By Paula Marcoux.
Indian pudding. A homely, brown, lumpy-looking mess, and one of the few foods for which curdling is considered a virtue. Back when I was growing up and inordinately fond of this mysterious substance, it was classified along the lines of, “a popular dessert in quaint old-time New England,” which explained it not at all. Now that I’m a grown-up food historian, I can confidently characterize that weak description as both an understatement and an inaccuracy. Even its very title—Indian Pudding—misleads.
The story behind the confusing name is actually simple, so we’ll start there. Speakers of early modern English used “corn” generically, as an equivalent to “grain.” What we today simply call corn, English colonizers dubbed “Indian corn,” to distinguish it from the European ones they were accustomed to, like wheat, rye, barley, and oats. (Why they decided to call all the Indigenous Peoples of two whole continents “Indians” to start with goes back much further and is fortunately outside the purview of the present story.) Sometime in the eighteenth century, colonists grew weary of using two words to describe the grain, so sometimes dropped the “corn,” a colloquialism often seen in vernacular recipes, like Rye-and-Indian Bread, Indian Pound Cake, and, of course, the present Pudding.
The pudding’s earliest format—cornmeal cooked in milk or water and seasoned with molasses—wasn’t even a dessert. Rather it was a major staple dish that could accompany (or for poor, austere, or humble households, fully constitute) any meal of the day. When served as part of a multi-dish mid-day dinner, it was traditionally served first, before the meat course, much as pasta dishes to this day are in Italy. This front-loading tradition died hard in the early 19th century; family anecdotes reveal the old guard mortifying the rising generation by insisting on setting out the pudding before the meat even with company at the table. (John and Abigail Adams carried this habit on even through presidential retirement.)
A weekday’s cornmeal pudding was cooked low and slow in a kettle in the hearth, a simple enough one-pot affair, as befits a daily staple. Preparing it (and everything else) for Sunday dinner presented a challenge, though. The sect of radical Protestantism that constituted the state religion of Plymouth Colony* required an Old Testament-level observation of Sabbath; i.e., no household work allowed, except that which must be done to avoid harm. Putting food on the table without the work of cooking was a conundrum that housewives solved in part by using the ovens built into the massive masonry chimney stacks of their houses. Taking forever to cool down once thoroughly heated, these ovens were a slow-cooking boon, allowing women to work one day for the meals of the next and producing astounding results that are really hard to replicate any other way. Filling the oven by Saturday evening with massive loaves of rye and cornbread, a big pot of beans with a chunk of salted pork, and a towering, flower-pot-shaped redware crock of pudding guaranteed a hot, savory, filling meal on Sunday without breaking Sabbath rules.
These are theoretically simple foods with markedly short ingredient lists. The complexity of flavor in an Indian Pudding baked in the falling heat of a wood-fired oven is not achieved through the addition of spices or the application of subtle technique, rather by the slow reduction of a huge volume of milk, a few handfuls of freshly-ground flint cornmeal, and a dollop of molasses. The indispensable fourth ingredient is not a grating of nutmeg or ginger or a lump of butter or suet (which are also not forbidden), but simply time on the bricks, as the temperature in the oven chamber slowly drops from 400- some degrees down to the low hundreds over the course of the night. The volume of the pudding is decimated, its surface browns and marbles like a cooling tarpit, and the aroma is almost incapacitatingly enticing. How people ever got up and left the house to attend Sabbath meetings without breaking into the oven and mowing that down, I cannot guess.
More recent recipes reveal that in latter, laxer days, even families traditional enough to still use a wood-fired oven had given up resisting the temptation. “Put it in a ‘Saturday afternoon oven,’” a recipe from 1870s Plymouth reads. “Let it remain over night, and serve for Sunday breakfast.” Much more reasonable. A dish of warm Indian Pudding, napped about with heavy cream, is about as religious an experience as one can get.
When a food is composed of only three ingredients, the meaning of each carries considerable weight. Rational contemplation of the actual seventeenth-century associations of corn, milk, and molasses reduces to gauzy myth everything innocent, romantic, and humble I “learned” as a child about this banner food of European conquest. In the next installment of our story we will explore this pudding’s components: corn, as an appropriation that was the first literal theft perpetrated by the Mayflower colonists; milk, butter, and suet, as the products of the English cattle vanguard that encroached and vandalized Indigenous lands starting a decade later; and molasses, as the lynchpin commodity that addicted New England’s economy to a dependence on the international Atlantic trade in enslaved human lives.
*roughly the readership areas of edible South Shore & South Coast, plus edible Cape Cod, edible Vineyard and Nantucket, too.
Resources: Fresh cornmeal made from regional flint corn may be had at a couple of local gristmills.
Plimoth Grist Mill
6 Spring Lane
Plymouth, MA 02360
Gray’s Grist Mill
638 Adamsville Rd
Westport, MA 02790