We bloggers tend to be an undisciplined lot. Not that I’m against that – to me, undisciplined is an art form, and one I treasure. I’m just making an observation.
I’ll give you a ‘for instance’ – a few years ago I began a monthly piece on the food culture of America, which I called, ‘America’s Food Secrets’ – those posts were mostly based on the fact that America’s food culture is relatively young and still evolving – but there was an interesting base of growth and development there – and that if one wished to dig it out, a record of that evolving food culture could be found in the many little soft covered community fund raiser cookbooks that had their heyday from about 1950 thru 1980 – they fell out of favor after that, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t a valuable record of treasured family recipes of America’s immigrant masses. I loved them – and I would pick up a copy or two whenever I’d see them in a used book store – but that’s the hard, slow way to collect those little gems.
Those were the days -the early 2000s- when eBay was just getting off the ground, and I discovered it was a literal gold mine of availability for those little community cookbooks. For the most part, those cookbooks were worthless to their owners, and I never paid more than $1 for a book – postage was always the most expensive part of the deal. Often, sellers would put up a batch of them – then the postage would become more reasonable – so I soon only looked for the ‘bulk lot’ sellers – over the years, I’ve probably amassed close to 1000 of those cookbooks – only 100 or so of them are out in our formal book shelves (our home is crammed with book shelves everywhere you look!) – the rest are stored away in boxes, cataloged by the states they come from.
Although the ‘America’s Food Secrets’ posts were among the most interesting (to me) that I did, I stopped doing them – don’t know why – but I’ve often thought I’d give it another go – hey, it’s the way of the undisciplined!
America’s food heritage has many diverse roots (of course) but I think the most obvious -the British- is a mixed influence. Not because British food was dull and bland at the time (but it was!), the lack of influence had a lot more to do with a population of British expats who suddenly found themselves, after the revolution, rejecting all things British, so the food had to go too. However, given the fact that the majority of the new Americans were of of British blood, the food was in-grained, and any ‘rejection’ was going to take some time.
But in a land of immigrants, it couldn’t have been hard to find options – certainly, those early residents of the new America had some solid choices: the German influence was strong, as was the Dutch – and by that time, the earlier Spanish and French influences had come, made their mark, and for the most part, already gone. But the influence that most casual observers would overlook is that of the Native Americans – the American Indians. And this influence not only formed the base for what would become the emerging American food culture, it was so strong it would also make a major contribution to the food cultures of the rest of the world too.
How? Just look at the long list of those foods which were introduced to the world by the Native Americans – potatoes, beans, corn, popcorn, wild rice, peanuts, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, peppers, turkeys, cranberries, maple sugar, many nuts, melons, and sunflower seeds. And if one is willing to include the Native American Indians of Mexico in that influence, you can add chocolate, vanilla, pineapples, avocado, and tapioca to the list. In fact, 60% of the world’s current food production consists of crops which were introduced by Native Americans – I’d call that a major influence!
As you may have guessed, my discourse here is simply to suggest that I’m going to resurrect that earlier effort, and begin again to do a regular recurring piece on America’s Food Secrets gathered from those little gems of family food treasuries, the community fund raiser cookbooks. However, I should admit to you that I’ll be injecting an editor’s bias into that effort, for my interest is not simply in repeating old family recipes brought over from the old country – my bias shall be for those foods and dishes which have influenced ‘adaption’ or change as they found their way into the evolving culture of food in America – and when I can, I hope to discover and point out those foods which have become ‘American’ in their own right, but only after having evolved from something quite non-American first.
I hope you’ll agree that in this way, we can discover new and interesting food journeys and paths – I suspect that at times, our journeys may be controversial, but that may be necessary to move the discussion forward – likewise, I don’t think we’ll need agreement to make the discussion interesting – in fact, I’m quite sure that our most interesting conversations will most certainly center around those with the most disagreement.
Another bias I’ll be injecting is a geographical one, for it is my humble opinion that the evolution of America’s food culture has developed more in the American South than in any other area of the nation. For it is in the South that the most important contribution of Native Americans -corn- has been utilized most successfully and most fully – and the American South is the part of the country where the foods of the African American slave immigrants were developed and evolved, and this effort is most significant because the slave immigrants were not necessarily bringing their foods to America, they were bringing their own food culture, and adapting it to the new foods they found in America – and by so doing, they were contributing much to the development of the new American food culture.
I’ve often heard it jokingly said that the three major food groups of the South are sugar, lard, and corn – and sometimes it can seem like this may be true – but as one peruses the community fund raiser cookbooks for evidence of how corn was translated from the Native American uses to adaptations in the American South, an interesting fact emerges – the overwhelming southern corn preparations are created without any sweetener – in fact, it is a badge of honor that true southern cornbread is NEVER made with sugar added. Perhaps this is to separate it from Yankee cornbread, which ALWAYS is made with added sugar. Whatever the reason, this is not to suggest that one’s breakfast cornbread should not be drenched in syrup or honey before it is eaten – it’s just never baked with sugar in the South!
The number of corn based dishes in the South is almost endless – and if you dig deep enough, you discover that every county of every state in the South prides itself on some sort of variation on the use of corn – a prime example of this is Spoonbread. The Spoonbread which has come down to us today is neither a bread or a pudding, although it is not difficult to determine from where has come its name, since it is best served with a spoon. It’s always been a side dish, and has a proud history – Spoonbread is found among the writings of the everyday life of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but we don’t start seeing any recipes for Spoonbread until the mid 1800s – as usually stated, those recipes are for a dish which is quite practical and versatile, one that could be served at any meal, and ready to change complexion at the slightest suggestion – a very useful and valuable dish for any occasion.
Spoonbread has evolved today into what we know as ‘corn pudding’, and may remind some of a souffle, given its high egg content and the way it rises without the aid of any leavening – in fact, although it may once have been more bready, none of the recipes I’ve seen create anything which reminds one of bread – its also surely related to what the Native Americans passed down to us as ‘Indian Pudding’, and to the British, ‘Yorkshire Pudding as well. Spoonbread has many obvious influences and relationships, and neatly fills a key slot in the long chain of the ‘corn kitchen’ of the American South.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating Spoonbread, you owe it to yourself to add it to an upcoming menu – shouldn’t be hard, given its versatility and ease of preparation.
(from Southern Treasures – a cookbook compiled by
the Athens College Woman’s Club, Athens, Alabama – 1970)
1 cup corn meal
4 cups milk (I used sour milk – I never throw the stuff away!)
2 Tbs. butter
2 tsp salt
4 eggs, well beaten
Preheat the oven to 400F (204c)
Mix together the corn meal and milk in a medium saucepan, and heat over a low heat, stirring frequently, as the mixture thickens – (it will achieve the consistency of a thick sauce – remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 or 10 minutes). Add the butter, salt, and eggs, and mix together well. Pour mixture into a greased 1 1/2 quart baking dish and bake at 400F for 45 minutes. Serve immediately (or it will fall) with gravy, butter, or syrup.
I really enjoyed this dish – and I think it adds a festive touch (at very little effort) to a dinner – but I think it may be even better as a fancy breakfast dish served topped with a sweet fruit sauce or syrup. I added the note in the recipe about being careful not to add the eggs to a hot corn meal/milk mixture, lest it cook the eggs – either let the mixture cool before adding eggs, or temper the eggs before mixing together – but you knew that, right?