When I was older I learned from
her that an actual Hoe Cake was made from a mixture of flour, leavening,
salt and liquid such as milk or water and, in fact, closely resembled
a biscuit. It got the name from the way it was made. Many Indians worked
in the fields, sometimes their own fields, sometimes fields owned by
White farmers, and they left home early in the morning and didn't return
home until after dark. They carried a bag of prepared dry mix and a
small pan to the fields and, at lunchtime, they grabbed some water or
milk (if available), stirred it into the mix to make dough and then
cleaned the dirt off a wide-blade cultivating hoe, which they then heated
in a fire. The flattened dough was slapped onto the already hot hoe,
which was then held as near the fire as possible without burning and
the dough baked. Voilà! Hot bread from a hot hoe! Hoe Cake!
Not long ago, I began to think about
my Indian heritage and tried to recall any and all of the Native American
Recipes that my mother cooked. She didn't do it too often because, I
suppose, my Dad (being Scotch-Irish) wasn't wild about the cuisine and,
also because she was taught to cook by my paternal grandmother who cooked
in the manner of the Deep South. I was amazed to learn that a great
deal of the cuisine of the folks in the South, especially in Kentucky,
Tennessee, and Virginia, evolved from Native Cooking. Corn
for example, evolved from the Indian's method of frying corn. Creamed
corn was first made by Indians who, lacking cows for cream, laboriously
Hickory Nut meats to form
a substance which very much looks and tastes like cream. Stewed tomatoes
come directly from the Cherokee tradition of mixing various vegetables
and stewing them.
Much is heard about Indian
Fry Bread. Fry Bread,
as it is made today, came to be when Indians were forced from their
lands to reservations and came under the control of the federal government.
The government furnished rations, or 'commodities' as we would call
them today, to the Indians whom they had forced onto welfare. These
Native women had never seen a biscuit and many of them had no idea what
to do with the bags of self-rising flour included in each month's rations
but, being extremely adaptable, they soon learned to make dough and
shape it and cook it in much the same way that they had cooked a type
of bread made with ground acorns and/or nuts. But instead of a hot,
flat rock, they had an iron griddle or large, iron frying pan. Before
long, they were patting dough out into flat rounds and frying them up
in bacon fat, lard, and/or butter. Being practical they named the bread
according to what it was: fried bread. Only they said 'Fry-bread' and
the name stuck.
A few years back a popular movie
was titled, Fried Green Tomatoes and it struck a chord with many
because in the south, especially in Kentucky and Tennessee, fried
green tomatoes are an
old and familiar dish. Guess who first fried green tomatoes? Yup. Native
Americans started taking green tomatoes that were too late in the season
to ripen before frost and sliced them, dredged them in some of that
good old government-issue self-rising flour and fried them up in bacon
grease. It didn't take long for other folks to see the wisdom of this
and enjoy the remarkable flavor of this fried green berry. By the way,
in spite of the fact that the USDA classifies the common tomato as a
vegetable it is, in fact, a berry. But, then again, they also classify
catsup as a vegetable. Go figure. (Theoretically, then, you could have
fried green tomatoes with catsup and, if you happened to be a smooth
talking kid, convince your parents that you had just eaten two vegetables
from the food group. It's probably healthier than French-fries and catsup,
the other two vegetables in the deep-fried food group. But I digress.
Each spring my mother would cook
such things as fried Polk Stalks, wild greens seasoned with bacon, Morel
Mushrooms and butter fried Puffballs. Often this would be washed down
with Sassafras Tea.
As the year progressed we also would have such things as stewed tomatoes,
cooked Squash, Fried
Squash Blossoms, Fried Rabbit, Squirrel, etc.
My mother also cooked such wonderful
and traditional foods such as Angel Food cakes that would nearly float
away and mile-high potato rolls served hot and slathered with fresh,
homemade creamy butter and usually served as an accompaniment to such
things as Pot Roast or Southern Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy. Sometimes,
we had yellow cornbread in place of rolls or biscuits.
She used to make a rich vegetable
soup that she called (can you believe it?) Vegetable Soup. Imagine my
surprise when, years later, I came across her same recipe in a cookbook
about Native American cooking and found that all those years I had been
Pepper Pot Soup.'
But of all the things I remember
best, my favorite is (and always will be) waking up to the morning smells
at Granny's and being the only one served a piping hot Hoe Cake! Was
life ever better? I doubt it.