The mock-heroic, or mock-epic, is a type of satire that assumes a lofty style, which was generally reserved for praising great heroes in classical epic poetry, and applies it to a humble subject. It can be used to poke fun at the empty rhetoric of epic poetry, or it can cleverly show the virtues of an ordinary person, a very trivial object, or a quotidian event.
"Hasty-pudding," also known as cornmeal mush, was a simple dish that was a staple of the eighteenth-century American diet. Joel Barlow sings its praises by drawing a comparison between hasty-pudding and other objects that are conventionally considered "great." He waxes eloquent on the dish’s virtues, linking it to American (especially Yankee) identity. The association with heroic poems is strengthened by these high praises as well as the evocation of certain figures—such as deities—often used in heroic poetry. The tongue-in-cheek attitude with which these conventions are used is accentuated by the aura of deep sincerity Barlow conveys.
In canto I, Barlow does not mention the pudding itself until line 17. He establishes the epic scope by first evoking the Alps, but then admits, "I sing not you." Referencing the feelings of terror, joy, and rapture that poets usually celebrate, he claims that his subject is equally "well suited to inspire / The purest frenzy of poetic fire."
Tracing the history of the pudding, he describes at length how Native American women made it; he compares the woman he calls a "lovely squaw" to the Greek goddess Ceres. When he elaborates on the Peruvian domestication of maize, he evokes the Inca goddess "Oella," daughter of the sun God "Sol."
Barlow also makes use of poetic apostrophe: he directly addresses the pudding, and tells it how much he appreciates and needs it. As a Yankee, he found Paris and London unbearable without it:
Dear Hasty Pudding, . . .
For thee through Paris, that corrupted town,
How long in vain I wandered up and down,
. . .
London is lost in smoke and steep’d in tea;
No Yankee there can lisp the name of thee;
Barlow goes on to sing its praises and refute accusations of baseness that others make against it. He prefers it to all other food, no matter how fine:
Not all the plate, how famed soe’er it be,
Can please my palate like a bowl of thee.
In canto II, he expounds, in great detail, the growing stages of corn, linking his praise for the pudding to the virtues of maize as an agricultural product. He follows these stages through to the delivery of the ground corn meal, extending his conceit of a bard singing praises:
Ah, who can sing what every wight must feel,
The joy that enters with the bag of meal,
A general jubilee pervades the house,
Wakes every child and gladdens every mouse.
Canto III is concerned primarily with the end of the growing season, as the husks dry in the field. The poet then turns to eating the pudding, which he states must be done with milk when done properly. He praises the cow in the same heroic vein as the hasty-pudding and the corn—as worthy of worship:
Blest cow! thy praise shall still my notes employ,
Great source of health, the only source of joy;
Mother of Egypt’s god,—but sure, for me,
Were I to leave my God, I’d worship thee.
Barlow concludes with a lengthy discourse on spoons and bowls and how best to eat the pudding. Choosing the right bowl is matter of superior discretion, even higher than artistic craft:
The shape, the size,
A secret rests, unknown to vulgar eyes.
Experienced feeders can alone impart
A rule so much above the lore of art.