Sunday, November 13, 2011

The "Thanksgiving Lady" and Indian Pudding

The following article, by Mariette Bowles, was printed in the November 1941 issue of American Cookery Magazine.

Thanksgiving Lady

Each year at Thanksgiving time everyone quite properly honors the memories of the Pilgrim Fathers who gave the original idea, and of Abraham Lincoln, who made it a national affair. But another and equally important influence seldom receives sufficient recognition--Sarah Josepha Hale, remembered as the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, but infrequently recalled as the woman who put Thanksgiving Day into every American home.

Mrs. Hale's earliest ambition, she said was twofold: "to promote the reputation of my own sex and to do something for my country." These purposes are evident in all the accomplishments of her extraordinarily busy life. An enthusiastic advocate of higher education for girls, a hearty supporter of legislation to protect women's rights, she used her position as editor of one of America's most influential magazines in a way that benefitted "her own sex and her own country" throughout her long and crowded career.

Thanksgiving Day was, therefore, a singularly appropriate holiday for her to sponsor. More than the Fourth of July itself, it is truly our national festival, honoring the sense of prosperity and general well-being that is--our country at its best. Then, too, Thanksgiving has done more even than Mother's Day "to promote the reputation of the American woman." Nowhere do her skill and ability show to better advantage that at the annual dinners that she prepares for her children and grandchildren to remember all their lives. Had Sarah Josepha Hale done nothing more than institute such a national holiday, she would have gone a long way toward realizing the two ambitions she had as a little girl.

Of course, Mrs. Hale did not invent Thanksgiving Day. The Pilgrims did that. She did not even have the original idea of having it proclaimed nationally. That was George Washington. But after him came a long interval during which the day was celebrated in a haphazard fashion, on different days in the different parts of the United States; in some religions, not at all.

It was always an important occasion in Mrs. Hale's native New England. Her first book, Northwood, contains a description of such a dinner as she must often have attended in Newport, New Hampshire, where she spent her girlhood and young womanhood. Most of the characters in the novel are people who might have been her neighbors, though a couple of Englishmen wander through the pages, very cleverly helping the author fulfill her purpose. Descriptions and explanations of American life and customs are plausible, even necessary, to make everything clear to strangers from across the sea.

New Hampshire Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving dinner which one of them attended must have impressed him as much as it does a modern reader. Perhaps you think you have eaten noteworthy meals yourself. But by Northwood standards almost any contemporary fare seems scant indeed. There was, as you would expect, roast turkey with savory dressing. There were the customary "innumerable bowls of gravy and vegetables." But this was only the beginning. Besides them on the table sat a "surloin" of beef, a leg of pork, a joint of mutton, a goose and a pair of duckling.
None of these, not even the turkey, was so important as the "rich burgomaster of the provision called a chicken pie. It was formed of the choicest parts of the fowl, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper and covered with an excellent puff paste, like the celebrated pumpkin pie an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepared the feast.

Yankee Pies of Every Name

Pickles, preserves and butter are barely noted in passing, as are "plumb" pudding and custard. There were pies of every name and description ever known in Yankeeland, yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most important niche. All this was accompanied by cider, ginger beer (of which Squire Romelee's wife was especially proud.) and currant wine. The meal was concluded with an assortment of rich cake, sweetmeats and fruit.

No wonder that the Squire had said grace devoutly, in no superficial way, but as sincere "breathing of a good and grateful heart." No wonder Mrs. Hale found such a family celebration worthy of being cherished always by Americans everywhere. No wonder we have adopted it gratefully, though we may marvel a bit at the remarkable culinary skill and even more remarkable appetites of our ancestors of the 1820's.

It was in 1827 that Northwood was published, nearly forty years before its author persuaded Abraham Lincoln to issue the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, a custom that succeeding presidents have followed faithfully.

The novel was the beginning of Mrs. Hale's literary career, undertaken after the death of her husband. He left her to raise and educate five children, the eldest of whom was only seven years old. Her solution of the problem was an unusual one for a woman in her middle thirties, with little formal education, whose only previous experience had been teaching district school and running a household. She first wrote Northwood. Then she went to Boston to edit The Ladies Magazine. When that was purchased by Louis Godey of Godey's Lady's Book, she became his literary editor, first in Boston and later in Philadelphia. After she had become one of the most famous women in America, she was able to launch her campaign to put Thanksgiving Day into everyone's calendar.

She began writing to governors of the separate states, urging them to issue their own proclamations. This she did for several years, until finally she convinced Abraham Lincoln of the value of such a holiday to the nation as a whole. Om 1864 he proclaimed the last Thursday in November a day of national Thanksgiving. One of the "lady's editors" dearest ambitions had been realized.

That Sarah Josepha Hale appreciated the way it should be celebrated is clear from her description of the Northwood Squire's dinner. It is comforting to know also that she thoroughly understood the effort and skill that went into the preparation of such a feast. An experienced housewife herself, she had a practical knowledge of and great respect for the art of cookery. She was the author of several very popular cookbooks. Since they had a wide sale, it is fair to suppose that she contributed in a direct way to the success of many of the Thanksgiving dinners that were celebrated at her instigation. No doubt many of them were prepared in pantries and kitchens where Mrs. Hales Receipts for Million the New Household Receipt book...The Ladies New Book of Cookery or Modern Cookery (an English cookbook which she edited in the American edition) stood on the broad shelf.

Many of her ideas about food make strange reading today written at a period when she could say, "The art of making bread is the most important one in cookery." She explains in detail what a simple process it is. You can "set the sponge at seven o'clock and have the loaves out of the oven at twelve, a matter of a mere five hours. Most of this time, she adds, can be devoted to needlework, as only a half or three-quarters of an hour must be spent in kneading, which is, moreover a very "beneficial exercise."

America's Own Dish

Louise here:) The final excerpt for today's post from the "Thanksgiving Lady" story speaks to today's "national" day; Indian Pudding Day.

In The Story of Corn, author Betty Fussell uncovers the mysterious appearance of Indian Pudding for the first time in writing on March 26, 1722.

back to the story...

"Thanksgiving Lady con't

As a woman of familiar with "the best receipts of all the nations in the world," she devotes a great deal of her attention to dishes which are peculiarly American. Indian cakes, maize pudding (both the boiled and the baked), pumpkin, squash, and carrot pies are among the foods she lists as being native American--and delicious. "Plain Baked Indian Pudding" is one of her favorites. This seems to her to satisfy perfectly the three standards that she sets for good food; that it meets the standards of economy, health and taste.

Pies of course, as one can see from the Northwood dinner, stand very high in her estimation. But they must be good. "A poor pie," she warns ambitious cooks, "is a sad thing indeed." Even Miss Acton, whose English cookbook she edited, did not meet Mrs. Hale's rigid requirements for a satisfactory pumpkin pie. (An indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving, you remember...)

I will continue on with part two of the "Thanksgiving Lady" and The Honored Pumpkin Pie on Wednesday. In the mean time, I harvested a Thanksgiving menu from The American Heritage Cookbook compiled by the editors of American Heritage Magazine for you to enjoy:)

For those of you who would like to try your hand at preparing Indian Pudding for each of your guests, here is a bit of a commentary once again from Betty Fussell in I Hear America Cooking.

Amelia Simmons gives three variations of "A Nice Indian Pudding," two of them baked and one of them boiled. The boiled one is the most primitive--salted and sweetened, put into a strong cloth to "secure from wet," and boiled twelve hours. Her nicest one is sweetened with sugar, then spiced, buttered, egged, and raisined, to be baked for a mere hour and a half because the proportion of meal to milk is so small that the results is more like a thickened custard than a hasty pudding...

Mrs. A L. Webster is the one who goes to town on Indian Puddings, in her Improved Housewife (1842), listing two boiled and three baked. Here the important distinction is between plain or rich. Her Plain Boiled Pudding may be made a little richer, she says by adding eggs and chopped suet, which, with grated lemon, cinnamon, and nutmeg, made up her Rich Boiled Pudding. This one is nice she says, cut in slices when cold and fried; or when hot, served with a sauce of drawn butter, wine, and nutmeg. Webster's pudding tips show what the colonial pudding maker was up against. She must first wash the salt from the butter, stone her raisins, avoid stale eggs, and remember to beat them, make her pudding bag of German sheeting ("a cloth less thick will admit water, and deteriorate the pudding"), wet the bag in water and then wring it out and flour it inside and remember to leave room for the pudding to swell...

Mrs. Webster's book was immensely popular at mid-century because she was as practical as Lydia Child but not quite as frugal. Thus her Indian Pudding called for grated lemon peel or essence. Often apples were added for variety, as was pumpkin, which I've used here and baked in muffin pans for speed and ease.

Happy Indian Pudding Day!
photo from What's Cooking America

1. Northwood (online @ google books)
2. The Good Housekeeper: or, The Way to Live Well and to be Well While We Live ... By Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (Google books)
3. Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million (available online)
4. Godey's Arm Chair: Thanksgiving as a National Holiday
5. The Story of Corn (google books limited viewing)
1. Crockpot Indian Pudding
2. Hasty Pudding - Indian Pudding


  1. This is a fascinating backstory on Mrs. Hale. I had no I idea she was an author, and had foreshadowed the feast of Thanksgiving in one of her books so long before. And, by the way, Louise, Mrs. Hale is absolutely correct in everything she says about the art of bread baking! :-)

    I did make an Indian Pudding a few years back. It might be time to give it another try.

  2. Thanks so much for this great post! As you know, Louise, I recently read _Northwood_ (at your suggestion) and found it amazing. I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't a modern historical novel. Besides the many food descriptions, the novel includes descriptions of the interiors of people's homes, of transportation, and of a number of other ordinary details. The plot is fair, the characters interesting. Well worth reading!

  3. This is a fabulous post, so informative and giving us insights into the lovely thanksgiving day. but really its time to retrospect and thank whole heartedly. Loved ur indian pudding recipe. Thanks and enjoy ur holiday season with full spirits, sonia !

  4. I love this post Louise but I really love this pudding sounds delicious! gloria

  5. One year I decided to do a traditional Thanksgiving, with recipes from history. I shouldn't have been, but was very surprised at just how bad everything tasted. So, inasmuch as I love the history of Thanksgiving, I think I'll stick with modern versions of the food.

  6. i love seeing cornmeal in unexpected places, and this is certainly unexpected! the rum sauce is the perfect accompaniment. lovely post, louise!

  7. I think Indian Pudding looks great, but I'm afraid of what my rude sons would say about its appearance. You know how teenaged boys are, right?

    I'm thinking a practice pumpkin pie tonight will help me get back into the pie making mode just in time for the holiday, and somewhere between 21 and 24 people to feed.

  8. It must have been the mention of corn, but I want some of my stepmom's spoonbread for breakfast. Sigh.

  9. Waw, Louise!
    What a fantastic & amazing read this was! I learned a lot & it was such fun reading it!
    We don"t celebrate Thanksgiving over here & I think it would be so much fun & lovely to spend time with good people & friends & with of course good food like these stunning recipes!

  10. This is absolutely fabulous! Thank you SO much for sharing. It was a wonderful read :)

  11. Wow, what a read, I am now well prepared for this upcoming holiday and reminder of how fortunate we are. I made Indian pudding so long ago, but remember the flavors of molasses and raisins and felt like it warmed me from the inside. Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. A wealth of information about your Thanksgiving; isn't it wonderful how some of these strong women had such a real influence in our lives.
    Thank for all your work and your visits.
    Merci Louise

  13. Every time I drop by I learn something new Louise. This was such an informative and interesting post! I did know the back story of Thanksgiving, but did not realize what tenacity it took to get the politicians to pay attention.

  14. So interesting your post Louise...love reading and learning from it.
    The pumpkin pudding sounds and looks delicious, and so amazing that cornmeal is used for this pudding. OH! The rum sauce together with the pudding...heaven!
    Hope you are having a wonderful week :-)

  15. I love Indian Pudding, and you have inspired me to make one this holiday season - I haven't had it since I was a child :)

    Look forward to Part 2!

  16. interesting read. Louise, i think you really read a lot and do a lot of homework, always fascinated by the information and articles you post in your blog!

  17. Very interesting! We know very little about the food of the first US inhabitants. That pudding must be just divine.



  18. So very interesting. I love this history and the pudding looks delicious!!

  19. I'm thrilled you all enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for dropping by. I'll be visiting as soon as possible!!! Louise:)

  20. I am just laughing at the notion of "pomoting the reputation of the American woman." Thanks for leading me over here.

    1. I guess it worked, Debra! I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. it really was fun to do!


Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise