Thursday, February 11, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #3 - Cornpone

This challenge was challenging! The theme was history detective and the instructions read thus:

 "For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made."

I found it difficult to choose something to investigate. I don't have a lot of time to devote to research right now and wrack my brain as I might, the only things I could remember having read or heard about in the past that I never really knew how were made were foodstuffs talked about in favorite childhood literature.

Although I read quite a lot of books as a child, the ones I read over and over were the Anne of Green Gables series and Laura Ingalls Wilders' Little House on the Prairie. As a child I loved reading about food. How it was prepared, what it looked like, how it tasted, how it was served. I thought about Anne's unfortunate cake-baking experience, her likewise result with ruby-red raspberry cordial, and the monkey-face cookies her children enjoyed in Anne of Ingleside. I thrilled with delight reading about butchering time in Little  House in the Big Woods, the lovely cottage cheese balls with onion that Ma prepared in the hot summer  before Mary went to college in Little Town on the Prairie and the exciting dessert of soda crackers and canned peaches made with findings at the surveyors house in By The Shores of Silver Lake. 

Ahhh. I love food. :) 

So ANYWAY. Yes. I thought I should choose something I had always been curious about for this fortnights challenge. What could I do that would satisfy a long held curiosity and also be applicable to the 1860's/Civil War theme I want to do this year? Well, what could be a more early-American staple than infamous salt pork and cornpone? 

In the Little House books, salt pork is often described as being fried and served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I don't have the book in front of me now to quote it, but if my memory serves me correctly, cornpone played a heroic part in helping Pa escape from a pack of wolves. 

Cornpone is also referenced many times in relation to the diet of Civil War soldiers. While being described fairly frequently, the exact making of this interesting basic dish is often left to the imagination. 

"One of our tired forage trains had gone into park near us, and the teamsters offered to share their supper with us. They had corn "pone", some salt pork, and for a rarity some newly arrived coffee. We sat on the corn stalks around the fire with an iron camp-kettle in the midst containing the black coffee which we dipped out with battered tin cups, and we held in our hands pieces of the corn-pone and slices of fried pork, congratulating each other on the unexpected luxury of our supper." 
~ Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 2 
by Jacob Cox

"At dark he brought us a sack of corn pone, some meat and baked sweet potatoes, and with instructions as the country and descriptions of plantations and friends farther north, started us on our way rejoicing, for his provender had found us very hungry, weak, and much discouraged."
~Civil War Reflections
by Harvey S.  Hogue, Company G, 115th Regiment, Ohio Infantry

Original extant nuggets of cornpone from Andersonville Prison, from the Minnesota Historical Society

This link takes one to a source for a late 1850's article on making salted pork: The New England Farmer; Salted Pork

It seems salted pork of the period was pork that was put into a brine. I have seen a few references which seem to indicate dry curing was also done, but the meat was not smoked. Soaking would remove much of the saltiness to make the prepared product more palatable. For my own experiment with cornpone, I cheated and used store bought salt pork from my little town grocery. I don't know how this compares with period salt pork, but it gave me enough fat to make the pone, which is mainly what I wanted to do.

My salt pork was mostly fat with a thin streak of meat. A period article describes the salt pork of the army to be a "clear fat" so mine fails that description, obviously. 

Once I had a good amount of fat in the skillet, I mixed a few spoonfuls of it with cornmeal and a little hot water to make the pones. Period sources list different ingredients for making corn pone, but it seems the basics are water and cornmeal. I tried to think of how Laura Ingalls mother might have made it, or how a soldier may easily have made it with drippings left in the pan. 

So, a mix of cornmeal, fat and water. This did not make a malleable mass as required, so I added a little rye flour to attempt to hold the balls of dough together better. After a lot of squeezing and molding I was finally successful in forming a half dozen cakes. 

These I fried in the leftover fat, til golden brown. 

Malachi tasted them for me. I gave him some dark molasses to dip them in, if he wanted. He was a good sport and ate one with the molasses, but the rest he had with honey. He said the honey was better. 

The outside was crisp and golden and the inside kind of dense and crumbly. I'd eat them again!

I doubt this meal would be very kind to the digestive system if eaten frequently but it was fun to try it and even more fun to share the experience with my son (who was home from school today with a cough and sore throat) who now has a little bit better an idea of what he may have sometimes eaten as a young boy in mid-19th century America. 

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