At holiday time we reach back into a past we can scarely remember to repeat a dish that's been served for generations. Pound-cake sitting on the sideboard or Virginia ham sliced paper thin means Christmas to many just as much as trimming the tree.
While many food traditions were packed along with the worldly belongings of the immigrants who came to America, others sprang up from the great variety of foods they found here. Early cooks had little in the way of kitchen aids-just a big fireplace and a couple of different kinds of pots-but there was plenty to eat. By the 18th century wild turkey was becoming rare thanks to over-hunting its favorite food, gingseng. Fortunately, housewives were successful raising domestic gobblers (often bred with their wild cousins).
The early settlers raised pigs, sheep and cattle. They had access to the game and game birds modern hunters still shoot, plus bear, buffalo and something no longer a taste favorite, raccoon.
Corn was the most important staple in the early days of this country. The first settlers were pretty poor farmers and would have starved without Indian corn. Even after English grains (oats, barley, wheat and rye) were introduced, corn remained popular as a vegetable harvest time or as meal year round.
Early cooks managed to work cornmeal into almost all their porridges and breads. Spoon bread was breakfast fare as late as 1880, though my family served it with any meal that included ham, especially Christmas dinner.
HELEN HAWTHORNE'S SPOON BREAD 1/2 cup grits 3 cups boiling water 1/2 cup white cornmeal 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons sugar 3 or 4 eggs, depending on their size 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 1/4 cups milk
Gradually add grits to boiling water. Lower heat and simmer until done. Mix in cornmeal, butter, salt and sugar. Let mixture cool. Beat eggs well and add to cornmeal along with baking powder and milk. (Batter will be thin.)
Pour mixture into a 2-quart casserole that has been well buttered. Bake 35 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees.
It may have been scarcity as much as plenty that spawned Christmas food traditions. Many spices, a few fruits (oranges, limes and coconuts), and loaf sugar (prized by early housewives as much for its dark purple wrapping paper as for its fine quality in baking) had to be imported and were considered luxury items.
Oranges remain a Christmas treat even in this day of refrigerated boxcars and trucks-whether as stuffing for a child's stocking or in ambrosia, a luxurious light touch after a huge dinner. And despite the proliferation of store-bought sweets, modern cooks still bake, if only at Christmas.
MOZELLE DAMEWOOD'S POUNDCAKE 3 sticks of butter (at room temperature) 3 cups sugar 8 eggs 3 cups sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon lemon extract*tCombine sugar and butter until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well, adding some of the dry ingredients after each egg, until flour and eggs are used up. Add flavorings and pour into a greased and floured .-inch tube pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a straw comes out clean.
In this area food traditions seem spun off from two different kinds of farm families-the Tidewater planters straight off the boat from England and the Piedmont farmers who filtered down from Pennsylvania. Novelists have romanticized the planter into a cliche, but despite his dependence on tobacco and slaves, he grew many other crops, if for no other reason than to feed his family and workers. Tidewater folk had decent transportation thanks to the countless creeks and rivers, but could hardly depend on imported goods, two or three months away by sea. Proximity to the water meant slightly milder winters, and careful gardeners might eat greens, sweet potatoes and squash even in the dead of winter.
The Tidewater diet has has always been rounded out amply with fresh fish and seafood. Oysters caught on early (Marylanders and Virginians began their oyster feuds as early as 1632). But it is probably in its hams that Tidewater made its greatest culinary contribution
Early Virginia settlers turned pigs loose on an island (now known as Hog) where thy could run free from predators. Whether from the hogs' diet of roots and acorns (later peanuts) or hickory smoking, Virginia hams quickly rivaled the best that Europe had to offer.
HAM WITH SHERRY
Scrub a smoked country ham with a brush and yellow soap to remove any mold. Rinse and soak ham overnight in a large roasting pan (longer if ham is particularly hard). Discard water and cover ham with fresh water. Simmer gently for several hours (allow 20 minutes per pound) until shank bone feels loose. Do not boil. Remove from water and cool enough to cut off the skin and all but 1/2 inch of fat. This can be done the day before you want to serve the ham).
Place ham in a baking pan, fat side down and add sherry to the depth of 1 inch. Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour.Remove foil, turn ham and score fat into diamond shapes, adding a clove to each diamond, if you wish. Mix equal amounts of brown sugar and cornmeal (enough to cover fat) and moisten with cooking juices. Bake another 1/2 hour or hour until fat is browned and crusty. Cool before serving and slice as thin as you possibly can.
SCALLOPED OYSTERS 1 pint oysters 1 cup bread crumbs 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/4 cup melted butter 1/4 to 1/2 cup milk or cream
Drain oysters, reserving the liquid. Mix bread crumbs with salt, pepper and melted butter. Layer crumbs and oysters in a greased casserole, ending up with a layer of crumbs. Mix oyster liquid and milk and pour over casserole. Bake in a hot oven (425 to 450 degrees) for 20 minutes or until crumbs are brown and casserole is bubbling.
LIKKER PUDDING 2 1/2 cups milk 3 medium yams 3 eggs*%2 cups sugar 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds 1/4 stick butter 1/2 cup bourbon or rum
Put milk in a 2-quart casserole. Grate yams into milk (to prevent their turning dark). Beat eggs well and gradually add sugar. Add cinnamon and almonds and mix well with potatoes. Dot with butter and bake in 300 degree oven for 2 hours. Just before serving pour "likker" over the pudding
From "The Groaning Board": St James Episdcopal Church, Shelburne with Cameron Parish.
The German religious groups and Quakers who joined William Penn's colony took the curious misnomer "Pennsylvania Dutch" with them as they moved south and west in search of new lands. Whatever their bacgground, they shared a reputation for careful husbandry fo land and livestock and a religious repect for food.
Pork was a favorite food of German settlers, and many Pennsylvania Dutch families still greet the New Year with a lion or shoulder roasted with sauerkraut and apples. Butchering day was an occassion that put Christmas to shame (or replaced if for the QUAKERS AND OTHER AUSTERE GROUPS WHO TREATED RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS JUST LIKE ANY OTHER DAY). THRIFTY HOUSEWIVES MANAGED TO USE ALMOST ALL THE PIG IN ONE DISH OR ANOTHER-SCRAPPLE, SOUSE, HEAD CHEESE, LIVER PUDDING, SAUSAGE, HAMS, CHOPS AND ROASTS.
PIEDMONT FARMERS ALSO PRIDED THEMSELVES ON THEIR POULTRY, AND EGGS PLAY AS IMPORTANT A ROLE IN PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COOKING AS DO CHICKEN AND GEESE, ESPECIALLY AT HOLIDAY TIME. EGGS LAID ON CHRISTMAS DAY WERE SAID TO REDUCE A HERNIA.
NO TABLE WAS CONSIDERED SET WITHOUT PIE, HOLIDAY OR NOT. CHRISTMAS DAY MIGHT HAVE BROUGHT MINCEMENT, DRIED APPLE (SCHNITZ) OR THE MOLASSES AND CRUMB CONFECTIONS STICKY ENOUGH TO ATTRACT FLIES EVEN IN WINTER.
AUNT ELLA'S CHICKEN CORN SOUP 2 quarts chicken broth 2 or 3 chicken bouillon cubes 1 cup chopped celery*%4 cups corn 2 cups cooked chicken meat or on bones 3 hard-cooked eggs*%1 cup flour 1 egg
Mix broth, bouillon cubes, celery, corn, chicken and cook 10 minutes stirring often. Chop hard cooked eggs and add to soup. Mix flour and egg together to form coarse crumbs (or rivels) and add a few at a time. Cook 5 minutes more.
PAM POTT'S SAUERKRAUT AND PORK 3 or 4 pounds pork loin or shoulder, well frimmed 1 quart home canned sauerkraut or 2 packages (16 ounces each) fresh 1 medium apple, peeled, cored and chopped 1 medium onion, chopped 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 to 1 cup water 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
Brown fat adide of pork in a 5-quart Dutch oven or heavy pan with tight fitting lid. Pour off any fat that remains. Combine rest of ingredients in pan. Return pork to pan, fat side up. Bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat down to low, simmering pork 2 1/2 hours or longer, until very tender.
Make enough pie crust (preferably with lard) for two 8-inch pies. Roll out half and cover an 8-inc pie plate. Fill with cooled schnitz filling, then roll out second half of crust to cover. Cut air holes and flute edges.
Schnitz Filling 3 cups dried, sliced unsweetened apples 3 or 4 cups water Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 cup brown sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon butter
Simmer apples with rest of ingredients until tender but not mushy (about 20 minutes). Let filling congeal at room temperature before filling pie. Bake pie in 350 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until crust is nicely browned and filling bubbling. Serve at room temperature.
SHOO-FLY CAKE 4 cups unsifted flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 pound margarine or butter, softened 1 pound light brown sugar 1 cup molasses 2 cups boiling water 2 teaspoon baking soda 1 egg, beaten slightly
Mix flour, baking powder, margarine and brown sugar to make crumb mixture. Reserve 1 1/2 cups crumbs for topping. Add remaining ingredients to make a thin batter. Pour into a large oblong cake pan. Top with crumbs and bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.