History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Indian Pudding, or How to Fight Hunger 200 Years Ago

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Today is World Food Day.  It’s a day of advocacy for the many organizations around the globe working to end hunger and to better nutrition among vulnerable populations.  This year’s theme is Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.

Among many today, improving food security and nutrition go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on local food systems.  DC’s FRESHFARM Markets school program, FoodPrints builds school gardens and then incorporates gardening and cooking into the school curriculum.  DC Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen is, among other projects, building a school garden and a school kitchen, featuring clean stoves, in Palmiste Tampe, Haiti.  Eating food raised locally, we now believe, helps to combat hunger and malnutrition by increasing access to healthy food and exciting people (especially kids) about eating vegetables and fruit.  It also reduces the environmental impact of transporting food, among other things.  Local, many in food circles today think, is where it’s at.

Not a couple hundreds years ago.  Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, was one of the leading food philanthropists of the 1790s and early 1800s.  Born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753, Thompson had remained loyal to the British Crown when the American Revolution came.  His loyalism was not popular with his neighbors, and Thompson, like many thousands of other Loyalists, left his natal land.  Thompson served in the British Army and, in time, got a gig with the Elector of Bavaria, who ennobled him as Count Rumford.  First charged with reforming the Bavarian army, Rumford’s duties grew to include reforming poor relief in Munich.  He succeeded – though the poor folks eating his famous, very thin soup might have had different views on what constitutes success – and Rumford wrote a book describing his program and offering his thoughts on fighting hunger more generally.

No local approach for him.  Global was the way to go.  “Those whose avocations” or “fortune” led them to travel “have many opportunities of acquiring useful information from abroad,” he thought.  And the well-to-do too were lucky in having access to new foodstuffs from around the world.  The rich, he believed, had an obligation to introduce the cheap and nutritious foods they discovered to their poorer compatriots and to share knowledge of how to prepare them.

One food, in particular, Rumford thought, deserved to be better known.  Indian corn – maize – was “beyond comparison the most nourishing, cheapest, and most wholesome” food “that can be procured for feeding the Poor,” he gushed.  He helpfully included several Indian pudding recipes in an entire chapter of his book devoted to the topic.  Now typically a dessert, Indian pudding – a cornmeal mush generally sweetened with molasses and sometimes maple syrup – was in Rumford’s day a staple of New Englander’s meals.  It was a staple he missed dearly in his European exile.  The local dimensions of his global approach to addressing hunger may have something in common with today’s movement after all.

Hats off to all of Rumford’s latter-day colleagues.  There is no cause more worthy than ending hunger on our bounteous planet.

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One thought on “Indian Pudding, or How to Fight Hunger 200 Years Ago

  1. Pingback: Indian Pudding, or What’s in a Name? | History's Just Desserts

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