I could tell something was up by the way the other guests at the table were whispering, laughing a little, gesturing towards their plates. I was at my Irish cousin Aisling’s wedding in Killarney when we were served the packages of innocuous-looking filo dough. Wrapped up before me, in the misleading garb of baklava and spanikopita, was black pudding, a sausage made from oatmeal and blood.
I honestly didn’t know what it contained, though I suspected something notable was inside. And when I tried it—breaking through the buttery wrap to a crumbing morsel inside—I found that something was delicious: elegant and earthy. Even my American cousin said so, though she, deceived on that same occasion, will never try it again.
In the UK nearly anything can be a pudding. Mincemeat, liver and kidneys, treacle, and sticky toffee are all, somehow, kinds of pudding. I don’t actually know whether there are any rules that govern the word’s usage—it is always a dessert, unless it isn’t? Etymologists trace the word back to the Middle English poding (a.k.a. sausage) and before that the French boudin (also sausage). The French comes from the Latin, as one does, for botulus (again—sausage). All puddings, originally, were stuffed with offal and grain. The British Isles aren’t the only place to serve it up, either: Norway has blodpølse, France boudin noir, Thailand sai krok lueat, Spain morcilla, Nepal ragati, Sardinia ortau. Black pudding is the culinary embodiment of waste not, want not; its economy is both remarkable and obvious. And though it’s sometimes framed as a desperate, last-resort food for the most poor, black pudding put in frequent appearances on the table of that asshole Henry VIII—but maybe he already had a taste for blood?
I suppose I also have a taste for blood. When I was little, my mom used to make me liverwurst sandwiches and I loved them: soft and salty and something else, a liver-ness, all iron and umami. But it hit me one day, walking down the stairs of my elementary school—that liverwurst was made with liver. The repulsion (aided in part by Doug Funny’s long-running disgust with liver and onions) was instant. All affection for the food vanished, and I didn’t stray from the regular rotation of fish sticks or chicken fingers or meatloaf for years. My palate expanded, like most people’s do, as I got older. At home I tried pâté and goat and sea urchin. In Rome, it was tripe. In Ireland, black pudding.
Except for that first time in Killarney, all the black pudding I’ve eaten has been at breakfast, sliced into discs and fried. I order it every chance I get, though in the United States that’s not often. (The Keltic Kitchen on Cape Cod is my lone stateside discovery.) In the British Isles, however, there’s not a B&B without it. I think it may be some kind of law. And during the two weeks my boyfriend and I spent in the UK this past March, it made for a lot of black pudding. I had black pudding on a plate crowded with the perfectly cooked staples of an English breakfast—eggs, toast, tomatoes, and bacon—at the Dorchester overlooking Hyde Park. I had black pudding, arranged in a tower of apple slices and dark-colored discs, in Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye. I had black pudding in a tiny village in north Wales that looked just how I pictured the setting of a George Eliot novel would. I had black pudding, sloppily fried on Easter morning with leftover potatoes, on the Isle of Harris and Lewis, in the modern kitchen of our seaside thatched-roof cottage.
It rained all the time on Harris and Lewis, which was our second and last stop in Scotland’s Hebrides, the islands that dot its northwest Atlantic coast. After walking through two bogs to see the Callanish standing stones, my boyfriend and I gave up on the outdoors. We drove across the wet and beautifully brown center of the island to Stornoway, Harris and Lewis’s largest city, to find a pub and a fire and maybe, if we were lucky, some chips. A Scottish couple we had met in Edinburgh had insisted that, while we were there, we not forget the black pudding—Stornoway’s famous black pudding. (It earned a “Protected Geographical Indicator of Origin” status from the European Union in 2013.)
On our way out of town, I bought two slices from the local butcher, Charles Macleod’s. The young man who cut and wrapped them in paper for me put the change I told him to keep in the charity tin behind the counter. They looked unthreatening enough in their white package, and when I unwrapped them the next morning they were equally innocent. I fried them up with none of the flair or experience displayed by many places where we had already eaten black pudding. But the texture—crumbly and moist—and the taste—a deep and earthy mixture of onion, oatmeal, beef suet, and, of course, blood—carried my lack of technique.
There is the part of me that types blood and cringes, that imagines veins and feels faint. But there’s also the me that has no trouble reaching into the cavity of some plucked bird to pull out its pre-wrapped neck or pre-bagged heart. The me that separates skin from fat from flesh, that pries out bones, that ties up limbs. The me that pours out the blood that collects in the Styrofoam wells of meat packaging without blinking. The me who cooks knows that the line between what is gross and what isn’t vanishes when examined with any scrutiny. And the me who eats doesn’t care a whit. Pass the pudding, please.