Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

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.


Pilgrim Life

Life magazine was a different sort of periodical in its first incarnation, from 1883 to 1936, than after, when photographs characterized its style and substance. The earlier Life was all about illustration, and all the famous graphic artists of the era contributed to its pages: everyone from Charles Dana Gibson to Norman Rockwell. It seems to have been a humorous society magazine with some very cutting caricatures, and as I was leafing through a succession of Thanksgiving “numbers” I found a very dark view of the “Ye Merrie New England Thanksgiving of Earlier Dayes” by illustrator F.T Richards from 1895. Dark. Even Hawthornesque, you might say.

Life Thanksgiving Puritans 1895

Pilgrim LifePuritans and Witches 1895

And quite a departure from the more playful portrayal of Thanksgiving Pilgrims published in Life and other contemporary periodicals in the first decades of the twentieth century: First Thanksgivings, amorous encounters and myriad in-the-stocks scenarios. Then the war comes and changes everything for longer than its duration, followed by the cult-of-celebrity culture that still seems to define us.

Life 1904-11-

Life 1910-11-03

Life 1913-11-06

Life1923-11-22 (2)Life covers from 1904, 1910, 1913 & 1923.


Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

Thanksgiving 1847 collage

Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

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Thanksgiving Salem_Observer_1849-11-24_[2]

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Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-12-15_1

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-11-24_3

Thanksgiving 1852 collage

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1853-11-14_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1854-11-20_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1857-11-30_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1863-11-05_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1865-11-06_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1875-11-15_2

These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving Menus

If there is one genre of history that has benefitted particularly and immensely from digitization, it is culinary history: cookbooks from all ages are readily available and I easily mined two collections of restaurant menus to come up with a portfolio of Thanksgiving feasts past, from 1883 to the 1950s. The New York Public Library’s Buttolph Collection includes nearly 19,000 menus, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Digital Collections include a range of menus under the heading “The Art of Dining”. There are many more places to find menus online: a great list is here. I’m not really a foodie, so I was more interested in the evolving cover art than the food, but I have included several bills of fare below: you can find more by going to the sources. These are primarily menus from large hotel restaurants which seem to be concerned with offering their guests multiple choices and courses: turkey is always featured prominently but not exclusively! Last year’s little investigation of the holiday drink “Tom and Jerry” made me very excited to see frozen Tom and Jerry on the 1899 menu of Boston’s Quincy House, and it seems very clear that English plum pudding was a staple on fancy feasts for this most American of holidays until at least World War I.

Thanksgiving 1883 Briggs_House_menu_page_1

Thanksgiving Picture1

Thanksgiving 1898 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3321-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

Thanksgiving nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-3325-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q 1899

Thanksgiving collage

Thanksgiving 1905 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47db-765f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.q

Thanksgiving collage 4

Thanksgiving collage2

Thanksgiving collage 3

Hotel_Roosevelt_Thanksgiving_dinner_menu_cover

Thanksgiving 1955 nypl.digitalcollections.a6dbdb16-2467-df3a-e040-e00a18064c6f.001.w

Thanksgiving The_Sands_menu_pages_23 (1) 1957

Thanksgiving 1958 Sands_Hotel_and_Casino_menu_page_1Thanksgiving menus from all over the country and 1883 to 1958 (1883, 1898, 1898, 1999, 1905, 1905, 1906, 1914, 1929, 1955, 1957, 1958), from the Buttolph Collection of the New York Public Library and UNLV’s “Art of Dining” Collection.


Happy Thanksgiving

I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, an intimidating task for me, and I’ve been too busy with my various preparations to come up with a proper (thematic, colorful, aspirationally interesting?) post for the holiday, but I did want to say Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, however briefly. May we all have the calm and the company to reflect on what we are truly grateful for in this…..interesting year. Back in a few days with something more substantive, and leaving you with a few images for the day: Trinity (helpfully) serving as a centerpiece until I came up with something more stable, the glittery squirrels I seem to be placing everywhere (tacky I know, but I just love them), and Governor Belcher’s 1730 Thanksgiving Proclamation for Massachusetts Bay. What were our predecessors thankful for? Peace, a good harvest, and the diminution of pirates and smallpox. The basics.

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Courtesy Winterthur Museum Collections.

    I have therefore thought fit, with the advice of His Majesty’s Council, to appoint THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next, a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province, hereby exhorting both ministers and people in their several assemblies, religiously to solemnize the same by offering up their sincere and grateful PRAISES for the manifold blessings and favors which GOD of His undeserved goodness hath conferred upon us; PARTICULARLY, in continuing to us the invaluable life of Our Sovereign Lord the KING, with His Royal Consort Our Most Gracious QUEEN, His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES, and the rest of the royal issue; In succeeding His Majesty’s wise councils FOR RESTORING and establishing the peace of EUROPE; In prolonging the ecclesiastical and civil privileges of this people; In granting his gracious conduct and assistance in the administration of the civil government of this Province; In restoring HEALTH to many of our towns lately visited with a contagious distemper [small pox], and preserving others from the infection thereof; In maintaining our PEACE with the Indian Natives, and granting us a plentiful HARVEST, in giving success to our MERCHANDISE AND FISHERY, and protecting it from the insults and ravages of PIRATES, with other numberless instances of the Divine beneficence: And all servile labor is prohibited on the said Day.


Fabricating the Feast

Can there be any other holiday more closely associated with women than Thanksgiving? Forget the quasi-mythical “First Thanksgiving”, for which we only have references to men fowling and feasting–after that it’s all about women. What emerged as a New England tradition in the early nineteenth century was transformed into a national holiday through the intense efforts of author and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, eventually resulting in Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. Several other New England ladies contributed to this effort, including Lydia Maria Child, whose “Over the River and through the Wood” we traditionally associate with Christmas but was first published in 1844 as “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving”. Successive presidents followed Lincoln’s precedent until 1941, when Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as a permanent Thanksgiving holiday. In the interim, a major medium for the adoption of a national harvest holiday seems to have been women’s magazines, chief among them Hale’s own Godey’s Ladies Book and later Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal (and Practical Housekeeper), (The) House Beautiful, and even Harper’s Bazaar. There was definitely a bit of culinary imperialism at work here: the ideal Thanksgiving menu published in Hale’s first novel, Northwood, was Yankee fare (cranberries!), but as turkey assumed the center stage (pushing out the very popular chicken pot pie and assorted other fowl) regional dishes could be assimilated as “sides”. And need I even say it? Women were making all those Thanksgiving feasts.

Thanksgiving HP 1894

Thanksgiving 1895 Bradley

Thanksgiving LHJ 1897-98

Thanksgiving 1904 Puck

Thanksgiving Pictorial Review 1906 Cover

Bearing Thanksgiving HP 1914

Thanksgiving gh 1937

Fabricating a very FEMININE Thanksgiving in the popular print media, 1894-1937: 1894-95 covers by Louis John Rhead and William H. Bradley, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Ladies’ Home Journal Thanksgiving covers for 1897 and 1898; 1904 Puck Magazine cover, Library of Congress;  Pictorial Review and Ullman Manufacturing calendar page for November 1906; Harpers Bazaar and Good Housekeeping covers, 1914 and 1937, Library of Congress and Good Housekeeping archive.


Thanksgiving Colors

We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.

Thanksgiving 001

This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.

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Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.

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Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.

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White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.

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My favorite childhood painting.

Thanksgiving Colors 002

Back home; sunny Sunday.


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