meal “spotted dick” and actually argue that it is a pudding and not a dessert?

I do believe in giving credit where credit is due however. William is a student of rare Mancunian literature and has chosen to base his threatening opening argument on a (unbeknownst to me) best selling 19th Century novel (and made for TV mini series) written by the notable author Elizabeth Gaskell entitled “Cranford”, who allegedly in a footnote, has offered at least a crumb to support his stance. But I ask you, how much faith can one ‘pud’ in an imaginary tale from 150 years ago?

But, I ask you, what more universally acceptable source can one find than Margaret Vissar’s two well respected books devoted wholly to the subject of dinner. In one, pudding is not even mentioned; in the other it is synonymous with dessert. My gauntlet is laid.

My fair haired prodigious friend is one to whom I confer on any number of matters concerning etiquette, yet as far as his ability to accept defeat in a dignified way, I am afraid the jury is still deliberating. His desserts may just be plums and apples, but his puddings are far from just desserts. Just ask his personal trainer! They are dessert masterpieces. I count myself amongst the lucky ones to have had my just desserts from the young lad upon occasion, but I also just love his desserts which are almost always puddings.

The Defence, given by the Honourable William R. H. Hanson, Esq…

Much of what I have had to say about this matter I outlined in my blogpost on the 17th July, and I will not go over old-ground. I shall use my allotted 700 words to present my sources as to why I’m right in this matter of national, no – international, importance.

Arthur Inch, a former butler and technical advisor to the Oscar-winning film Gosford Park, writes in his 2003 work ‘Dinner is Served’, ‘…pudding (never called dessert, as this term was reserved for fruit at the end of the meal)’ (Inch & Hirst, 2003, p21). I could leave my case there and go and have a nice slice of cake, but I shall continue to present my sources.

Although Kate Fox is not an etiquette consultant, she is an astute social commentator and has lived both in America and Britain (she was born in the latter country). In her 2005 book ‘Watching the English’, she includes the following in her chapter on Linguistic Class Codes. ‘The upper-middle and upper classes insist that the sweet course at the end of the meal is called the ‘pudding’ – never the ‘sweet’, or ‘afters’, or ‘dessert’, all of which are déclassé and unacceptable’ (Fox, 2005, p79). She does, I admit, later state that ‘Some American-influenced young upper-middles are starting to say dessert’ (ibid). Yet, she then flies back into my camp by writing ‘[this term] can also cause confusion as, to the upper classes, ‘dessert’ traditionally means a selection of fresh fruit, served right at the end of a dinner, after the pudding, and eaten with a knife and fork’ (ibid). Well, this, I think you’ll find Mr. Remer, is exactly what I said in my original blog post.

The book I was given at 12 by my grandmother, which started me off on my road to becoming an etiquette consultant, Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette & Modern Manners, has this: ‘Pudding, never ‘sweet’, ‘afters’ or ‘dessert’ (except when describing a fruit course)’ (Morgan, 1992, p330).

I have several other sources to hand that say the same thing, including Elsie Burch Donald’s 1982 book, Nancy Mitford’s 1956, and several books by Professor Allan S C Ross. I will not cite them in full, as it would just be repetition of the above. To me, and I hope to the more astute of the readers, it is clear that dessert is the fruit course and nothing else.

In my quest for backup I turned to a trusted colleague, namely Diana Mather, who belongs to the aristocratic family of Edward Weismuller von Vimis, a representative at the St James’s Palace court. Diana tells me ‘The dessert course is the fruit served at the very end of the meal. Dessert knives and forks are small and sharp in order to peel the fruit.’

Mr. Remer will, I am willing to bet, cite Margaret Visser’s largely excellent work ‘The Rituals of Dinner’. Visser is Canadian and I think this is perhaps the reason why Mr. Remer and I have been, civilly, disagreeing. Mr. Remer is American, although now living in Canada. Americans do call the course post-main course ‘dessert’. Today’s Americans all have British ancestors and so I conclude that the pilgrims who traipsed over to Newfoundland all those years ago went across calling said course ‘pudding’. But some bright spark got a tad confused one day and started calling it ‘dessert’. And over there they all went along with this, hence the muddle.

Earlier in the week Mr. Remer sent me some web links to prove his (wrong) point. One of said links was to Answers.com (need I say more?); the other was something a local school had done as a class project. Hardly very authoritative or conclusive. Remer also suggested to me that ‘pudding’ was considered ‘Non-U’ (meaning ‘not of upper class speech’). He is so far barking up the wrong tree here, in fact – the wrong forest, it’s unreal. As someone who just did a University dissertation in U/Non-U speech, I feel that I have some gravitas when it comes to saying what is U/Non-U, and I can say that ‘pudding’ is very much ‘U’. (See Nancy Mitford’s book Noblesse Oblige if you don’t believe me).

I admire my friend’s efforts to prove his point, but, alas, he is wrong. We all know that Britain is etiquette HQ and so what we do over here is pretty much always right – especially in this case.

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So who do you think is right? Post your comments below, please.

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12 Responses to “Pudding vs Dessert – The Prosecution & The Defence”

  1. Desert Rose says:

    I deflected from Team Dessert. The authoritative proof was in the pudding.

    Answer.com and wiki are not credible sources.

  2. Charley says:

    William has it I’m afraid. More authoratitive sources (reasonably cited at that although shame on you for not Harvard referencing(!)).

    More than that, however, despite being in somewhat reduced circumstances now my family have been very much upper class ancestrally (pitfalls of being descended from a veritable string of younger sons and daughters for the last couple of hundred years or so) we have all been raised speaking in what would be considered a very upper class manner (including informal etiquette lessons as children) and we would never dream of calling it anything other than pudding.

  3. Rosie says:

    My oh my!

    While I am now even more stumped over the whole debate at hand, this was an incredibly entertaining read.

  4. William says:

    Well done! :) Welcome to Team Pudding.

  5. Jay Remer says:

    As I expected, lines would be clearly drawn in sand along nationalities. Words and traditions change over time; some remain unchanged in one place, whilst in another metamorphose over and again. The latter is exactly what has occurred with desserts and puddings. Being able to have a civil debate and including the general public to be involved and amused was as much an aim of this discussion as resolving the issue, which is really immaterial. I hope this simple exercise illustrates one of many reasons why teaching etiquette from a very young age is vitally important to society as a whole. In the end, how we do what we do is more important than what we actually do. William and I enjoy such discussions and invite anyone who has a topic they would like to discuss with us or have us discuss in an open forum to feel free to contact either one of us through our respective web sites. Respectfully, Captain – TeamDessert

  6. William says:

    I am still right. Best, Captain – TeamPudding, and Victor.

  7. Jay Remer says:

    Of course the question now is how can you remain right about something you were never right about to begin with? But that’s for another day. YHS

  8. Pudding is pudding, never “the dessert course” even when referring to the fruit course ( Sorry Di). I think Mr Remer is at a disadvantage, coming from the wrong side of the Atlantic, what all British men and women know is that God is an Englishman, and Nanny is always right. So when Nanny was asked in the nursery what was for “seconds” the answer was ” wait and see pudding”. It is not mysterious why the upper class used a word originally used by the working class, its because the beloved Nannies of the upper classes came from the working class, and probably started in service as the nursery maid. I think one can only refer to “dessert” when in inverted commas, either verbal or written ones, and probably only when speaking to a foreigner. ( and of course anyone not British is a foreigner!) Nancy Mitford and John Betjeman consider the term “sweet” as Non U, and pudding as U, and I am afraid “dessert” falls into the former category, even for fruit.

    So in conclusion Mr Hanson is correct that pudding is always pudding, but I disagree with Mr Remer, Mr Hanson and the lovely Mrs Di Mather in that the word “dessert” should not be used, and would come in Nancy Mitford’s Non U section.

    Which reminds me, what are we having for pudding tonight?!

  9. […] my trusted British colleague William Hanson wrote a blog about the use of the word ‘pudding’ in England vs. the word ‘dessert’ used in the US (and most of the rest of the world, for that matter). This respite from world events […]

  10. Tim Jefferson says:

    Outstandingly helpful thank you, It is my opinion your current subscribers would certainly want a lot more content such as this continue the excellent hard work.

  11. George Boyd says:

    Dessert is fruit served at the end of a meal to cleanse the palate. I am afraid the Americans have mis-interpreted the word and use it as the word for the final course of the meal. They have also mis-used the word sorbet and now call it sherbet(sherbert) and have added dairy fat to the recipes(which is more like an ice cream with fruit puree mixed through) which flies in the face of the purpose of serving a sorbet, again to cleanse the palate. The people of North America get easily confused “poor souls”.

  12. Derek says:

    Dessert is a fruit course.
    The dessert plate,finger bowl and dessert cutlery (spoon,fork,knife) ideally gilt or gold as it is inert and does not effect the flavour of the fruit is presented.
    This all happens after the pudding.

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