History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Indian Pudding, or What’s in a Name?


On World Food Day, I wrote about Count Rumford, a forerunner of today’s food philanthropists, and one of the dishes he advocated to alleviate hunger in the 1790s, Indian pudding.

What’s Indian pudding?, a devoted follower asked.

Early New Englanders would have been astonished by the question.  Indian pudding is a custard made with cornmeal, molasses, and milk and was a staple of their diet.  Abigail and John Adams ate it daily, typically before their meat and vegetable course.  Today it is more often served as a dessert, but it’s not an overly sweet dish and, as Saveur magazine suggests, it would make a nice Thanksgiving side dish.  (Certainly, Indian pudding is less sweet than that mainstay of our harvest holiday meal, sweet potatoes with marshmallow.)

Indian pudding is a delicious dish, with a deep molasses flavor.  It’s a perfect warming treat when there’s a nip in the air.  Another plus is that it bakes for about three hours.  That’s great if you are feeling both chilly and guilty for considering turning up the thermostat.  Make Indian pudding and, I assure you, your home will get nice and toasty.

I’m betting you’d like to try this comfort food yourself, so I’ll give you my grandmother’s recipe.  In exchange, I’d like you to vote below on the name.

Bessie Webb Moniz’s Indian Pudding

5 c. milk

2/3 c. dark molasses

1/3 c. sugar

1/2 c. yellow cornmeal

1 tsp. salt

3/4 tsp. cinnamon

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 c. butter, cut in small pieces

Preheat oven to 300°.

Bring a pot partially filled with water to a simmer.

In a separate small pot, scald 4 c. milk.

Pour scalded milk into a bowl that can be set over the simmering water.  Add remaining ingredients, except the remaining cold milk.

Cook over hot water 20 minutes or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly.

Turn into baking dish.

Add 1 c. cold milk, but do not stir.

Bake at 300 for 3 hours without stirring until the pudding is set.

Serve warm with heavy cream, hard sauce or ice cream.

My grandmother also noted at the bottom of the recipe card she gave my mother, “Better cut recipe in half and also cut cooking time a little.  The top of my double boiler is a bowl, so I get by with only one dish to wash.  You can reheat this over hot water.”  (She’s right, it’s a big recipe.  But it keeps well for a few days and, in spite of what she says about reheating, it’s very good at room temperature too.  Oh, and I served it with apple cider caramel sauce.)

Now about the name.  English colonists in North America called maize – the staple grain of the native diet – “Indian corn,” and the name “Indian pudding” followed.

Is the name insensitive?  Should it be renamed?  I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the traditional name and a few alternatives.  You vote.  (Remember, we made a bargain.)

Indian Pudding

The name doesn’t strike me as offensive in the way that the name of Washington’s professional football does, but the term “Indian” evokes stereotyped images of diverse native peoples.  (Paradoxically, the early European settlers well appreciated the political differences among their native neighbors and used them in forming military alliances.)  On the other hand, the traditional name captures important history.  Europeans did learn about maize and other foods from the first Americans and did develop new dishes based on that cultural exchange.

Native Pudding

Sometimes this name is used in place of the original.  On the plus side, it avoid the term “Indian.”  But it suggests, I think, that native peoples created the pudding, which is not the case.  English colonists, culinary historians believe, adapted their familiar “hasty puddings” – made with flour, oats, or other grains and milk or water  – based on ingredients they encountered in the New World.  Calling it native pudding leaves an inaccurate impression, in my view.

Atlantic Pudding

This name (which I came up with!) has much to recommend it.  Molasses, as central an ingredient to the pudding as the cornmeal, is a product of the Atlantic world.  Indeed, sugar and molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) are the quintessential Atlantic world products.  What’s the Atlantic world, you wonder?  It’s a way that historians understand and explore the interconnected development of the societies around the Atlantic basin in the centuries after Columbus’s voyage.  Sugar was of paramount importance in creating the Atlantic world.  Produced in the French, Spanish, and British West Indies by African slaves, sugar was shipped mainly to European consumers.  North Americans belonged to this Atlantic world too.  New Englanders supplied the West Indian islands with equipment and foodstuffs for the sugar plantations, and they imported molasses – to distill into rum and to sweeten food – in return.  “Atlantic pudding” captures that history.  On the con side, it evokes the brutal slave trade and slavery that made the Atlantic sugar complex possible.  We should remember that history, but perhaps the dessert course isn’t the most palatable time to consider it?

Maize, Molasses, and Milk Pudding

Straightforward, informative, and alliterative.  But this name lacks, oh, I don’t know, any sort of charm.

Your votes, please.  Comments and other suggestions are more than welcome too.


26 thoughts on “Indian Pudding, or What’s in a Name?

  1. I am totally going to make this. (Does it ever have apples in it, or am I making that up?)

  2. I love your style. “dessert isn’t the most palatable time…..” Did you get any voters re: the name?

    We’re going to Gail’s house for t.giving. Maybe I’ll make this-add a little Moniz to our dinner.

    Love kl

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Yum, must make this. Thanks for sharing your family recipe!

    Coincidentally, James Gilchrist Swan, whom I wrote about in my blog post today on eating crow, gives this recipe for a variation of Indian pudding called fisherman’s pudding:

    “Cut some salt pork up fine, and fry it slightly in the kettle or pot you wish to make the pudding in; then add some boiling water, and stir in as much molasses as will make it pretty sweet. This is then put on the fire, and, while boiling, Indian meal is to be gently sifted in with one hand, and well stirred in at the same time with a spoon till the whole acquires the proper consistency, and then, after a puff or two, it is cooked. A hungry man can soon tell whether it tastes good or not. I always found that the fisherman’s pudding was well liked by every one who partook of it, whether white men or Indians.”
    — Jame Gilchrist Swan, The Northwest Coast (1857)

    • My pleasure! I suspect Indian pudding will be new to your Parisian neighbors. Do tell if any of them try it.

      Now the fisherman’s pudding, in contrast to the crow, sounds pretty good.

  4. I have a write-in vote, Amanda. Wampanoag Pudding! (I’m a Mayflower descendant.) I’ve been making Indian Pudding for years, I’d have a difficult time adjusting to a name change! 😀

  5. I must admit, until you wrote about Indian pudding recently, I hadn’t thought of it in years. I think I’ll add it to our dessert menu this year.

  6. My mother-in-law really wants us to try Indian Pudding for Thanksgiving, so this post is perfectly timed. I like Atlantic Pudding, but what about Tasty Pudding, a play on hasty pudding?

  7. Thank you for posting the history and recipe. This is my husband’s favorite dessert when it is served with vanilla ice cream. It is still served at Durgin Park in Boston as “Indian Pudding”.

    • I don’t know if the name Atlantic Pudding will catch on but does seems to have a few adherents!

    • Growing up in New England, this was always a staple at our Thanksgiving, usually with a scoop of Breyer’s Vanilla melting down into it slowly. Now that I’ve been transplanted to Virginia (I’ve actually lived here longer, now), I’ve continued to make it every year. Good old fashioned Yankee food, like a lot of what they serve at Durgin Park . . . as Yankee as baked beans and codfish cakes on Saturday night, or the saying “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day.” 🙂

      • I have New England roots too and we’re having the same thing at our Thanksgiving this year. Growing up, Wednesday was our spaghetti day. It’s good to know regionalism is alive and well. Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Amanda, this looks wonderful — I must try! Also, will let you know when we post video of you (which I still haven’t seen) and when we’re doing story on cooking with/teaching kids. I’ve had a few interruptions but it’s still coming.

    Warm regards, Carol American Food Roots

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  11. How about Pilgrim pudding?

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  13. I love Indian Pudding! I’m making it for a work potluck this week and came across this post. I didn’t know the Adams were fans!

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