Monday, November 24, 2014

Slumps, Grunts, and Snickerdoodles

Lila Perl 1975
drawings by Richard Cuffari

The history of food can be so interesting.  In this book What Colonial America Ate and Why, you can imagine the English Pilgrim families trying to eke out a new way of sustenance.  There were vegetables and grains they were completely unfamiliar with and I'm sure many were homesick for the regular food they were used to.  You can see how they adapted their cooking to use these new American ingredients for their traditional English dishes.

Of course, the Pilgrims intended at the time to plant their own seeds of wheat, oats, rye, barley, and peas in the empty Indian cornfields.  They did not know that much of their seed had rotted on the long, damp journey from England.  Nor did they realize that they had come to the land of Indian corn, to an entire continent in fact where no European grains- no wheat or oats, no rye or barley- had ever been heard of before the first visits of European ships and sailors.

We learned that sukquttahash (succotashwas an Indian dish of corn and beans.  It was one of the first, the simplest, and the most directly adopted recipes taken from the Indians by the colonists.

The poor colonists also had to go without bread- there was no wheat or rye flour.  So they tried experimenting with cornmeal, baking Indian pone- improving the flavor somewhat by adding salt and sugar, milk and butter, and baking their bread on a greased fireplace griddle, pancake fashion.

I like the story of Anadama bread:  A cornmeal and wheat bread that actually had enough wheat flour in it to be raised by yeast.  The story behind anadama bread is that there was once a New England fisherman who grew exceedingly tired of the cornmeal mush served up for dinner day after day by his unimaginative wife, Anna.  Adding several fistfuls of wheat flour, some yeast, and some molasses to Anna's mush, he set the entire mess to rise, baked it, and ate the hot delicious loaf, while muttering angrily to himself between satisfying mouthfuls, "Anna, damn her!" 

Though this new world had plenty of wild fruits and berries, they were all sour and tart.  So the colonists concocted "slumps" and "grunts"- a way to steam the fruit with a cakelike dumpling dough on top.  Or even better, a "flummery", which was fruit stewed and sweetened and served thick with a bit of cream.  

This Thanksgiving holiday I think I'll be thankful for green bean casserole, the sweet light white bread I'll be baking, fat non-gamey turkey and pumpkin pie!  

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