Ah, Burlington Vermont, the land of indulgences – Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Magic Hat Brewery, and the psychedelic band Phish. But apparently it’s also home to another regional dish – one that’s not made the national notoriety that these three brands have. It’s a dessert dish served traditionally at Thanksgiving and it’s called Indian Pudding.
I do business with a delightful design firm in Burlington, Vermont, where everyone that can grows a scruffy beard or sports a man-bun. They all have an outdoor hobby, whether it be hiking, rock climbing, or extreme mud running. When asked what would be on their Thanksgiving table this year, my colleagues turned me on to this regional fave.
Indian Pudding is served all over New England at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Virtually unknown outside of that area – it’s not the prettiest of desserts, with what some call a baby-poop looking consistency. Athough it’s appearance doesn’t dazzle, its warm, comforting, and apparently, very delicious. It’s frequently topped with vanilla ice cream that melts and forms a moat around the edge. Bring in the Ben & Jerry’s Phish flavor. For this reason, in some areas of New England, it’s sometimes called “Heaven and Hell.” There is even a National Indian Pudding Day on November 13th every year.
Despite it’s name, it is not a Native American dish. The colonial era Indians had neither milk nor molasses to use in their cooking, both of which are components of Indian pudding. It’s based on Hasty Pudding, a centuries old English dish that consisted of slow cooking milk, flour and sugar, until it became a thick porridge. In colonial America flour was hard to find, so Hasty Pudding deprived colonitsts used local cornmeal instead. The pilgrims called cornmeal ‘Indian meal’ and thus the pudding’s name. Printed references to hasty pudding in England date to 1599, while Indian pudding recipes start appearing in American cookbooks in 1796.
Some diehard New Englanders might say “Suck it, pumpkin pie!” with a preference for Indian pudding at their respective holiday tables. And, as right they should – it has a Northeastern heritage that predates colonial times and the first Thanksgiving. It’s legacy is referenced in a verse of the early American song “Yankee Doodle”, referring to the colonial era militia drill days:
Fath’r and I went down to camp
Along with Captain Goodin’]
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty puddin’
The first colonists in Virginia stepped off the boat with a love of British Hasty pudding. In the early American colonies, this dish was also known as Indian Mush, and Indian Meal. Although originally a sweetened cornmeal mush with maple syrup or molasses, in time, the dish evolved into one that was resoundingly sweet, with lots of molasses and other ingredients like butter, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, eggs, and sometimes even raisins or nuts. There’s even a savory version of the dish, flavored with drippings or salted meat.
Because New England was a stop in the “Triangle Trade” route of the 18th century, New Englanders found themselves with an abundance of molasses on their hands. Molasses is a by-product of distilling sugar into rum. The “Triangle Trade,” was when slaves were shipped across the Atlantic from Africa, then sugar cane was shipped to New England to be distilled into rum, and finally rum was sent back to Africa.
In 1662, John Winthrop, Jr., son of John Wilthrop (1588-1649), first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote the following about the pudding in his letter to the royal Society in London. (reprinted in New England Quarterly Vol. X No.1  p.121-133):
. . . this is to be boyled or Stued with a gentle fire, till it be tender, of a fitt consistence, as of Rice so boyled, into which Milke, or butter be put either with Sugar or without it, it is a food very pleasant. . . but it must be observed that it be very well boyled, the longer the better, some will let it be stuing the whole day: after it is Cold it groweth thicker, and is commonly Eaten by mixing a good Quantity of Milke amongst it. . .
In 1795, a society called the Hasty Pudding club was organized by twenty-one Harvard College students. The club’s purpose was to encourage “friendship and patriotism.” Its constitution stipulated that every Saturday, two “providers” were to carry a pot of hasty pudding to the meeting. For the majority of the 19th century, prospective members were forced to ingest large quantities of hasty pudding. According to Harvard University historians, the club was founded by students who sought relief from the food the college provided by cooking their own hasty puddings in fireplace pots. With this ritual, the Hasty Pudding Club found it namesake. Today it is the nations oldest theater company, which annually puts on a fabulous spring production starring men in drag. Prominent members of the Harvard Hasty Pudding Club were J. P. Morgan, John Quincy Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and even our hometown Speaker of the House, Nicholas Longworth III.
Some restaurants in New England still serve the dish year round, like the Wayside Inn in Waterbury, Massacheustts, and the Dirgin Park Inn in Boston, both of whose recipes are coveted by afficianados of the pudding. Although it sounds wonderful, and I love the colonial history, I don’t think it will ever replace our revered spiced pumpkin pie, or my sister’s delicious strawberry bread at the Thanksgiving table.