Apple Brown Betty, a Race-Based Dessert

"Mulatto’s Pudding," Pouding à la Mulâtresse. The name of the dessert recipe made me pull up. What the hell?

Thinking about Mardi Gras this week, I’d dug up an old cookbook on my shelf, Original Picayune Creole Cook Book, published in New Orleans in 1901. A random recipe caught my eye: Brown Betty Pudding. It was translated into Creole French into that reference to a female mulatto, somebody's who's half black, half white, or maybe merely a woman with light brown skin.

I'd grown up hearing the dessert called Apple Brown Betty, a name that always seemed as comforting as the dish of baked sliced apples—buttery, sweetened with brown sugar—under a crust of toasted breadcrumbs. It's a cute name—my blue-eyed, freckled aunt was named Betty, Barney Rubble's wife was Betty, a cartoon woman as pale and pretty as they come. But now, seeing it translated that way in a century-old book, I caught the noxious suggestion of race.

Turns out that Betty wasn't the old-fashioned, ruffle-aproned name I'd assumed it was, but a mixed-race woman, probably a servant, maybe a slave cook. "Brown” didn't refer to what happens to those buttered breadcrumbs as the dish bakes, but to skin color. Social standing.

No surprise, right? In a country with as deep and troubling a past as America’s there are bound to be relics, dishes born in slavery or survivors of the long decades when segregation was official policy or established rule. The Oxford Companion to Food already had its eye on Betty:

The name [Apple Brown Betty] seems to have first appeared in print in 1864, when an article in the Yale Literary Magazine listed it … with tea, coffee, and pies as things to be given up during 'training' [physical training, what we call working out]. That author gave brown in lower case and Betty in upper case: and, in default of evidence to the contrary, it seems best to go along with the view that Betty is here a proper name.

A proper name—a brown-skinned woman.

Gabriella Petrick, a food historian at George Mason University in Virginia, says recipes with racial coding are common, especially in the South. But decoding history—finding out why a simple apple dessert originally from New England took the name of a mixed-race cook, real or mythical—is tricky, and often impossible. The recipe in my book was published in New Orleans, and when a dish came up there, Petrick says, a city with a historically tangled approach to race and ethnicity, things are extra clouded.

What’s harder to understand is why the image of mammy—the engraving on the cover of the Original Picayune Creole Cook Book survives in the U.S., best known today as the well-coiffed, earring-wearing image of Aunt Jemima (a character born just about the time that recipe for “mulatto’s pudding” appeared) on syrup bottles and boxes of pancake mix. Like the face of racism itself—insidious, ubiquitous, and sometimes even smiling or tasting like brown sugar and apples—racist food traditions die hard.

Photograph by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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