To my fellow historical fiction lovers on the prowl for a new read: I’m partway through Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate and loving it! The novel explores a real-life scandal in which Georgia Tann trafficked thousands of children through a corrupt adoption organization in Tennessee from the 1920s to 1950s. This is a piece of southern American history I’ve never heard of before and I’m hooked!
The book starts out on a shantyboat in the Mississippi River in 1939, and I quickly noticed that whenever food came up I was left scratching my head. Cornpone? Hoecakes? As a Texas girl I like to think I know a bit about southern cuisine, but this was all new to me.
Some Googling showed me that almost every dish I saw in the book stems from one common ingredient: cornmeal. Now, we all know cornmeal is an integral part of southern cooking (grits… hushpuppies… mmm), but this discovery inspired me to figure out just how far back in American history cornmeal reaches.
The answer is far.
Native Americans were grinding up corn and cooking with it thousands of years before Europeans set foot in North America. Groups such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek used cornmeal to make pone (a flat bread baked in ashes), to thicken drinks like atole and chicha, or to make simple porridges. These Native groups taught early settlers how to cultivate and eat corn, and the rest is culinary history.
Interestingly, Native American methods of processing corn shaped the early southern economy as well as cuisine. Once settlers embraced cooking with corn, they were inspired by the American Indian practice of grinding kernels with mortars and pestles to construct grist mills (or corn mills) that would grind corn and other grains on a larger scale.
Grist mills were typically one to a town, so local farmers and villagers all brought their grains to the same miller. The miller kept a small percentage of each client’s finished product called a “miller’s toll,” then traded or sold it for other goods around town. This created a tight-knit, community-centric economy.
Grist mills began going out of fashion in the early 1900s as technology advanced. Today, less than 1,000 remain. However, I like to think their influence lives on not only through their role in the south’s development, but through all the delicious cornmeal recipes we still get to enjoy!
Here’s a simple recipe for hoecakes that reaches back to Georgia Tann’s time. For full authenticity, eat them warm from the skillet or crumble the leftovers into a bowl with buttermilk and honey for dessert. Happy cooking y’all!
Yield: 2 6-inch cakes Time: 1 hour
- 1 cup fine-ground white or yellow cornmeal
- Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- Bring a kettle of water to boil. Put cornmeal and salt in a large bowl and whisk in 1 cup + 2 tablespoons boiling water. Let rest 10 minutes.
- Stir in 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil. The mixture should be thick but just pourable. If it seems too thick, stir in another tablespoon or two of hot water.
- Put the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Spoon in about half the cornmeal mixture and spread it into a 6-inch round with the back of the spoon. Cook about 10 mins until the hoecake is golden around the edges and looks set, then gently flip it. Cook another 8 to 10 minutes and transfer to a plate.
- Repeat with remaining cornmeal mixture.