Returning to the 1820 kitchen this month also meant returning to my roots for a selection of recipes straight from my ancestral recipe box. Southern spoon bread was a family favorite handed down from my third great-grandmother, Lydia Jane Rutledge, who migrated to Missouri from Virginia in 1838 in a covered wagon when she was a small child. The ingredients are simple but the process to make this dish resembles more a soufflé than frontier johnny cake or cornbread. At the request of one reader, I’m listing the ingredients first for each recipe and will discuss the cooking process below.
Southern Spoon Bread
1 cup yellow cornmeal 3 eggs, separated
2 cups milk 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Spoon bread is a fluffier form of cornbread served as a side dish and dished up with a spoon rather than cut into squares or baked as muffins. It makes a fine pairing with soup or stew, which led me to dig out another of my heritage cookbooks to find a recipe for Beef Barley Soup. I love making soups, especially on a cold winter day, which is what we’ve seen plenty of this winter, and hearty soups were a staple of early American life, given the flexibility and economy soups offer. Anyone who remembers hearing the tale of Stone Soup, where a couple of soldiers wander into village and teach the residents the art of sharing by mixing an assortment of vegetables, meat, stock and seasonings with a mere pot of boiling water and a stone, will understand the kind of fare that kept our ancestors thriving during long hard winters. For my recipe of choice, I adapted a recipe from a local historic site cookbook by using ingredients I had on hand.
Beef Barley Soup
1 lb beef stew meat 1/2 lb barley
1 stick butter 6 cups beef broth
1 onion, diced Salt & Pepper
1 stalk celery, diced
1 – 2 carrots, diced
I had all the ingredients to bring from home except for the stew meat and barley, which I dashed over to our local Market Basket, a block away from the Stephenson House. Unfortunately, they did not have chopped stew meat, so I purchased a beef roast and chopped it up myself in the kitchen. This would be more in keeping with what an 1820 woman or the kitchen servant would have done too. There were butchers in Edwardsville at the time the Stephenson’s lived there and household receipts show us the family did purchase a significant amount of beef from town, disproving the myth that all early Americans on the frontier hunted for their food or raised it all themselves. The market did not have barley, although they had every other grain available like quinoa, rice, couscous, etc, but, unfortunately, those would not have been familiar to our favorite early Edwardsville family. Lucky for me, a few doors down from the Market Basket is my favorite health food store, Green Earth, which has a bulk food selection of spices, teas and all sorts of grains. Sure enough, they had exactly what I needed – raw, cracked barley perfect for an early American soup.
While I was at the Market Basket I also noticed some fine apples, perfect for frying as an added touch to what was now becoming a full meal deal, early American style. Since I had all day to cook, I decided to go for broke and make this a perfect opportunity to double up on some recipes. As an unexpected bonus, I found I would not be cooking alone! One of our newest volunteers, Josh Smith, who happens to also be one of my talented piano students, joined me in the kitchen to make quick work of all that vegetable chopping.
Josh set to work chopping carrots and onions while I worked on preparing the stew meat and frying it in a skillet over the hearth fire, which had been prepared for us beforehand by the assistant director, Jeff. For the broth, I cheated a little using powdered broth from the Green Earth that I mixed with water and added to the cooked meat. Next was to add the chopped vegetables and barley and let it simmer over the fire. Now, onto the spoon bread.
It had been years since I tried this recipe and never before on an actual hearth. But since this recipe dates back in my family to at least the 1830’s, this had to be possible. As I said before, the ingredients are few and the process deceptively simple, but can go awry at any stage to leave nothing but a flat, lumpy, tasteless mess of goo or a charred pot of cornmeal cardboard. I wasn’t about to let either happen, so holding my breath with a wish and a prayer, I set Josh to work eagerly helping me.
The first step is to boil the milk and then add it to the cornmeal, almost more like a version of hasty pudding than traditional cornbread. Hasty pudding was a common side dish made by cooking milk or water into grains, making a sort of porridge.
Today we might think of it more as Quaker oatmeal, but our Southern Illinois ancestors often used cornmeal as a replacement for the oats or barley common to England and New England. Hasty pudding is referenced in a verse of the ever popular, Yankee Doodle, dating back to the Revolutionary War.
My pa and I went down to camp
Along with Captain Goodwin
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding
Mixing the cornmeal with boiled milk was the easy part. Now for one of the more demanding aspect of early American cooking – beating egg whites by hand without a mixer. Three eggs separated yielded egg yokes to be mixed into the pudding mixture while the three egg whites were laboriously beaten by hand using whatever tool I could find in the kitchen for this purpose. In my circa 1990 Kitchen Aid mixer, this task is a breeze! But not so much for the 1820 woman who had no such electronic gadgets or modern conveniences. I have read enough references to how detestable this task was for 18th and 19th century women, who must have had some nice upper arm definition, if done very often.
When Laura Ingalls Wilder prepared her own bride’s cake for her wedding, she used this same method to create the sort of fluffy white cake we take for granted today.
That afternoon the finished black cashmere was carefully pressed and then Ma made a big, white cake. Laura helped her by beating the egg whites on a platter with a fork, until Ma said they were stiff enough.
“My arm is stiffer,” Laura ruefully laughed, rubbing her aching right arm.
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder, THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS
For proper spoon bread, I would need the same sort of fluffy stiff egg whites, but I would also use a variety of tools to experiment with, as indicated in the pictures below. The kitchen has a few cooking forks with two tines, sometimes today called “granny” forks. There is also a few wooden spoons and beaters that could work as well. More intriguing were the small churns. One is designed for making small batches of butter and the other
is known as a syllabub churn, used to whip cream or possibly egg whites for fancy drinks and desserts. Our syllabub maker is very old and kept more for display purposes, but I did give the small butter churn a try after exhausting my fork and wooden spoon method. I did make some progress and actually seemed to go a bit faster in the butter churn but still not full stiff peaks. I think the butter churn would have worked better with a larger batch of egg whites, perhaps something to try later. But that will mean either making an inordinately larger batch of spoon bread or paring the recipe with another that requires a lot of whipped egg whites. Maybe I’ll try baking Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wedding cake recipe sometime soon.
In the end, whipping only three egg whites in a large bowl did not get the momentum and centrifugal force needed to create the whipping action and stiffening, even with a hard labor effort. Or I just need to work out at the gym more before trying my next egg white beating attempt. Those 19th century ladies certainly were no shrinking violets when it came to hearth cooking. I finally got my egg whites to a semi fluffy state and, since the day was waning, needed to get this on
the fire for baking. Pat, our gift shop clerk, peeked in before leaving for the day and gave her assessment of my efforts. “Keep working! You’ve got a long way to go.” Maybe so, but I didn’t have all day either, so it was what it was, a sort of half-whipped, murky colored egg whites. Maybe another day we’ll get them to those nice white peeks.
While I was busy whipping egg whites, Josh went to work slicing apples and onions to fry together, which he tended and then proudly served to our two directors. After the appetizer of apples, they also got to sample a bowl of beef barley soup and spoon bread. “I’m so full of food!” RoxAnn, our site director lamented by the end of the day as I was cleaning up. But they all declared it a well done meal and I even had a few leftovers to send home with Josh and also to take home to enjoy later. The rich smoky taste is what makes all the difference in bringing out the flavors in the soup and spoon bread, even without much seasoning added. Even the spoon bread puffed up into a smooth, light tasting cornbread, not as fluffy as I remember my mom making, but maybe more like what my Great-great-great Grandmother, Lydia Jane remembered her mother making over the homestead hearth in Missouri, circa 1840. It left me with a well connected feeling to the past and all those early American cooks as I set about cleaning up the 1820 kitchen at the end of a busy baking day; the scent of a fine cooked meal permeated the bricks, just as it might have some two-hundred years before and would again someday soon.
Find out more about events at the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House or to book a tour: https://stephensonhouse.org/
Read about the adventures of Ben and Lucy Stephenson in my book series available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and local book sellers in the metro St. Louis area.
The Stephenson House Chronicles:
Across Unstill Waters
Ben’s Christmas Treasury