The Old Ways

Some Favorites

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.

Spoonbread
(from Southern Treasures – a cookbook compiled by
the Athens College Woman’s Club, Athens, Alabama – 1970)

 Ingredients:
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

Procedure:
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.
Serves 5-6.
My Notes:
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?

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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25 Responses to The Old Ways

  1. nancy Jones says:

    I am a reader in my later years and have spent way more time reluctantly cooking than I like to think about. However, when I stumbled upon your blog about buttermilk, I became hooked on reading your writings. This one on spoonbread answered a question I’ve had in my head most of my life…What Is Spoonbread? So, corn pudding it is. Thank you.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Nancy, Thanks for visiting and commenting – yes, spoonbread is very similar to corn pudding, but before it’s the same, you’ll have to add some corn – spoonbread only has corn meal.

  2. Thanks Doc! I’ve always wondered what spoonbread was! I always thought it was a variation on cornbread. Thanks for the recipe!

  3. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc
    It is very interesting how food cultures develop. Clearly it is a combination of immigration and what is/can be grown locally. I often ponder how different your food is (particularly in your southern states) to ours, yet the English were both our forebearers.
    Australian food was strongly influenced by migrants after WWII – primarily Greek and Italian and more recently, Asian migrants. Given our location we have a significant Asian population who have come from a variety of countries. Each of which has a strong food culture of its own and which is quickly being melded into an Australian food culture.
    Because of the above: modern Australian food tends to fall into one of two food styles, Mediterranean based or Asian based.
    Corn is nowhere as big in Australia as it is in the states. Wheat is all dominant – we grow a lot of wheat here. I have never seen or eaten cornbread yet I know it is extremely popular in the States.

    • drfugawe says:

      Wow, for someone who likes and uses fresh corn never to have eaten cornbread yet is amazing to me (kind of like when I saw ‘Julie and Julia’, and Julie admits that she’s never eaten an egg!) – yes, you must go get some corn meal and start experimenting with it – I think you’ll like it. Do you make and eat polenta? Essentially the same as corn meal, just a little bit courser grind – but corn bread can be made from polenta.
      My enjoyment of corn does not mean I think our country’s dependence on corn is good – we use it for far too many things, the worst being using it for feeding livestock – but grass fed beef is becoming the norm, so maybe we are improving. Maybe.

      • Glenda says:

        Doc, I have never eaten polenta either:( It doesn’t appeal really.

        I have made a polenta cake for a friend on a gluten free diet. It was as heavy as lead. I am going to try again to see what went wrong. It uses yeast and egg whites to rise but there was no fermentation period which I found strange – just mix and put in the oven. I think I over beat the egg whites and overcooked the cake 😦 I am not cake maker.

        Now cows should not eat corn …

        • drfugawe says:

          My standard summer cake is a simple polenta cake that I mostly use either to hold cut up fruit, or I put the fruit on top before baking it – it’s an almond flavored one with some slivered almonds sprinkled on top – it’s very nice, and I’ll do a post on it soon – it’s not light and airy, but certainly not dense either. Oh wait, you were making a gluten free cake, so it was 100% polenta, right? That will always be quite dense – some wheat flour is needed to make it light.
          Corn meal / polenta takes well to fermentation, but it is not an absolute for baking – I think it’s a little unusual to see yeast as a leavening for corn meal / polenta – usually it’s baking powder, even for the 100% corn meal recipes, which are quite common in the American South.

          • Glenda says:

            Its funny Doc, the other day I was searching polenta cake to see if I could find one similar to mine to see if I could get any hints of what I did wrong and I got a hit for ‘drfugawe’:) Maybe I will send you the recipe and you can show me how to do it:) I have made it before and it was fine but it was so long ago I forgotten what I did.

            • drfugawe says:

              Oh, apparently I’ve already done that post! What a memory – why not just try that one and see how you like it?

              • drfugawe says:

                Wrong polenta cake – I just looked at that one you referenced and it’s not the one I was thinking of – that previous post is a fancy polenta cake that has very little polenta in it – the one I’ve evolved into is a much simpler one – and I’m very sure I haven’t posted it yet – but I will.

      • nancy Jones says:

        My enduring food influence is from my grandmother’s farm cooking during the 40’s and 50’s. Lots of corn used there including feeding the animals. After living in the north and south and observing the differences and experimenting with foods so different from down on the farm, one of my treats to myself is a pan of cornbread, unsweetened, crumbled in milk, which we sometimes ate for supper after a big noon meal called dinner. I suppose my Scotch/Irish/English heritage is way stronger than whatever else is in me because the most sophisticated food has never pleased me more than cornbread. I think I’ll make some now.

        • drfugawe says:

          If I’m having the unsweetened cornbread, I love breaking it up and covering it with some good, juicey beans – if I’m eating it plain, I need something sweet on it – jelly, jam or honey – I’m not much of a southerner!

          • nancy Jones says:

            Can you get more southern than unsweetened cornbread topped with juicy beans…especially is the beans are Pintos?

  4. Glenda says:

    BTW: your spoonbread looks pretty good. You must have an amazing collection of charity cookbooks.

    • drfugawe says:

      Sometimes they are very funny – what some folks consider good enough to put in a book and put their name to. But many times, they contain recipes that you can’t trust – often there are missing ingredients, and at times you think to yourself, ‘Oh dear, this sounds so strange, should I really try it?’ I’m sure I’ve missed some good dishes because I was afraid of the recipe – but then, sometimes you hit a really good one!
      Do you like Julia Child? I loved her – and I loved her style – if she believed something, nothing would keep her from saying it. I remember Judith Jones, her editor friend at Knopf Publishing, telling a story about how Julia was given a fund raiser cookbook by friends to review before it was to be printed – she looked it over and said to her friends, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I think the book is very poor – I think if it gets printed, it will be an insult to the dishes it suggests are good enough for others to prepare.”
      I remember that story often when I’m reading those books!

  5. I have several of these cookbooks…they were often compiled by schools who used them as fundraisers for materials or programs they wished to raise money for…playground equipment, athletic boosters, etc. As a former teacher, mine are personal. They are all remnants of my life in the different schools where I taught or administered. The recipes are usually quick, tasty, and affordable.

    • drfugawe says:

      Humm, my comment was a little one sided, wasn’t it? Sometimes, my cynic side overwhelms my better side – actually I love those little books, or I wouldn’t have so many – I hope you’ll forgive my cynicism
      Great to see you here Glenda!

  6. Joanna says:

    Those little books look wonderful! My sister was just asked this year to contribute a recipe to a fundraising cook book for J’s school, so it still goes on. I am a big fan of popcorn, not so much of puddings, especially ones that look like soufflés, I don’t like the way the eggs taste in soufflés for some reason, but I did have a fabulous piece of polenta cake out the other day, so am willing to be converted 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      I fear we, here in America, have ruined the reputation of corn for the rest of the world by overusing it for nearly everything – but although I hate the idea of ‘corn sweeteners’, I must admit that my childhood family addicted me to corn, especially things made with fresh corn during summer! For me, corn is summer – well maybe with a tomato or two thrown in too.

  7. tuppercooks says:

    Damn! Great post Doc! I’d never given any thought as to the evolution of food here. I’m pretty much blown away by your research. The fact that you have that many books makes me laugh, I would, but my wife would kill me!

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey amigo! I’m pleased to see you have returned from your summer respite – hope it went well and that your soul is refreshed. Are you going to do any food blogging this year? You could do a few of those French-Canadian dishes that I’d love to try. Or just a few of those new pizza experiments I know you did this summer! Yeah, do it Tup.

  8. Joanna says:

    Psst! Made your fried green tomatoes tonight – a small cautious batch – and then had to go and make Brian a whole load more, he thought they were excellent. ! So thankyou Doc !

    • drfugawe says:

      Oh wow – that makes my heart warm. They are good, aren’t they! If you want to change their character a bit, use corn meal instead of cracker crumbs – I like that even better.

  9. Pingback: Spoonbread | midatlanticcooking

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