The Proof is in the Pudding: Food in 18th Century Boston

Visitors to the second floor Hands on History rooms at the Old State House will find a new display among the timelines and reproduction clock. Our Hands on History Board is all about colonial food this fall, and we’d like to share a “taste” of this history with our blog readers.

A new Hands on History interactive in the museum this fall teaches younger audiences about the midday meal of three 18th century Bostonians: Jeffrey Hartwell, Jane Franklin Mecom, and John Hancock. The ingredients, menus, and objects associated with these meals differed depending on social rank, race, gender, and education. An effective way to understand some of these differences is to look at a common dish among our three Bostonians: pudding.  

It is important to note Boston’s understanding of “pudding” has changed. In 18th century Boston, a pudding most commonly referred to a batter that was steamed or boiled for several hours. Both sweet and savoury puddings were consumed by colonial Bostonians. In their simplest forms, these dishes consisted of easily obtainable ingredients, and recipes could be adjusted based on what ingredients were available at a given time. We’ll take a look at three pudding recipes: hasty pudding, rice pudding, and plum pudding to see what they can tell us about how different Bostonians ate in the 18th century.

To make a flour hasty pudding
Take a quart of milk, and four bayleaves, set it on the fire to boil, beat up the yolks of two eggs, and stir in a little salt. Take two or three spoonfuls of milk and beat up with your eggs, and stir in your milk, then with a wooden spoon in one hand, and the flour in the other, stir it in till it is of a good thickness, but not too thick. Let it boil, and keep it stirring, then pour it into a dish, and stick pieces of butter here and there. You may omit the egg if you don’t like it; but it is a great addition to the pudding, and a little piece of butter stirred in the milk makes it eat short and fine. Take out the bay leaves before you put in the flour.
(Primitive Cookery, or the Kitchen Garden Display’d. London: J Williams, 1767. 53-4)

Hasty pudding, named for the relative ease and speed with which it can be cooked, was a common pudding in colonial America. As a member of the lower sort in 18th century Boston, Jeffrey Hartwell would likely have eaten this throughout his life as a slave, a soldier, and later a farmer. In its most basic form, hasty pudding is oats, cornmeal, or in the case of this recipe, flour, boiled in milk or water until thick. Hasty pudding was often eaten warm like porridge or set out to harden and dry before consumption. Though this recipe is a savory one, it could have been sweetened with molasses.

To make a rice pudding
Take a quarter of a pound of rice, put it into a sauce-pan, with a quart of new milk, a stick of cinnamon, stir it often, to keep it from sticking to the sauce-pan.When it has boiled thick, pour it into a pan, stir in a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, and sugar to your palate; grate in half a nutmeg, add three or four spoonfuls of rose-water, and stir all well together; when it is cold, beat up eight eggs, with half the whites, beat it all well together, butter a dish, and pour it in and bake it. You may lay a puff-paste first all over the dish; for change, put in a few currants and sweet-meats, if you chuse it.
(Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy; which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published. London: 1747. 211.)

This recipe for rice pudding is one that Jane Franklin Mecom could have made for her family or boarders at her house. Jane, a landlady and the widow of a saddlemaker, was of the middling sort in colonial Boston. Ingredients in this pudding, like spices, sugar, or rosewater, and the cookware supplies needed to make it, reflect that Jane could afford some things more regularly than Bostonians of the lower sort. Unlike the other two puddings described here, this one is very similar to our 21st century understanding of pudding because it is prepared in a saucepan and baked in a dish.

An excellent Plumb Pudding
One pound of suet, the same of currants, the same of raisins stoned, the yolks of eight eggs, the whites of four, the crumb of a penny-loaf grated, one pound of flower, half a nutmeg, a tea-spoonful of grated ginger, a little salt, a small glass of brandy; beat the eggs first, mix them with some milk; by degrees add the flower and other ingredients, and what more milk may be necessary; it must be very thick and well stirred; boil it five hours.
(Mason, Charlotte. The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her Table. London: J. Walter, 1777. 346.)

Finally, the most elaborate pudding recipe- in terms of preparation and ingredients- would have been consumed by someone of the better sort, like John Hancock. The batter contains more expensive ingredients like sweetmeats and spices and it would have been wrapped in a cloth, then boiled, as the recipe states, for about 5 hours. Slices of the warm pudding were commonly served with a sweet sauce.

So while many Bostonians ate pudding, the flavor, preparation, and ingredients of these dishes often depended on their class, gender, and race. The same can be said for many dishes. If you are interested in learning more about 18th century foodways, we recommend Savoring the Past, a blog by Jas. Townsend and Son Inc. They make colonial recipes and ingredients accessible to modern audiences. For example, watch their video to see how plum pudding is made. Happy cooking!