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The Hoe Cake: Native American Cooking


by Cliff Lowe

My grandmother was of Native American descent, Cherokee to be exact. One of my fondest childhood memories is waking up at Grandma's house to the smell of frying bacon, hot biscuits, and boiling coffee. And I could barely contain myself until Granny took the hot, fluffy biscuits from the oven because, you see, when Granny made biscuits she made something special for me. It was called a Hoe Cake. It looked like a huge, flattish biscuit but, to me, it represented something akin to a present from the magic fairy and it tasted sweeter and creamier than any other bread in the world. And it was made even better by the fact this special delight was made with love and reserved just for me! In fact what it was, was a large biscuit. When Granny cut out the biscuits, she saved all the loose dough trimmings, formed them into a flatbread shape, and made my Hoe Cake.

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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 fritters, for example, evolved from the Indian's method of frying corn. Creamed corn was first made by Indians who, lacking cows for cream, laboriously pressed 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 eating 'Cherokee 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.

**To learn more about Native American cooking, from South America through North America, may we recommend this magnificent book: Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions. click here for book review



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