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Pudding Is More Than Kids' Dessert!

Updated on February 26, 2010

The late, great food writer M.F.K. Fisher described puddings as "fit food for babes and dodderers and such misfortunates with few teeth and less esthetic taste." A snobby assessment, for sure. Not too long ago, I would have agreed with good old M.F.K. I had no use for the childish stuff, either.

But I've come to realize that pudding can be much more than soft and sweet gloppy stuff. Pudding can be savory, made without a grain of sugar. Pudding can be tart or spicy. Pudding can be lovely without any milk or eggs. And pudding can be deep, too, deep in history and deep in emotion.

The word "poding" first appeared in the 14th century, referring to concoctions of blood or meat, usually cooked in animal intestines. By the 1600s, pudding had come a long way. The English, who brought their beloved recipes to America, loved their sweet milk, meal, eggs and raisins boiled in a linen bag, rather than intestines (thank goodness).

In fact, puddings were so beloved that the word itself came to suggest hospitality, comfort and well-being. If you were invited for "pudding time", meaning dinner, you were to count yourself lucky. And here is why we still love puddings hundreds of years later. They do make us feel welcome and good. Not to mention they are perfect in times of pain, when the body craves the soft and gentle. In her wonderful book Aphrodite, Isabel Allende describes the spiritual solace of rice pudding after her daughter died.

This healing power is hardly new. Along with recipes for herbal remedies, curative water and broths puddings routinely appeared in 19th century cookbooks under the chapter "Preparations for the Sick." Before the advent of public hospitals, women acted as healers and doctors in their homes. It was commonly held that the right diet would drive away disease. And so I imagine a mother stirring custard for a child, sick with deadly cholera or diphtheria. Surely she prayed for the curative powers to come to her mixing bowl.

In this light, puddings offer a wonderful glimpse into women's history. But they should not be left to the dusty past. There are some old time pudding preparations which are still quite wonderful for any contemporary summer table. There are the cold fruit puddings, bursting with the bright flavor of summer berries pressed into fruit-soaked bread. Though British in origin, this particular style of pudding comes to this side of the pond from the 1857 American book, Christianity In the Kitchen, a relic of 19th century dietary and religious reform, when authors scolded Americans to clean up their diets and their souls. Though it is a positively passionate looking thing, bright red and extremely delicious, this pudding is virtually fat-free.

Another major type originated in 1881 as a corn pudding from Abby Fisher, a former slave. Hers was the first cookbook ever published by an African-American woman. This is an excellent summer dish that mingles the great American grain and Old World tradition. With a hot chili pepper, it's entirely up to date and will shake up any of your old ideas about boring, sweet childish fare. It's certainly not the pudding you're thinking of, or something that comes powdered in a box and was hawked by Bill Cosby!

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