Last year, one of my colleagues, Shawn Vestal, wrote an ode on this page to finger steaks.
They taste fine, sure, but let’s review what they are.
Finger steaks are small pieces of cow soaked in buttermilk (milk with extra lactic acid) and deep-fat fried to perfection. Or something like that.
It’s true that his recipe called for cutting off “excess fat,” but a healthy treat they are not.
So when I heard Shawn tell another colleague – after seeing my concoction at the newsroom snack table – that “there are a lot things I’m willing to try, but” there was no way in hell he was going to try that, I wondered what could possibly be the hangup.
Sure, my concoction was “suet pudding,” but let me explain.
Suet pudding is not the kind of pudding from 1980s TV commercials.
It is a glorified spice cake. It has as much raisins as it has suet (beef fat). In fact, this recipe is only one-eighth suet. Open a standard cookbook and you’ll find that’s not an unreasonable percentage of fat in such a bread, even if my recipe uses animal fat as opposed to something processed like margarine or Crisco.
I should clarify. By “my recipe” I mean a recipe I found in a yellowed, home-typed cookbook that belonged to Mary Yeager, my great-grandmother. I interviewed her daughter, my grandma, about it twice and have tried to replicate some of the recipes, including “catsup” and fruitcake.
Nothing in it seemed as foreign to me as “suet pudding.”
Here’s the start of what my grandma, Ruth Ermish, said when I first asked her about suet pudding in 2003:
Grandma: “That is really good, and we always made it at Christmas time.”
Me: “Is that like a bread pudding?”
Grandma: “It’s like a pudding.”
OK, that answer is misleading to anyone of a younger generation (my grandma would have turned 100 this coming May). It wasn’t until last year, after I was persuaded to make the recipe and write about it, that I Googled suet pudding and learned it does not have the snot-like consistency of the pudding that’s packaged conveniently for school lunches.
It does not at all resemble brains. It looks like a cake.
But it is steamed, not baked.
My grandma warned me that there were new logistical problems with the recipe. One, it’s no longer obvious that you can buy suet at any food market. Two, few people have steamers.
But she didn’t mention the main problem: modern societal norms.
For her, it was a delicious, family tradition. Its place in mainstream cookbooks of earlier eras indicates that the disgust expressed by Shawn was not the usual response to suet pudding in times past.
Suet pudding as a Christmas tradition in my family faded by the time I was growing up. My mom remembers it at Christmastime, but said “It had to grow on me.” She never made it.
As I set out to try this recipe, I needed some more Internet research. I discovered that the lack of a steamer is no problem. I just needed a big pot, big enough to put a Mason jar ring at the bottom to hold the bowl with the pudding. And as a pleasant British lady says in a YouTube video, you can steam banana bread batter or any batter you like.
For the suet, I went to Crown Foods on Northwest Boulevard. The recipe calls for 1 cup of suet. Not knowing how heavy a cup of suet is, I asked for 2 pounds. The butcher came back with a bagful, about the size of a big bag of chips. Overkill.
Scott Byers, Crown Foods’ owner, said he still has a few customers who buy suet each year for their Christmas puddings. He also has customers who buy it to make candles, perfumes and soaps.
There are two kinds of suet, said Byers, who has worked at the family business since he was 13. There’s the outer fat just under the skin and there’s the inner fat near the kidneys. The inner fat is what has been prized by bakers for things like my great-grandmother’s suet pudding. Suet, he said is less greasy than lard, the fat from a pig.
I dived into the recipe with some assistance from Food Editor Adriana Janovich, and we had some friends over for dinner and suet pudding. We tried unsuccessfully to film the ceremonial flipping over of the suet pudding bowl after the steaming was complete. (Could have been an Instagram first.)
I made a whiskey sauce and after some debate, we decided I should cut the pudding like a pie. My wife made brownies as an alternative dessert.
And here is where I was surprised. I knew the brownies would be more popular. But no one would even dare to take a bite of pudding besides Adriana and me.
I figured the weird looks I got when I told friends I was planning to make my great-grandma’s suet pudding recipe were more about the assumed unhealthiness of animal fat.
But it turns out they were just super grossed-out.
Weeks later, I asked one of my friends if she would have tried the pudding had brownies not been offered.
“Signs point to no,” she said.
I told Byers that few were willing to touch the pudding.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Most people think if it doesn’t come out of a grocery store it isn’t handled right.”
Jeremy Hansen, owner of Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie in downtown Spokane, also wasn’t surprised.
He noted that many people grossed out by head cheese find “fromage de tete” a satisfying dish, even though they are the same thing. Hansen cooks fish, chicken and all kinds of things with suet.
I used Google to track down a “food psychologist” and found Traci Mann, a University of Minnesota psychology professor, who is an expert on eating and dieting, and detests the term “food psychologist.”
She wasn’t surprised, either.
“The feeling of disgust is more like an emotion. It happens regardless of your rational thought process,” said Mann who wrote the book “Secrets from the Eating Lab.”
She mentioned an experiment performed by another expert that involved cockroaches and eating.
I told her that this is different. More instinctive. Peoples’ gross factor about suet pudding seems to be learned. My great-grandparents liked suet pudding but would have been as grossed out by the thought of eating roaches as I am.
She agreed and shared a similar story. Mann’s family serves kishke every year for Thanksgiving.
“It doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving if kishke isn’t on the table,” she said. “Culture plays a very powerful role in the foods people are willing to eat.”
Kishke is made from beef intestine. It also doesn’t look like brains or smell rotten. She said it resembles stuffing. Despite that and even though she loves the tradition, Mann can’t get herself to eat more than a bite or two.
Last year, her kids wouldn’t try it.
“They were willing to take it, but when I told them what it was they no longer had any interest,” she said.
Aner Tal, a research associate at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, said disgust aimed at foods is a “psychological mechanism designed for the rejection of potentially harmful foods,” like food that’s spoiled.
“Even in those cases, saying it is rational would be a bit of an exaggeration since it is not a conscious calculation, but rather a gut reaction,” he said. “Sometimes this basic emotion and rejection mechanisms gets misdirected at foods that are not truly harmful, simply because they are unfamiliar or culturally rejected.”
After accepting this new cultural norm against suet, I agreed to go back to the steamer and try again.
This time, I made suet pudding without suet. I kept the recipe the same, but substituted applesauce for the fat.
The taste was similar, bit it rose significantly higher. I liked the the real thing with its solid, datebread-like mass better. But others unwilling to try the first ate it up.
So, if suet pudding is ever to become a tradition in my family again, it will be suetless.
From Mary (Zimmerman) Yeager’s home cookbook
1 cup suet
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup sour milk
1 cup dates or raisins
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
My great-grandmother’s recipe attributes it to her aunt, Eva Zimmerman. It’s light on directions: just “add flour and steam two hours.” So here are few other tips:
Grease the bowl for the batter. Cut the suet into small pieces in a food processor. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in other ingredients.
Cut out a piece of parchment paper and tie it down over the bowl after greasing the side facing the batter. Cover the parchment paper with aluminum foil. Place bowl in large pot on top of a Mason jar ring. Fill bottom of pot with water, start to boil, lower heat and cover for 2 hours. You can substitute an equal amount of applesauce for the suet. Doing so will make greasing the parchment paper especially important because it will rise much higher.
My grandmother said she and her mom would cover this recipe with a sauce, usually a whiskey or lemon sauce. I made some whipped cream and poured in some whiskey, a fine topping for either suet pudding or suetless pudding.
Note: I used buttermilk for sour milk.
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