Tag Archives: food

The Storied History of Indian Pudding

My contribution to Thanksgiving next week at my brother’s house will be Indian Pudding, which I have made many times in years past, always with variant recipes. As we are getting into the holidays, my general plan is to avoid some of the more serious topics here on the blog in favor of food, decorations, and traditions, but as I started looking into the history of this pudding, a dish that was always around and which I always took for granted, I started getting into some material that was not light, fluffy, and cheery. Indian Pudding is more complex than I thought! The general story is one of colonial New Englanders missing their old English puddings, and substituting “Indian” corn meal out of necessity, but this is too simple a tale: you can also connect this native pudding to the French and Indian Wars, the inventive expat Count Rumford, slavery and abolition, vegetarianism, and “Yankee” thrift. It’s more American than Apple pie.

Indian Pudding Durgin Park HNE

Indian Pudding CardAn advertisement for Durgin Park in Boston, which always featured Indian Pudding and closed just this year, from Historic New England, and a typical “old New England” recipe card featuring IP (not one of my recipes—I’m egg-phobic so I always bake the eggless varieties).

The Oxford English Dictionary lists a 1722 cookbook as the first source of the phrase “Indian Pudding”, but the first reference I could find was not in a cookbook, but rather in “Indian Pete” Williamson’s “memoir” French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his Infancy and sold as a slave in Pennsylvania (York, 1757). This is a sensational and suspect source, in which Williamson ascribes all sorts of barbaric behavior to the “savages” of North America, including cannibalism and the concoction of “Indian Puddings” out of their British victims. Published in the midst of the French and Indian War (which was the North American theater of the Seven Years War) this was lurid propaganda, but the reference pops up in several other North American “descriptions” later in the century before disappearing (thankfully). Much more influential was Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford’s recipe for “wholesome” and cheap Indian pudding, prescribed as a beneficial food for the European poor in his Essays, political, economical, and philosophical (1796). Thompson, Massachusetts Loyalist, accused spy, and accomplished inventor (who served an apprenticeship in Salem) achieved fame, fortune, and title in Britain and Bavaria, but always seems a bit sentimental about his native land. He devotes quite a few pages to Indian Pudding, describing its benefits, providing a recipe (with American variations) and even giving directions on how to eat it.

Indian Pudding Rumford

Indian Pudding 1814 cover

Indian Pudding 1814 Collage

Indian Pudding and Slavery collage

Back in America, Indian Pudding was a staple in all the cookbooks issued from the later eighteenth century well into the twentieth–as far as I could tell: I checked in with a sample about every twenty years. There are notable variations: boiled or baked, plain or fancy, eggs or no eggs, savory or sweet, all sorts of additions in terms of spices, berries, and nuts. The pudding becomes progressively sweet in the early nineteenth century, presumably as it is moving from breakfast porridge to dessert, but then there is a reduction of sweetness in the later nineteenth century, as it was featured as an economical and “healthy” food, and a favorite dessert of vegetarians. In between, there is an amazing abolitionist argument put forward by Nathan Bangs in his Emancipation, its necessity and means of accomplishment : Calmly submitted to the Citizens of the United States (1849) in which he associates rice pudding with the perpetuation of slavery and Indian Pudding, “the good old food of New England” with freedom! (This argument does seem to discount the sugar and molasses in “Yankee” Indian Pudding).

Indian Pudding was already “old” in 1849 and became older still—definitely out of fashion in the later nineteenth century except for working families and housewives more concerned with thrift than show. The Colonial Revival movement put it back on the table, especially the Thanksgiving table, for “old-fashioned” holiday meals at the beginning of the twentieth century. And after that, I’m not sure what happens to Indian Pudding: I guess it depends on the family, and the region. It is included in all of the cookbooks which were labeled American in the twentieth century, but that might be more for custom than utility: I have a feeling that pies prevail.

tIndian Pudding American Agriculturist

COlonial Thanksgiving Delineator 1902

Indian Pudding Edible Series

I don’t think this unhappy family (in the American Agriculturist, 1894) is pondering pudding, but the juxtaposition is amusing; Anna Wells Morrison’s “Colonial Thanksgiving” menu in the 1902 Delineator features “Indian Meal Pudding”; Jeri Quinzio’s Pudding is part of the Edible Series at the University of Chicago Press.


The Last Week of July

The last week of July was full of contrasts and transitions for me: we spent most of it in York Harbor, but I traveled back every other day for my evening class, we left for Maine on a dark rainy day in which a tornado swept down in a town just to the south of Salem (very unusual for Massachusetts) and enjoyed clear sunny days thereafter, the late-summer flowers are of course also a study in contrasting color. For the most part, we’ve been so fortunate this summer to have beautiful weather: often sunny, never too hot, with rain occurring often enough to keep everything green. I hope this continues throughout August but the dog days do threaten……anyway, here are my favorite photographs from the week, mostly of gardens and flowers. I have included a photograph of the best ice cream stand in the world, Brown’s in York Beach, my father’s prized Swiss chard, and the gardens at Stonewall Kitchen’s company store in York, which are always inspiring–even the vegetables look beautiful (actually my father’s Swiss chard looks pretty good too). There are “soft” spots in nearly every picture so I apologize in advance: my camera lens got a bit smudgy when I was trying to take the first picture in the rain, and I never noticed until just this morning.

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Books for my Break

The break between the fall and spring semesters used to be one of my favorite times of the year; now that I am Chair it won’t be quite as long or restful. When you’re a professor, you think about your courses a bit and write up the syllabi, but this January I’ll be doing transfer evaluations, a bit of scheduling, advising, meetings, correspondence, and planning for the semester to come. Woe is me! Nevertheless, there’s still time for some reading so I have assembled my year’s end list of books. I probably won’t get through all of these but they’ll sit by my bed all year long and put me to sleep (no slight to the book; I fall asleep almost instantaneously and very forcefully). As usual, it’s a list (exclusively) dominated by nonfiction, and the first two BIG books will probably take me through most of the year: the first volume of Victoria Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck biography (I’m a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan) and the recently-updated Field Guide to American Houses. The latter probably won’t leave my bedside for years to come–in fact, I should probably buy two copies of the latter, one for my bedside and the other for the car.

Barbara-Stanwyck-cover

Books field guide border

Two popular histories/biographies of gilded-age people on either side of the Atlantic (and around the world): I see a lot of parallels between Prince Edward and Prince Charles (though not the playboy characterization).

PicMonkey Collage

Fauna and Flora, past, present, future:

Book Barely Imagined Beings

Books for my break

I’m not really a cook or a foodie, but I do like reading about food: its production, its history, its role as a cultural force. Of all the food books that came out in this past year, these two titles appeal to me the most: one is quite specific and narrative in its approach, the other more general and historical:

PicMonkey Collage

What could possibly be more interesting than the story of punctation!!!??? and epistolary history (Simon Garfield is always on my list)?.

Books punctuation

Books to the Letter border


Colonial Chocolate

Salem can lay claim to at least one candy title–Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, established in 1806, claims to be “America’s oldest candy company” and is still manufacturing the gibralters and black jacks that established its reputation. But the other day I came across a trade card in a digital archive which I thought could lead to another title for our fair city:  oldest commercial chocolate manufacturer.  The card (which gets no bigger, sorry) advertises the business of Gideon Foster, Chocolate Manufacturer, and dates from 1780–the same year that the famous Walter Baker & Co., Ltd. chocolate company was founded in Dorchester Lower Mills.  Perhaps Foster beat out Baker by a few months!

Chocolate 1780

Chocolate Bakers factor

Chocolate Baker 1929

Bakers Christmas

Advertising Chocolate, 1780-1829. Baker images courtesy The Dorchester Atheneum.

Alas, I don’t think Salem can claim the chocolate title, for two reasons.  The Baker Company can be dated even earlier than 1780, to when Walter Baker, a Boston physician, established a partnership in 1765 with English chocolatier John Hannon. When Hannon departed for Europe in 1780, never to return, Baker continued to run the company under his sole ownership, and it expanded dramatically through the nineteenth century under his heirs and the twentieth century under the successive ownership of  General and Kraft Foods (leaving Foster’s little company in the dust!)  The other reason is that while Gideon Foster is associating himself with the commercial mecca of Salem,on his trade card, his chocolate mill was actually located in the nearby village of South Danvers, now Peabody; in fact, Foster’s well-preserved Federal house serves as the headquarters of the Peabody Historical Society.

That matter settled, I still have my questions. Why were these two prominent men so focused on the production of chocolate during the Revolutionary War?  Wasn’t chocolate a rather trivial pursuit at this particular time? Foster was General Gideon Foster, hero of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, later at Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston, but back in Peabody making chocolate by 1780:  was chocolate manufacture a matter of national necessity?  Probably not, but it was definitely a substantive commodity in the eighteenth century, viewed as nutritional, medicinal, and sustaining–almost like food. But it was also a beverage (we are generally talking about drinking chocolate at this time; candy bars come later) that some thought had the potential to replace the almighty tea. Thomas Jefferson certainly thought so; in a 1785 letter to John Adams he predicted that “Chocolate. … By getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America…”

Here in Salem, and in the present, my favorite source for chocolate is the decades-old Harbor Sweets, where I started my Christmas shopping today (with less than two weeks to go–classes complete, papers and final exams to grade!)  Even if you don’t have chocolate on your list, this is a great place to go for its Santa’s workshop ambiance, as well as the free samples.

Chocolate Harbor Sweets


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