Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food for Thought, or Thoughts about Food

Since the weather was cloudy and cooler when I went out to feed the cats this morning, and since I had promised three gallons of blueberries to a couple of ladies at church sometime soon, I decided to go out and pick those berries this morning. Well, the weather didn't stay cloudy and cooler for long, and the berries are very thin this year, so it took me all morning to get the three gallons. Normally, I would have to come in from the patch and get something ready for lunch, but today Lily came out around 11:00-ish and asked if it was ok if she made cream of potato soup. I was hot and tired and soup didn't really appeal to me, but I didn't want to be that mother who squishes all her child's ideas, so I said "sure." It crossed my mind that Lily has never made cream of potato soup before, but I was still about a gallon away from being finished, so I didn't let it concern me. As long as she didn't burn down the house.....

I finished my picking at 11:45 and came in to find three bowls of potato soup waiting and a very proud young cook. She had used the good old Better Homes & Garden cookbook, but when the soup didn't taste quite right, she added some pepper on her own (I guess watching all that Food Network with her father came in handy!). We supplemented with leftovers, and it was a very nice lunch. Let me tell you, I was very grateful to have lunch waiting. And I was impressed when I found she had made a white sauce as a base for the soup all by herself. White sauce is not the easiest thing in the world to make, and she had never done it before. Good for Lily!

One of the leftovers I had to go along with the soup were some cornbread pancakes I made for supper last night. I didn't even warm them up, just spread some margarine on top. They went well with the soup. But that's not why I'm telling you about them. Now don't laugh at me, but one of the by-products of writing historical fiction for me has been a desire to learn how people used to live. More than "learn" in an intellectual sense - I want to be able to learn by experience (as long as I'm not giving up electricity for an extended period of time, lol). One of the things I became very aware of while writing my book was how limited people's diets were on the 19th century frontier. Throughout the book, my characters are living on cornpone and salt pork. (I know there would have been other foods available to them, especially seasonally, but I imagine cornmeal and pork were the staples of the menu for working-class people.) Last night, inspired in part by the Hatfield/McCoy movie on the History Channel, I decided to make a batch of cornbread pancakes, also known as johnnycakes.

I had tried them before with a Betty Crocker recipe and found them to be greasy and not very good, but this time I found a different recipe online that turned out much better. They were easy, easy to make. This recipe made flat little cakes with a slightly sweet taste and enough body to them to stand up to butter and sorghum molasses. They were just as good today without being warmed up, and they were plenty filling.

The experience of making and eating these cornbread pancakes gave me some valuable insight into an aspect of everyday life in the 19th century. These pancakes were made with simple ingredients and were so easy to mix up and cook on a griddle that a busy wife or mother could throw together lunch quickly, even if she was tired from working in the field or garden. The recipe made probably 12 pancakes, so it would be enough to feed a fairly good-sized family. They could be stacked and eaten as pancakes, or they were thin and flexible enough they could be used to wrap around a piece of meat (much like a tortilla). And if the work to be done was out in a field far enough away from the house that it would take too much time to come back home for lunch, the johnnycakes hold over well, would taste good cold, and would be easy to eat picnic-style.

It's a small thing, I suppose, but I like learning that kind of information. Sure, history is about the big things like wars and treaties and elections, but it's also about the little, day-to-day things like filling one's stomach.

There was also another interesting little side path Lily and I talked about over lunch. I was putting sorghum on my cornbread pancakes, and Lily asked why I called it "sorghum" when the jar says "molasses." Well, I didn't know, so we looked it up. "Sorghum" is the genus name for the plant which has the sap that is cooked down to make the syrup; "molasses" is "a syrup made from boiling down sweet vegetable or fruit juice." So to be technically correct, we should always call it "sorghum molasses."

This was a very educational lunch!

In case you want to experiment with the cornbread pancakes, here's the recipe (from

3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk (I didn't have buttermilk, so I used the old trick to use vinegar to sour the milk)
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Mix dry ingredients together, then mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry and blend well until the batter is smooth. Cook the pancakes on a hot griddle until golden-brown on each side.


lil red hen said...

Wish you had some good EMZ molasses.

Augustina Peach said...

Yes, me too! When Lily and I were talking about it, I reminded her of the chapter in your book in which you talk about how sorghum was made.