Apple Brown Betty, a Race-Based Dessert

“Mulatto’s pudding”—the name stopped me cold.

Thinking about Mardi Gras this week, I’d dug up an old cookbook from my shelves, 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 as “Pouding à la Mulâtresse.” Translate that back into English, and you get “mulatto’s pudding.”

Essentially, it’s apple brown betty, a dessert that had always seemed to me as comforting as the smells in Grandma’s kitchen—but now it suddenly let off a noxious whiff of race. Turns out that a “Betty” isn’t just some quaint, checkered-bonnet name like pandowdy, grunt, or slump, but a woman, possibly a slave cook or servant. And “brown” doesn’t refer to what happens to buttered breadcrumbs as a Betty bakes, but to a mixed-race woman’s complexion.

Actually, that’s not surprising. In a country with as complex and troubling a racial story as America’s there are bound to be relics, dishes born in slavery or otherwise roped off within ethnic subcultures. 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'. 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.

Gabriella Petrick, a food historian at George Mason University in Virginia, says recipes with racial coding are common, especially in the South. Decoding—finding out, say, why a simple apple dessert originally from New England references some mixed-race cook—is tricky, if not impossible. And once a dish gets filtered through New Orleans and its tangle of races and ethnicities, it’s a mystery damn near impossible to crack.

What’s harder to fathom is why the image of mammy survives in the U.S., in the form of 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. It just goes to show you: Like the smiling face of racism, food traditions die hard.

Photograph by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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