Cornmeal porridge, really. Or you could view it as sweet grits, even.
This discussion of the method of eating a hasty pudding from the July 24, 1801 edition of London’s The Oracle And Daily Advertiser may be the best introduction to what distinguishes it from any other porridge:
What dignity both Peter and the Count have conspired to confer on Hasty-Pudding!
“Great man! the culinary tactics studying,
“Hasty Pudding. — The Hasty Pudding being spread but equally on a plate, while hot, an Excavation is made in the middle of it, with a spoon; into which Excavation a piece of butter, as large as a nutmeg, is put; and upon it, a spoonful of brown sugar, or, more commonly, molasses. The butter being soon melted by the heat of the pudding, mixes with the sugar, or molasses, and forms a sauce; which being confined in the Excavation made for it, occupies the middle of the plate. The Pudding is then eaten with–a spoon, each spoonful of it being dipt into the sauce before it is carried to the Mouth; care being had, in taking it up, to begin on the outside, or near the brim of the plate; and to approach the Centre by regular advances, in order not to demolish too soon the Excavation which forms the Reservoir for the sauce.
“Such are the Count’s culinary tactics in regard to the siege of a Hasty Pudding. Nobler Generalship perhaps was never exhibited by Marlborough, Turenne, or even Bonaparte himself.”
(Compare the method of eating Yesterdish’s Ga’at.)
Mmph. Explaining exactly what’s happening here in this paragraph is going to take a little bit of backstory, and it starts with the American Revolution. And this is one of those rare topics, like Cincinnati chili, where my ability to give you a neutral picture is going to be tinged by my dislike of the subject.
But here’s the short version. Count Rumford occasionally expressed an interest in the best way to feed the poor and hungry (when he wasn’t working out the best way to kill or subjugate them or abandoning a wife or country). Peter Pinder, Esq., was a pseudonym of satirist Jon Wolcot, who mocked the supposedly great Count for turning his keen scientific mind to the great problems of our age, like how to eat pudding.
(Click to expand more information about Count Rumford, if you're curious.)
Portrait of Count Rumford (born Benjamin Thompson, 1753–1814) by Thomas Gainsborough. Captured in a rare moment when he is not abandoning a woman or a country. From WikiMedia Commons.
As a teenager, he was sent to Boston to apprentice at a shop there at about the same time as a boycott of British goods began in the 1770s, leaving him with free time to study French and take classes at Harvard. Ultimately, he found a job suited to his talents, which were approximately none: trophy husband. He married a wealthy widow in 1772 at the age of 19.
Through his connections, he was appointed to a position as a major in the provincial regiment of New Hampshire–never mind that his military experience consisted of casual French lessons and failing at selling oats–instantly earning him the hostility of the officers he had been appointed to supervise. That, his aristocratic pretenses, and his sudden change in attitudes toward the poor now that he actually had money, resulted in Thompson actually abandoning his wife and infant daughter to support the British cause. He never saw his wife again.
He was granted a Knighthood by King George III in 1784, substantially contributed to the Royal Society, went to Vienna, contributed to the Bavarian army, made some middling improvements to chimneys with basic thermodynamics any remotely sober person would’ve made by that time, and had some absolutely laughable notions about “cold rays” making things cold and the centrality of water in the firmament.
When he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791, he took the name from the town where he’d married the woman he’d abandoned with their child: “Rumford.” Citizen Thompson, indeed. Count Rumford had the common decency and good taste to drop dead in 1814, where he presumably went right to hell with the rest of the traitors.
In regard to the most advantageous method of using Indian corn as food, I would strongly recommend, particularly when it is employed for feeding the poor, a dish made of it that is in the highest estimation throughout America, and which is really very good, and very nourishing. This is called hasty-pudding; and it is made in the following manner: a quantity of water, propositioned to he quantity of hasty-pudding intended to be made, is put over the fire in an open iron pot, or kettle, and a proper quantity of salt for seasoning the pudding being previously dissolved in the water; Indian meal is stirred into it, by little and little, with a wooden spoon with a long handle, while the water goes on to be heated and made to boil; — great care being taken to put in the meal by very small quantities, and by sifting it slowly through the fingers of the left hand, and stirring the water about very briskly at the same time with the wooden spoon, with the right hand, to mix the meal with the water in such a manner as to prevent lumps being formed.–
(Click to expand the rest of the excerpt.)
The meal should be added so slowly, that, when the water is brought to boil, the mass should not be thicker than water-gruel, and half an hour more, at least, should be employed to add the additional quantity of meal necessary for bringing the pudding to be of the proper consistency; during which time it should be stirred about continually, and kept constantly boiling. — The method of determining when the pudding has acquired the proper consistency is this; — the wooden spoon used for stirring it being placed upright in the middle of the kettle, if it falls down, more meal must be added; but if the pudding is sufficiently thing and adhesive to support it in a vertical position, it is declared to be proof; and no more meal is added. — If the boiling, instead of being continued only half and hour, be prolonged to three quarters of an hour, or an hour, the pudding will be considerably improved by this prolongation.
This hasty-pudding, when done, may be eaten in various ways. — It may be put, while hot, by spoonfuls into a bowl of milk, and eaten with the milk with a spoon, in lieu of bread; and used in this way it is remarkably palatable. — It may likewise be eaten, while hot, with a sauce composed of butter and brown sugar, or butter and molasses, with or without a few drops of vinegar; and however people who have not been accustomed to this American cookery may be prejudiced against it, they will find upon trial that it makes a most excellent dish, and one which never fails to be much liked by those who are accustomed to it. — The universal fondness of Americans for it proves that it must have some merit; — for in a country which produces all the delicacies of the table in the greatest abundance, it is not to be supposed that a whole nation should have a taste so depraved as to give a decided preference to any particular species of food which has not something to recommend it.
To answer your next question, there’s no direct relationship between the Count and the baking powder. Count Rumford left a portion of his estate to endow a professorship at Harvard, and it was a later recipient of that title–Eben Norton Horsford–who would go on to reformulate baking powder in the mid-19th century and co-found the Rumford Chemical Works in 1854, borrowing the name from the title, taken from the man, taken from the title, taken from the town.
Back to hasty pudding itself. The title did describe something before our cornmeal iteration, and it’s here described in Eliza Leslie’s 1840 volume Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches, published in Philadelphia, as “flour hasty pudding:”
Flour Hasty Pudding. — Tie together half a dozen peach-leaves, put them into a quart of milk, and set it on the fire to boil. When it has come to a hard boil, take out the leaves, put let the pot remain boiling on the fire. Then with a large wooden spoon in one hand, and some wheat flour in the other, thicken and stir it till it is about the consistence of a boiled custard. Afterwards throw in, one at a time, a dozen small bits of butter rolled in a thick coat of flour. You may enrich it by stirring in a beaten egg or two, a few minutes before you take it from the fire. When done, pour it into a deep dish, and strew brown sugar thickly over the top. Eat it warm.
Just as polenta can be fried, so too can hasty pudding. This from Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln’s 1884 volume Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking:
Hasty Pudding, or Indian Meal Mush.
Put one quart of water on to boil. Mix one point of corn meal, one teaspoonful of salt, and one tablespoonful of flour with one pint of cold milk. Stir this gradually into the boiling water and boil half an hour, stirring often. Eat it hot, with milk, and only in cold winter weather.
Fried Hasty Pudding.
Cook as above and pour it into a brickloaf pan; when cool, cut into three-quarter inch slices. Dip them in flour, and brown each side in hot fat in a frying-pan. Or dip in crumbs, egg, and again in crumbs, and fry in deep fat.
Any of these mushed may be fried the same way. When eaten with bacon, they make a nice relish for breakfast.
So a few hasty pudding odds and ends to tie up. Yes, it’s name-checked in a verse of Yankee Doodle, a song we discussed previously in the post for macaroni and cheese from De Soto, Kansas. Other than that hasty pudding is sometimes thick, I’m not sure what significance we can glean from that.
Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club took its name after the dish served at the first meeting of the hypothetically secret society in 1795. If you eliminate things that are directly harmful to the world, like Ebola or Bravo, it is hard to imagine anything less helpful to the world than societies like the Hasty Pudding Club, giving people we shouldn’t care about awards for pretending to be other people who we also shouldn’t care about. But then, I'm not the right person to ask about the value of social clubs.
Finally, a last point: if the time it takes to make a hasty pudding is actually between half an hour to an hour, is it any quicker than a standard pudding? Tough to say, because when the name started showing up in the late 16th century, most recipes for baked or boiled puddings didn’t have times on them, naturally. But I do wonder if it isn’t also the case that the haste in hasty pudding couldn’t be the stirring involved. In other words, it’s you, not the pudding, that’s hasty.
After all, a Yorkshire only takes 20 minutes to bake.
From a box sold in Quincy, Massachusetts.
4 cups water
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
Bring water and salt to boil over direct heat in top of double boiler. Sprinkle in cornmeal, stirring constantly. Cook over boiling water 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Sweeten to taste with maple syrup, honey, sugar, or molasses and serve in deep bowls with milk or cream.