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.)
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.
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.
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.