Evolution of a Dish
By: Katherine Perry
Indian Pudding is incredibly simple to make, and so you would think mastering it wouldn’t be the mark of an especially accomplished homemaker. But there was apparently time in New England history when making a proper Indian Pudding was a prerequisite to be a suitable wife. How could you prove your pudding was proper? County Fair pudding contest? Town meeting vote? Certainly not. Love thrives in absurdity, not democracy. And so, you must throw your pudding up the chimney.
Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, in America’s Founding Food (yes, if you don’t have it already, you do need to get this book) point to passage in the 1859 novel The Minister Wooing by Harriet Beecher Stowe (sister to American cookbook legend Catharine Esther Beecher).
Set in the 1790s in Rhode Island, a young woman proudly claims:
“ ‘I’ve been practising on my pudding now these six years, and I shouldn’t be afraid to throw one up chimney with any girl.’ This speech was founded on a tradition, current in those times, that no young lady was fit to be married till she could construct a boiled Indian- pudding of such consistency that it could be thrown up chimney and come down on the ground, outside, without breaking…”
Whether or not that particular quirk is actually historically accurate, there is no denying that Indian Pudding’s place in has in the New England kitchen and culture has been prominent, and up until relatively recently, beloved and respected. Though these days, it’s difficult to even find the pudding, nevermind find the proof in it.
When the British pudding tradition arrived in New England, and Colonists found themselves without the staple grains to make the endless variations on their beloved dish, they adapted recipes to the thriving native grain, corn, and put “Indian meal” to the task. By the mid-17th century molasses and milk would also have been available in New England, and the new “Indian Pudding” (named after the meal) became one of New England’s first culinary successes.
Kathleen Wall, Colonial culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, says that while there’s a scarcity of primary sources from the early colonial era you can look at other sources to see if dishes, like Indian Pudding, were actually on lips and in mouths before they were in print.
“You look at letters. John and Abigail Adams write about food all the time, and what they’re eating… and [John Adams] writes about it like it was a common dish …so you know it’s around, you know it’s there. But what exactly was he cooking, what exactly was he eating? It’s cornmeal and milk and molasses, I know that much.” says Wall.
Adams’ letter from 1771 predates the first American cookbook by 25 years, when Amelia Simmons offered three versions of the pudding, ranging from a simple cornmeal and sweetened milk mixture, to a richly embellished version with butter, raisins, spices, and (seven!) eggs. And by this time a baked pudding would have been a common preparation, alongside a steamed.
I used a later baked recipe from Lydia Maria Francis Child’s 1830 The Frugal Housewife. Five ingredients and four sentences.
Such a simple thing, this pudding.
And whether you eat it warm, straight from the pan, plain or adorned with ice or whipped cream. Or, whether you let it chill into a firm, creamy sheet, and dress up a slice with even more molasses and honey its virtue is its strong, simple flavors.
Simple, but symbolic.
“To me, Indian pudding is a real melting pot dish,” says Wall. “For you have Indian corn, which you have to come over here to have, it’s not in England at at all. There are the cows, the milk from the cows brought over here by European settlers. There’s the molasses that comes with the trade with the Caribbean and that whole history. And so it’s those three things mixed together. So it is, to my mind, a New England dish. It’s not an English dish, it’s not Colonial dish; it belongs to all of New England.”
And it’s a dish that has held onto its simplicity through the ages, it’s pretty much still the same old pudding we’ve always known and loved. Plimoth Plantation offers an two Indian Pudding recipes, one for a slow-cooker, and you can still find it on menus at places like the Milepost in Duxbury, or the Ansel Gurney House in Marion, and of course, the famous Durgin Park.
But it’s a dish that is most at home, at home. By the bowl, warm from the oven, spoonful by spoonful cold from the fridge, or thrown up the chimney, and served, intact or in shards, from the lawn.
The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy.
By Lydia Maria Francis Child
Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830.
Indian pudding is good baked. Scald a quart of milk (skimmed milk will do) and stir in seven heaped table spoonfuls of sifted Indian meal, a tea-spoonful of salt, a tea-cupful of molasses and a great spoonful of ginger,or sifted cinnamon. Baked three or four hours. If you want whey, you must be sure and pour in a little cold milk, after it is all mixed.
(recipe from The Plimoth Plantation New England Cookery Book by Malabar Hornblower, The Harvard Common Press, 1990)
- 4 cups milk
- 2/3 cup molasses
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups milk
- optional — cream, whipped cream or ice cream when serving
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
- Generously butter a 2-quart baking dish.
- In a large saucepan, heat the milk molasses and butter, stirring to blend them. Over moderate heat, bring them slowly to just under a boil, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, combine the cornmeal, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt and sift them into a bowl.
- When the milk and molasses are close to– but not quite—boiling, gradually stir in the cornmeal mixture. Cook mixing constantly so that no lumps form, until the pudding thickens enough to hold its shape when stirred.
- With a rubber spatula, scrape the pudding into the buttered baking. Add the 2 cups milk, but do not mix it in; let it float on the top.
- Bake the pudding 1 hour without stirring. Then stir in the milk and bake two hours longer.
- Serve the pudding with cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if desired.
Indian-Meal Pudding- For Slow-Cooker
- 3 cups milk
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2+ tbl butter
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ginger
- Optional: 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- Butter the inside of slow cooker and preheat on high for 15 minutes.
- Whisk milk, cornmeal, and salt in a large heavy bottomed pan and bring to a boil. (It will rise up somewhat as it heats, so give yourself lots of unless you like cleaning up scorched milk off your stovetop.) After it comes to a boil, continue whisking for another 5 minutes.
- Cover and simmer on low for 10 minutes and then take off the burner. Add the butter.
- Combine the eggs, molasses and spices. Take some of the hot cornmeal mixture and temper the egg mixture, combine both into the pot.
- (Stir in the cranberries as this point if you would like. You can also top this with plastic wrap, cool and refrigerate for up to 24 hours, and then continue at this point.)
- Scrape final mixture into the buttered slow cooker and cook on high for 2-3 hours or on low for 6-8. The finished pudding will be firmer around the edges than the center.
- Serve warm with ice cream, whipped cream or light cream. Leftovers make a great breakfast.
Katherine Perry is a radio reporter based at WATD-FM in Marshfield. Before she entered journalism, Katherine worked just about every food industry job: from selling specialty spices, to line cook, to cheesemonger. Since setting down the spatula and taking up the microphone, she’s found that when she’s got a choice about what to cover, she invariably chooses the edible topic. Right now, she’s absorbed in New England culinary history and is delving into the area’s delicious past.