My wife and I have a collection of cook books. They cover everything from French Cuisine to campfire cooking to one dish crock pot recipes. I can sit down with a good cook book and find it as interesting to read as the latest detective novel.
One of my favorites is “The Cornmeal Gospels” by a well known food critic…for one good reason, I love cornbread!
Evidently, so do most Southerners and if you were a pioneer, it may have been on your plate at every meal!
As we have seen in this series of articles, corn was the basic crop of the pioneer and continued to be the main food crop for the southern farmer up to WWII.
On the Tennessee frontier, corn was the first thing the settler planted. It was crucial to his survival.
On sure, the pioneer could always go hunting and supply his family with venison, or bear meat…but, for the “bread” he used to soak up the juices of his bear steak, he used cornbread!
The pioneer would grind his dried kernels of corn into a coarse powder, or “meal.” This “cornmeal” was the basic ingredient for a multitude of baked, fried or boiled dishes.
Corn mush was the simplest meal the pioneer could make and it made a good breakfast. Boil water, add a pinch of salt, then stir in some corn meal. The result, after a little stirring, was “corn mush.” You could eat it straight from the kettle or add a little milk or butter or sugar (if you were fortunate enough to have any on hand).
If you make the corn mush thick enough, you can shape it into a small “pone” or cake and fry it in a skillet. This was the recipe used by slaves out in the field who would stop for lunch and build a small fire. With no skillet, they would place the corn pone onto the flat edge of their garden hoe and place the hoe over the fire.
That is where “hoe cakes” came from.
Of course, adding eggs, or buttermilk, lard or a little flour to the mix and you are going “upscale” on us, but that gives us corn cakes, cornbread, corn light bread, hot water cornbread, corn fritters, corn muffins and corn dumplings.
I can find ten different recipes for cornbread in our cookbooks, but they are all basically the same: corn meal, a little milk, soda, salt, an egg and a little lard (shortening is too high class for real cornbread).
If you grind your corn meal coarser, you get “grits.” This is another standard southern food for breakfast. Again, the recipe is simple: coarse grind corn meal, hot water, a dash of salt and simmer until the consistency of oatmeal.
Grits with red-eye gravy are a true southern delicacy.
Corn doesn’t stop there.
Hominy is another food made from corn and involves boiling shelled corn in lye water, or ashes from the fireplace if you don’t have lye!
Corn could be eaten on the cob, fried in the skillet, creamed, cooked into “corn pudding,” or used to make corn chowder.
And, what respectable fisherman doesn’t add a little onion to his cornmeal and toss it into grease for “hushpuppies.”
The recent infusion of Hispanic cooking on the American scene has given us corn in even more tantalizing ways, but this is a history column and the pioneer never tasted tortillas!
You would think that the pioneer would be content with the many ways he could use the corn plant.
But, his favorite use for corn was also the one that caused him the most trouble: corn liquor!
Using the same corn kernels as our other recipes, the settler could make “corn mash” and boil and distill it to make a potent brew that would keep him warm at night, put a little hop into his step and liven up any party, meeting, revival or political rally!
We know it in slang as “moonshine,” but on the frontier the pioneer made more off of his corn liquor than he did from any other farm product!
And, that is a subject we’ll look at in a future series of articles!