Let’s clear this up from the start: the American natives mistakenly identified as “Indians” when Columbus arrived in the “New World” did not make “Indian Pudding.” Well, not exactly. The old-fashioned dessert that goes by that name, which young and old, especially in New England, have enjoyed since Colonial times, is based on cornmeal. And corn, cultivated by natives of North and South America since 4000 B.C., is the Americas’ great gift to the world.
Indians of virtually all tribes cooked cornmeal in countless ways, including sofkee (today you can pay a lot of money for this cornmeal porridge in upscale Italian restaurants where it’s known as polenta). Sofkee was occasionally sweetened with maple syrup or honey, sometimes enriched by the addition of a little fat (often bear fat), or polka-dotted with sweet dried or fresh blueberries or other fruit. The British colonists, homesick for the sweets they had left behind, turned this general idea into what became known as Indian Pudding. “Indian,” at the time, was shorthand for “cornmeal.” (Many old recipes call for “1 cup indian,” with a lowercase i).
At first the colonists cooked it over an open fire, but once ovens were built, once chickens and cows brought from abroad began to thrive, once molasses and spices became commonly traded foodstuffs, Indian Pudding’s character began to change. It went from basic, to good, to very good, to—today, enriched by all we have—impossibly delicious when served slightly warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
By Crescent Dragonwagon, a food writer in Saxton’s River, Vt.