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June 2001 Issue

 

The most plebian of kitchen tools are sometimes the hardest to identify. The pudding stick, or mush stick, is a great example of the need to work out the puzzle by coordinating a surprising variety of sources that encompasses old recipes, songs, literature, trade catalogs, researches of earlier collectors, and the artifacts themselves.

Eliza Leslie tells us in her 1848 recipe, that when making Indian Mush, "you should use your pudding stick." And then, in her usual informative style, she tells us she means "a round stick flattened at one end. This is clearly not a spoon, the implement she recommends in her recipe for "Flour Hasty Pudding." That pudding, incidentally, was the ancestral stirred pudding or porridge that evolved into the New World version made with Indian, or cornmeal, and here called either Indian Pudding or Mush.

Why then did the colonial Hasty Pudding require a special implement? And what was it? And why the reference to haste?

Clearly it was not a rare or high-status kind of kitchen folk art. It has not commanded exorbitant prices at auction, or been the subject of important museum exhibitions. Leslie’s tip gets us going in an interesting direction, but falls short of the kind of carved pieces with ancient motifs. Rather, it seems a plain-Jane cousin.

Her slightly broader flattened end suggests a slim paddle, a more efficient stirrer-pot scraper than a spoon. It was somewhat rounded at the tip, like a spoon, and but a more useful scraper that could prevent the porridge from scorching against the pot. As boiling kettles were round-bottomed and had no corners to catch and burn food, the stirring was easy. Indeed, as Leslie recommends three or four hours of cooking for the best flavor and digestibility, the fireside or wood stove cook would would surely benefit from some mechanical advantage in stirring that thickening mass. But why not use a spoon?

A search of books on antique woodenware shows that pudding sticks have largely been ignored, but not entirely. For example, one of the bibles on early woodenware, Edward Pinto’s Treen or Small Woodware Throughout The Ages (London, 1949) does not list them. But Mary Earle Gould describes one in her Early American Wooden Ware, (Vermont, 1971), and even produces a photograph. She shows a long handle with a somewhat "short head" with a rounded edge. It’s a slender sort of tool, and only different from a long wooden spoon in that, as expected, the tip is barely wider than the long handle and totally flat. The long handle implies that this was a hearth tool, that people were reaching into the heat to stir and needed to maintain some distance. Morse suggests that young people took turns at stirring the hasty pudding, commentating that it was a long and arduous job that belied its name. And yet, in comparison with the boiled puddings that sometimes cooked for eight or ten hours, this process may truly have seemed quick.

One wonders if pudding sticks were strictly American. Pudding ancestry was to be found in English food history. Hasty Pudding had been "an English standby for centuries" (Dorothy Hartley, London,1954), and brought to the colonies with English settlers. Hartley cited a poem by King which emphasized the importance of stirring;

  • "Sometimes the frugal matron seems in haste
    Nor cares to beat her Pudding into paste;
    Yet milk in proper skillet she will place
    And gently spice it with a blade of mace.

  • Then set some careful damsel to look to’t,
    And still to stir away the bishop’s foot;
    For if burnt milk should to the bottom stick,
    Like over-heated zeal it would make folks sick..."

The English saw the need for stirring, certainly, but we have here no mention of a special tool. Americans also saw the need. Joel Barlow, an eighteenth-century American patriot and one of the Connecticut Wags (whose mission was to develop a body of American literature), wrote a long Mock-Epic poem in three cantos on the subject of Hasty Pudding (1793). He mentioned stirring, but likewise did not define the tool. He noted that as the pudding thickened, "to stir it well demands a stronger hand," perhaps implying the need for a particular stick. He did discuss the kind of spoon that worked best in pudding eating, recommending a flattened spoon with an unusually shallow bowl that would be inappropriate for broth. His concern for handling the very thick mass is another clue to the special need for a stirring stick. It suggests that stirring spoons might not have worked well as stirring sticks, as the thickened pudding would pile up and clog a spoon’s deeper bowl. A slender tip could slide through the thickened mass with less impedance and handle the job of scraping the pot more easily. And of course, we find this thickness referred to in the chorus of the eighteenth century song "Yankee Doodle," in which the men and boys were "thick as hasty pudding."

In addition to literary evidence, nineteenth century American trade catalogs are useful. L.H. Mace (1883) and The Sears and Roebuck Catalogs (1897), for example, clearly distinguishes pudding sticks from butter paddles, which have broader bottoms, and soap sticks, which are generally heavier. The problem with trade catalogs, however, is in estimating the duration of the time in which a tool was in use—how much earlier than the catalog printing, and how long afterwards. In the case of pudding sticks, I assume that we can often use Eliza Leslie as a reference to usage at least one hundred years earlier than her cookbook, as it included much culinary eighteenth century tradition, and made considerable reference to traditional processes and technology. For example, she also gave extensive instructions on how to use a brick oven, even though one might have expected everyone to know them at that time.

These nineteenth century pudding sticks, to judge by the trade catalogs of the period, differed from earlier ones only in the length of their handles. Ketcham (American Basketry and Woodenware) pictures a long handled one, and the later trade catalogs show shortened ones. Their flattened tips were the same, but the handles were half the length, a result of the new woodstove and the cook’s new ability to work closer to the heat. Indeed, we see this shortening in all the stove-top utensils—ladles, spoons, spatulas, meat forks. Instead of two foot long implements, they were now rarely more than 12 or 14 inches.

The mystery (if there ever was one) is solved. The charm of the solution, at least for me, is in the combination of recipe understanding, fireplace requirements, and multiple literary sources.

 

 

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Here are some of the hasty puddings for you to try, each early English, or American. You may enjoy their transitions and change in character; all are tasty. If you have a pudding stick, do try it. This first is wheat flour based, English, and turns out something like a modern cooked cornstarch pudding, not at all bad.

To Make Hasty Puddings; to boil in Custard Dishes

Take a large pint of milk, put to it four spoonfuls of flour; mix it well together, set it over the fire, and boil it into a smooth hasty pudding; sweeten it to your taste, grate nutmeg in it, and when ‘tis almost cold, beat five eggs very well, and stir into it’ then butter your custard-cups, put in your stuff, and tie them over with a cloth, put them in the pot when the water boils, and let them boil something more than half an hour’ pour on them melted butter.

From E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (London, 1727)


The following English version tells us something of the derivation of American breakfasts. Oats were commonly grown and used in the northern British Isles where conditions were hot suitable for wheat.

To Make an Oatmeal Hasty-Pudding

Take a quart of water, set it on to boil, put in a piece of butter and some salt; when it boils, stir in the oatmeal as you do the flour, till it is of a good thickness; let it boil a few minutes, pour it in your dish, and stick pieces of butter in it; or new milk. This is best made with Scotch oatmeal.

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery (London, 1858)


Eliza Leslie has given us a lengthy and detailed Pennsylvania version of Hasty Pudding called "Mush," and calls the pudding stick a "mush stick." She also offers a recipe for Indian Hasty Pudding (the word "Indian" being the common term for corn meal) which is almost the same, but seems to require less cooking and is done when "it is so thick that the stick stands upright in it."

Indian Mush (corn meal hasty pudding)

Have ready on a clear fire, a pot of boiling water. Stir into it, by degrees, (a handful at a time,) sufficient Indian meal to make a very thick porridge, and then add a very small portion of salt, allowing not more than a level tea-spoonful to a quart of meal. You must keep the pot boiling all the time you are stirring in the meal; and between every handful stir hard with the mush-stick, (a round stick about half a yard long, flattened at the lower end,) as, if not well stirred, the mush will be lumpy. After it is sufficiently thick and smooth, keep it boiling an hour longer, stirring it occasionally. Then cover the pot closely, and hang it higher up the chimney, or set it on hot coals on the hearth, so as to simmer it slowly for another hour. The goodness and wholesomeness of mush depends greatly on its being long and thoroughly boiled. It should also be made very thick. If well made, and well cooked, it is wholesome and nutritious; but the contrary, if thin, and not sufficiently boiled. It is not too long to have it three or four hours over the fire, first boiling, and then simmering. On the contrary it will be better for it. The coarser the corn meal the less cooking it requires. Send it to the table hot, and in a deep dish. Eat it with sweet milk, buttermilk, or cream; or with butter and sugar, or with butter and molasses; making a hole in the middle of your plate of mush; putting some butter into the hole and then adding the sugar or molasses.

Cold mush that has been left, may be cut into slices, or mouthfuls, and fried the next day, in butter, or in nice drippings of veal, beef, or pork; but not mutton or lamb.

Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s New Receipt Book (Philadelphia, 1850)