From Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864
I had to include this recipe because it illustrates the horrendous conditions that told the enslaved Black person that they were less than human from the days of their earliest childhood until the end of the their lives. After the pot liquor and corn bread and thin corn gruels that were fed to enslaved infants, came in the words of Frederick Douglass:
Our corn meal mush, which was our only regular if not all-sufficing diet, when sufficiently cooled from the cooking, was placed in a large tray or trough. This was set down either on the floor of the kitchen, or out of doors on the ground, and the children were called like so many pigs, and like so many pigs would come, some with oyster-shells, some with pieces of shingles, but none with spoons, and literally devour the mush. He who could eat fastest got most, and he that was strongest got the best place, but few left the trough really satisfied (62)
This seemed like it was merely a case of human food fed to children in an inhuman way until I spoke to a colleague who grew up visiting her family’s farm in Kentucky. She said that on the farm pigs were fed with a mushy mixture of cornmeal, milk and table scraps. In honor of the discomfort food eaten by our ancestors: here’s a taste of time we should not forget. Be sure to add your tears.
4 1/2 cups of water
1 cup of buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 ½ cups of white stone ground cornmeal
bits of greens, pot liquor, other like tidbits, optional
Let the water and salt dissolve together. Add the milk and bring to a boil. In small amounts, add the cornmeal until it is completely incorporated into the liquid mixture, turn down the heat and cook for at least a half an hour. When the mush is near its end, add the leftovers. Eat with an oyster shell.
The legend is that enslaved people baked hoecakes on a hoe in the fields for their midday meal. Elizabeth Lea, a cookbook author from Montgomery County in the mid-19th century has several corn cake recipes, one of which she called a “Virginia hoe cake.” Indeed, hoecake was the hardtack, the matzah, of enslaved Blacks for several centuries. Some Maryland hoecakes were made over a griddle in the hearth (also known as a hoe), others were baked on a “bannock” board placed facing the fire. Although hoecake is associated with enslaved people, George Washington’s favorite breakfast was hoecakes and honey.
1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal
3/4 cup of boiling hot water
½ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening
Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes. Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking. Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake. Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan. Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown. Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately once all the hoecakes have been cooked.
Ashcakes in Poplar Leaves
As a general rule the slaves did not come to their quarters to take their meals, but took their ash-cake (called thus because baked in the ashes) and piece of pork, or their salt herrings, where they were at work.
–Frederick Douglass, 1847
The tulip poplar, Lirodendroan tulipifera, was a very important tree to enslaved Africans. Its trunk was good for canoes, its height and stature must have reminded them of the sacred trees that grew in the village squares. Its leaves were also useful. Ashcakes, hoecakes that were cooked in the wood coals of the hearth, were wrapped in wet corn shucks, cabbage leaves or the leaves of the tulip poplar.
24 large tulip poplar leaves (available May-October)
Using the hoecake batter, form the ashcake into a large patty. Wrap each cake in two leaves, top and bottom, making sure the leaves are securely covering each patty. When cooking in a hearth, make sure both the bottom and top are covered in hot ashes. Bake each ashcake for about 15 minutes each.