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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Early Americans Ate Well, Fast In Taverns And Households

It's food too fine for angels; yet come, take
And eat thy fill! It's Heaven's sugar cake.
Edward Taylor

Dallas Bogan on 26 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

Tavern meals in the early days of colonization were taken up with such speed that foreigners were actually astonished. The slang of the period was one of the three "G's": "Gobble, gulp and go."
One guest was puzzled over the haste, hustle and starving attitude the inn frequenter displayed. Everyone stuffed himself at uncanny speeds. Another visitor was amazed that in barely twenty minutes, he had witnessed two series of meals in his hotel.
Visitors from the homeland were astounded at the size of the American meal. A standard breakfast consisted of oatmeal or cornmeal mash; soft-boiled eggs; a meat dish, which consisted of steak, lamb or veal chops, or sausages; accompanied with potatoes, cheese, bread or crackers with butter; and occasionally buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup; beverages included coffee or tea.
Dinner or supper consisted of an ample supply of soup; red or white meat served with potatoes, corn green beans, cabbage, or beets. Chicken, jellies and jams, along with puddings and pies were also provided.
Salads came along later. The main raw vegetables were lettuce or dandelion greens seasoned with sugar and vinegar.

Corn and Maize

Corn, or maize, originally cultivated and raised by the American Indians was, without a doubt, a genuine American dish. Among the first things the colonists did was to plant a patch of corn and pray for a harvest that would parlay into a crop of the yellow-grained nutrient that would supplement his diet of fish and game.
As we travel through this glorious land of ours, we see the tall, golden stalks of precious grain; it is not thought upon that this product was the fundamental foodstuff of the pioneer.
Corn could be planted and harvested in five months, compared to that of wheat, which took twice as long to develop, the latter producing a much smaller percentage. The following is a colorful description of the greatest food-source known to modern man, corn. It was written by Josiah Morrow in the early Twentieth Century for Lebanon's Western Star. It reads:
"Indian corn is the one food plant indigenous to the new world, and in its gift we have received from American aboriginal agriculture the most important food plant in the world. In the number of farms in which it may be used as food, the abundance of its yield and the variety of climates in which it may be grown, it excels the date of Egypt, the rice of China and any of the cereals of the old world. It is not only the most useful, but also the most beautiful grain plant, and as it is of American origin. A stalk of maize might well have been placed on the seal of the United States rather than any wild bird or beast, a fitting recognition of agriculture as the basis of national wealth."
James Smith, long a prisoner among the Indians of Ohio, in describing the foods of the red men, mentions, "green corn dried." It is not known that this method of preserving corn was followed to any considerable extent, either by the native tribes or the early white settlers.
A Miami County pioneer recollected an ordeal in which the Indian meal played a part in his life. He relates:
"My father's family was small and he took us all with him to the Miami wilderness. The Indian meal which he brought was expended six weeks too soon, so for that time we had to live without bread.
"The lean venison and the breast of wild turkey we were taught to call bread. I remember how narrowly we children watched the potato tops, pumpkin and squash vines, hoping from day to day to get something in place of bread.
"How delicious was the taste of the young potatoes when we got them! What a jubilee when we were permitted to pull the young corn for roasting ears! Still more when it acquired hardness to be made into johnnycake cakes by the aid of a tin grater."

Hominy Block

An account of the earliest means to reduce corn to corn meal was that a section of an oak or gum tree trunk, four feet in length and two feet in diameter, was provided as a rude mortar. It was burned out at one end to a depth of 18 or 20 inches. Into this container a portion of grist was placed and beaten with a stick of wood that served as a pestle. When adequately pounded the meal was then sifted and deemed ready to be made into bread. This was called a hominy block.
Hominy blocks did not last long, for mills came quite early and superseded them. Yet these mills were so far apart that in stormy weather, or want of transportation, the pioneer was compelled to resort to his hominy block, or go without bread.
Sometimes this block was placed inside the cabin where it served as a seat for the bashful or young buckskinned backwoodsman while sparking his girl. Sometimes a convenient stump in front of the cabin door was prepared for, and made one of the best of hominy blocks. "Hog and hominy" was the natural relationship between pork and beaten corn.

The Trammel and Hooks

The trammel and hooks were found among the well-to-do families. Previous to this, the lug-pole, across the inside of the chimney, about even with the chamber floor, answered for a trammel.
A chain was suspended from it; hooks were attached, and from this hung the mush-pot or teakettle. If a chain was not available, a wooden hook was in reach of the multitude.
When a meal was not in preparation, and the fire endangered the hook, it was forced aside to one end of the lug-pole for safety.
Ironware was scarce in those days. Instances are related where the one pot served at a meal to boil water for mint tea or crust coffee, to bake the bread, boil the potatoes, and fry the meat. Precise management accomplished this. Frequently the kettle had no lid, and a flat stone, heated, and handled with the tongs, served the purpose. This was especially feasible when a loaf or pone or pumpkin pie was baked.
Heating the kettle somewhat, putting in the cake, and tipping it up sideways before the glowing fire could bake shortcake.
Bannock, or board-cake, was made by mixing the cornmeal with warm water into a thick dough, adding a pinch of salt and a trifle of lard, spreading it onto a clean clapboard, thence patting it to the proper consistency, and slanting it before the fire. It was then propped into the right position by a flatiron behind it. Baked quickly, this made a delicious cake.
A Mr. Bateman, of South Charleston, recollected having gone to an inn one time in the backcountry for a meal. An impoverished woman told him that she only had corn pone. He exclaimed: "Corn-pone, there's nothing in the world I like better than corn-pone! Corn pone baked in an old Dutch oven! There's nothing to compare with it!"
One method of making the pone was to lighten the meal with buttermilk and aerated salt eliminating the pumpkin. Sometimes a little lard was used for shortening.
Originally the pioneer prepared his own soda. Firing a hollow elm log did the method. Due to extremely intense heat the ashes were melted down into cakes, which could be kept for use.
Hickory ashes were sometimes leeched, the lye boiled into potash and baked until it dried and whitened. This mixture, along with buttermilk, produced appetizing biscuits, batter-cakes and corn bread.
Preparation of a substantial amount of meal and water, with a little lard, soda, and salt added, produced a grand treat called "hoe-cake" or "dodgers." (The name "hoe-cake" was derived from the Southern Negroes who used a hoe on which to bake it.) Maple sugar could be added if one wanted to sweeten the delicacy. When the pumpkin ripened in the fall it could be cooked and added as an additional taste.
Molding of the mixture was by taking as much as could be conveniently held in both hands and tossing it from hand to hand until it assumed the preferred shape. It would then be put on a smooth board, or stone, and patted down to the desired thickness and placed at an angle before the fire.
When thoroughly baked on one side it was taken off with a knife and turned over to be baked on the other side. After baking it was sometimes dipped into cold water and promptly rolled up in a cloth to steam a while. The fresh and sweet treat was eaten with butter and milk.
"Johnny-cake" came from the word "journey" which in turn was undoubtedly interpreted from the French word "journee," meaning daily.
An old fashioned way of preparing the meal for the Johnny-cake was to pound it fine and sieve it by a crude method which got out the husk and left in the heart of the kernel. This procedure made it more palatable and healthier. Grain crushed on stone-burrs by means of a water wheel produced meal that was much sweeter.

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This page created 26 August 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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