I’m not looking to lead anyone astray. The picture to the left of steamy Indian Pudding flavored with molasses and spices is not Mary Randolph’s recipe. Rather, it is a version of Indian Pudding I whipped up after Randolph’s recipe failed spectacularly. You see, I have fond memories of Indian Pudding. Growing up, we would almost always visit J.R. Maxwell’s in Bath, Maine, for any and all life cycle commemorations. Of course, by the time my parents moved away from the area, I was rather tired of Maxwell’s offerings. But now I harbor fond memories of the clam chowder, cheese sticks, escargot, prime rib, and other favorites. My first encounter with Indian Pudding was at Maxwell’s when my mother ordered Ed’s Indian Pudding for dessert. I was somewhat perplexed by the idea of a dessert based on cornmeal, but my mom shared a bite, and it was delicious! There was a slight bite from the cornmeal, the eggs and milk combined to form a custard, and the spices and molasses provided sweetness and excitement. Topped with melting vanilla ice cream, Indian Pudding is a tried and true New England staple.
Randolph’s recipe did not meet my expectations, which, admittedly, were high. When I gathered the ingredients (cornmeal, milk, eggs, and molasses), I suspected it would not. I was also nervous about my first foray into boiled pudding. When I unwrapped after the recommended boiling time, clearly a fair amount of water had seeped into the cloth. This wasn’t unexpected; I knew my tying method needed work. However, when I tasted the pudding I knew I would not be improving my method with another attempt at this recipe. The pudding tastes overwhelmingly of cornmeal with the faintest whisper of molasses. Below is the final result.
The result bore little resemblance to the Indian Pudding of my memories. Hence the need to create a different recipe to relieve my hankering for the dessert. Historical recipes don’t always come out. That’s part of the fun and frustration of working with them. While I don’t recommend trying Randolph’s Indian Pudding,* it still provides an opportunity to think more deeply about the dish’s origins.
The name might suggest Indian Pudding derived from Native foodways. Popular histories sometimes describe the dish’s origins as a combination of cornmeal and maple syrup baked in earth ovens and adapted by colonists. This was simply not the case. Rather, Indian Pudding is an example of Native-colonial collaboration. It connects with both British and Native foodways of the pre-colonial and colonial eras. The Indian Pudding contained in Randolph’s cookbook and others of the period and before is clearly an English culinary export: a baked or boiled pudding prepared with cornmeal (called Indian meal by English colonists who still used “corn” as a generic term for any grain) rather than the usual flour, oats, or breadcrumbs. Some nineteenth-century recipes make this origin clear by using the title “Indian Meal Pudding.”
There is a connection between Indian Pudding and Native American foodways. Many tribes produced cornmeal mushes, sometimes sweetened with maple syrup or fortified with fortified with fat, and occasionally baked before the fire. From a Native perspective, Indian Pudding could also be viewed as adapting newly available ingredients like milk, eggs, molasses, spices, and new cooking technology (ovens) to typical Native dishes. Native American cookbooks published in the twentieth century include versions of Indian Pudding combining traditional ingredients and European culinary imports. In truth both colonists and Natives were innovating with new ingredients by incorporating them into familiar dishes.
The failure of early wheat crops in the New World forced colonists to embrace corn. While corn was a staple in Chesapeake diets, wheat production developed much earlier in this region of the United States than in New England. Here the prevalence of mildew rust on wheat crops and the expense of transporting wheat meant wheat flour was costly. Sandy Oliver reports that in the Chesapeake region, “the gentry ate wheat bread, and the poor and slaves ate corn in various forms.” Although cornmeal was a cornerstone of American diets during this period, Randolph offers just four recipes to prepare it: baked and boiled Indian Pudding, Corn Meal Bread, and Mush. Randolph’s privileged background could offer an explanation for her flavorless Indian Pudding recipes. It likely was not a dish she frequently served and, therefore, did not take the time to perfect.
Looking at her contemporaries, there appears to be evidence Indian Pudding was already something of a regional dish. Sarah Josepha Hale and Eliza Leslie, two influential cookbook authors of the period, both hailing from Philadelphia, did not include recipes for Indian Pudding in their cookbooks. However, cookbooks published in Boston and Worcester by Lydia Maria Child, Esther Allen Howland, and N.K.M Lee contain versions much closer to the Indian Pudding of my memories. Since wheat was costly in New England, most cooks saved it for fine cakes and pastry for special occasions. Everyday baking relied on proprietary blends of rye flour, Indian (corn) meal, and small amounts of wheat flour. The widespread use of the grain possibly provided greater impetus to turn the simple cornmeal pudding into something delicious, and explains the larger allowance of molasses and the addition of spice in the New England versions.
In this instance, I have chosen not to modernize Randolph’s recipe since merely updating the ingredients and method would result in a tasteless pudding. Making the pudding flavorful would require too many changes and would not be a modernized version of a historical recipe. Instead, I offer you a modernized version of Indian Pudding from The American Frugal Housewife. This recipe provides a better sense of how Indian Pudding was enjoyed in the nineteenth century. It contains a hefty serving of molasses along with salt and spice to add interest. Try it with melted butter as was the common topping in the nineteenth century, or follow the lead of present-day Indian Pudding lovers and top it with vanilla ice cream.
Baked Indian Pudding
Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (1838), p. 61.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 4 cups milk
- 2/3 cup cornmeal
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 ½ teaspoon ground ginger or cinnamon
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F and grease a 1 ½ – 2 quart baking dish.
2. Heat the milk until simmering. Stir in the cornmeal, slowly to prevent lumps.
3. Bring to a boil and, stirring constantly, cook until thick. About five minutes.
4. Add the salt, molasses, and spice. Stir well. (If you would like a custard-like top on your pudding, pour a little cold milk over the pudding before baking.)
5. Turn into the prepared pan and bake until the center is firm (the pudding should still quiver slightly when the dish is shaken).
Serve warm or cold. Historically, it was served with melted butter. I recommend warm with vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 6-8 servings
For a version making use of that modern convenience, the slow cooker, try this recipe from Plimouth Plantation.
* It’s doubtful to me this recipe would work. Perhaps someone with more experience with boiled puddings could get a better result, but I suspect there is too much liquid in the batter. Most other nineteenth-century recipes for boiled pudding call for a much stiffer batter. Equally important, there is too little flavoring for the pudding to taste good. Cornmeal is bland. It needs molasses, spices, and salt to make the dish tasty.
 Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 145.
Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838).
Mrs. S.J. Hale, The Good Housekeeper, or The Way to Live Well and Be Well While We Live (Boston: Weeks, Jordan and Company, 1839).
Mrs. E.A. Howland, The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Worcester: W. Allen, 1845. Worcester: S.A. Howland, 1847).
Miss Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1840),
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 33, 39-40
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 206-7.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 317-318.