I don't remember when I first encountered "Indian pudding." Derived from the Colonial name for cornmeal - "Indian meal" - it's an iconic dish of New England, though it isn't often made anymore. Combining Indigenous foodways, European cooking techniques, and molasses, a ubiquitous sweetener made cheap by the brutal labor of enslaved Africans, Indian pudding reflected the kind of stick-to-your-ribs cooking common in the Colonial period when people ate less frequently and engaged in harder labor, and with less access to heating than they do today.
The above advertisement by Sun-maid Raisins from 1918 is a good illustration of this. "Note How Plain Foods Become Enticing," the ad reads, showing how Indian Pudding could be spiced up with raisins, and then goes on to show just how inexpensive raisins were. Historically, raisins were rather expensive, and had to be stoned (remove the seeds) by hand, a labor-intensive step that continued until the early 20th century. By the time Sun-maid is advertising in 1918, you no longer had to stone raisins - they came seedless. Clearly Sun-maid was trying to convince people that raisins were a more economical purchase than previously believed. Also, the use of Indian Pudding to illustrate the "plain foods" shows how it was viewed by most Americans at that time - plain, cheap, and filling. Indian pudding also fit nicely into rationing suggestions to use less sugar, refined white flour, and fats. With its ingredients of cornmeal and molasses, Indian pudding fit the bill.
I first ran across a recipe for Apple Indian Pudding when researching the history of the Farm Cadets in New York State. The article right next to it was about the establishment of the Farm Cadet Corps under the State Military Training commission. Published in the Buffalo Evening News on April 19, 1917, just two weeks after the United States entered the war, it was included as part of a column called "Lucy Lincoln's Talks" and was one of many recipes. Although the United States Food Administration was not yet formed and no rationing recommendations had been issued, President Wilson had been publicly discussing the role of food in the war effort.
Throughout the First World War, the United States Food Administration and home economists hearkened back to the Colonial period for several reasons. First, it appealed to Americans' sense of patriotism. Following the American Civil War, Northern reformers made a concerted effort to re-unite the nation and define what it meant to be American. Thanks to the unconscious bias of white supremacy, that idea became closely connected to New England and the mythology around the Pilgrims and the founding of the nation (despite the fact that Spanish Florida, Virginia, parts of Canada, and even New York had been settled earlier).
Second, hearkening back to the Colonial period allowed ration supporters to encourage the substitution of non-rationed food items like cornmeal and molasses which had deep Colonial roots, for rationed foods like refined white flour and refined white sugar, which were needed for the war effort. Third, these ingredients were often very inexpensive. By connecting them to the honored founders of the country, food reformers could convince middle and upper class people to eat what may have been previously only associated with the poor and working class, in the name of patriotism.
Despite the lack of actual rationing recommendations at this point, the recipe for Apple Indian Pudding would have fit very nicely into the requirements. It used cornmeal, which saved wheat. It used molasses and apples for sweetener, which saved sugar. It used two quarts of milk, which would help use up the milk surplus and add protein. It was also extremely inexpensive and filling, which meant it had appeal for folks on a budget or with large families. The recipe does, however, call for 1/3 cup of butter, which would become one of the recommended ration items in just a few months.
Apple Indian Pudding Recipe
I have made Indian Pudding before for a talk, and it's lovelier than you'd think. Here's the original recipe:
"Scald 2 quarts of milk in a double boiler. Sprinkle in 1 cup of Indian meal, stirring all the time, and cook 45 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the fire, add 1/3 cup of butter, 1 cup of molasses, 2 teaspoons of salt, 1/2 teaspoon each of ginger and grated nutmeg, and 1 quart of pared, cored, and quartered apples. Turn into a buttered baking dish and bake three hours in a slow oven."
And here's a modern translation:
8 cups (or a half gallon) whole milk
1 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup butter
1 cup molasses
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 300 F. In a double boiler or heavy-bottomed pot, heat the milk, but do not boil. Once hot, slowly whisk in the cornmeal and cook, stirring frequently, for 30-45 mins or until the cornmeal is fully cooked and has absorbed the milk. Remove from heat and while hot, stir in the butter, molasses, salt, and spices. Peel, core, and slice the apples thickly. Stir the apple slices into the cornmeal mixture, and tip it all into a buttered glass or ceramic baking dish. Place in the oven and let bake for 3 hours, uncovered. Serve hot or warm plain (ration-friendly) or with vanilla ice cream or unsweetened liquid cream (not-so ration-friendly).
Although the original recipe calls for quartered apples, most modern apples are very large, and a quarter might be too big, which is why I suggest slicing them instead.
If you're in an area of the world that gets cold in the fall and winter, Apple Indian Pudding is the perfect, homey dessert to attempt on a day when you'll be puttering around the kitchen or the house all day. Pop some baked beans in with it if you really want a traditional New England supper (and a ration-friendly one!). It really does take three whole hours to bake (other versions included steaming like plum pudding), but the long, slow heat turns the normally crunchy cornmeal into melting softness. There's a reason why it's still so popular in New England.
If you want to know more about the history of Indian Pudding, including how to make a historic recipe, check out my lecture below!
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.