March 09, 2011

How Tough Is Your Indian Pudding?

As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of Indian pudding. I can’t get enough of that spicy/sweet/mealy dessert!

If you don’t know what Indian pudding is and are embarrassed to ask, it’s a Colonial-era pudding made from corn meal, molasses, spices, salt, milk and usually eggs. It's named Indian pudding because the Puritans called corn meal “Indian meal.”

A post I wrote two years ago still gets lots of hits, so clearly there are other fans of Indian pudding out there. Rejoice, Indian pudding fans. Today’s post is for you!

Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known as an abolitionist and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but this Connecticut native wrote several other novels. Some of them contain interesting pieces of New England folklore. For example, her 1859 novel The Minister’s Wooing is set in Newport, Rhode Island and contains this cryptic piece of dialogue. It’s uttered by a young woman discussing her skills as a potential wife:

“I’ve been practicing on my pudding now these six years, and I shouldn’t be afraid to throw one up chimney with any girl.”

I like how she says “up chimney”, rather than “up the chimney.” It reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d ask my mother where Dad was. Ninety percent of the time her answer was “Down cellar!”, which is a New England way of saying down in the basement.

Watch out for the pudding! Photo from a site about the history of chimneys.

However, I wasn’t alive in 1859 so I don’t understand why girls would be throwing puddings up the chimney. Well, according to Mrs. Stowe there was a tradition that “no young lady was fit to be married till she could construct a boiled Indian-pudding of such consistency that it could be thrown up chimney and come down on the ground, outside, without breaking.” The Minister’s Wooing is actually set in the 1790s, so Stowe is describing something that was probably told to her by her parents or grandparents.

Was this an actual tradition, or did someone pull a fast one on Harriet? I might say she’s the one pulling a hoax on her readers, but that seems unlikely because she seems very sincere in her devotion to Indian pudding. At one point in the novel she rhapsodizes about its “gelatinous softness, matured by long and patient brooding in the motherly old oven.” I don’t think someone who wrote that would knowingly lie to us!

On the other hand, that same softness she raves about would seem to preclude throwing it up and out a chimney. Wouldn’t it need to be really bouncy and tough to survive that? To settle this question, I’d ask my readers with fireplaces to give this a try. To make things easier, boil your pudding in a bag or maybe cheesecloth, like the characters in The Minister’s Wooing do. They don’t bake it in a dish. Perhaps that’s the secret to a bouncy pudding?

I wish I could say I unearthed this crazy factoid myself, but I actually read it in America’s Founding Food: the Story of New England Cooking by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald. It’s a great book!


Rhea said...

I love Indian Pudding, too. I made some the other day but wasn't crazy about the recipe. I will try again.

Peter Muise said...

Rhea - Let me know if you make one that can bounce!


R. Black said...

It was actually known as Hasty Pudding before the 18th century, and was made with corn meal, salt, and water. It makes for a tough corn biscuit when it drys out! The 18th century recipe is much better and we make it at Christmas.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment, Ron!