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Old 05-14-2011, 10:47 AM   #1
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Food History Question

Does anyone know why the southern states have more of a rich history of quick breads (cornbread, biscuits) rather than yeast? Oh, I know there are exceptions, but when you think of southern food, cornbread and biscuits are what you think of rather than a loaf of bread. Is it something ethnic, or is there something in the climate that makes it hard to do a yeast bread, or was the baking time too long to want to have an oven that hot for that long, or .... what?

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Old 05-14-2011, 11:38 AM   #2
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Biscuits are very common to all regions and not predominantly a southern thing. The south has simply made a cult following of the combination for biscuits and gravy. It's a quick, inexpensive and easy breakfast for farm workers, and keeps a person satisfied until dinner (lunch).

On the native front, the Indian tribes from Mexico brought corn up from the south, but because of racial prejudice, foods fit for Indians wasn't fit for whites, so corn was generally shunned by westerners except as livestock feed until well after the Civil War. The way to the west was through the south, so imports arrived through there first, and that included foods such as corn and chilis.

Up through the 1860s slaves would hand grind it to make corn cakes, a food similar to what they had while in West Africa. As for cornbread, until the turn of the twentieth century, corn was grown to use as animal feed. Only the poorest of the poor actually ate corn in any form. You would never find it on the dining table of a "proper" household.

Once cornmeal became commercially available in large amounts instead of just whole ears or shelled, the discovery of cornbread as an inexpensive staple became popular.

Cheap food that's high in calories drove the southern markets.
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Old 05-14-2011, 12:04 PM   #3
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This place continues to amaze me. I learn answers to questions I didn't even think of having.
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Old 05-14-2011, 12:16 PM   #4
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This place continues to amaze me. I learn answers to questions I didn't even think of having.
We all learn when someone asks a question.

Thank you for asking, Claire and thank you, Selkie for answering.
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Old 05-14-2011, 02:38 PM   #5
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During the Civil War wheat flour was hard to get in the south due to shipping blockades from the north. This also contributed to a shift in eating habits.

Selkies comments about cornmeal also are part of the reason that white cornmeal is used by many instead of yellow.
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Old 05-14-2011, 03:01 PM   #6
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During the Civil War wheat flour was hard to get in the south due to shipping blockades from the north. This also contributed to a shift in eating habits.

Selkies comments about cornmeal also are part of the reason that white cornmeal is used by many instead of yellow.
Another interesting tid bit!!
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Old 05-14-2011, 05:40 PM   #7
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Very good question(s) Clair...Questions that cannot be answered in a few short sentences as the answers span hundred of years of history as well as regional experiences. Heck, a whole book could be devoted to just...”Biscuits” Here are some Tid-Bits I picked up from several historical resources...


Native American Indians had been growing, and eating corn in various forms for centuries when the Europeans fist came ashore early in the 1600’s. ~ Job one for these settlers was procuring/growing, preparing, and preserving various foods. Their very lives depended on it,... and the staple crop absolutely essential to survival was...Corn.
Although they raised vegetable gardens in season, hunted plentiful game, and fished abundant waters, in times of need these and other products were traded in order to obtain...Corn. It was used to make everything from...Bread to whiskey. Corn has been a staple grain/food product in the American diet from our earliest history.

The Europeans brought flours (wheat, barley and rye) and the knowledge and expertise to grow, harvest, and mill the grains into flour to produce various breads ~ As early as 1610 there were water powered grist mills in Maine and Nova Scotia ~ In 1612 there were wind powered mills in Jamestown Virginia...Soon every town, settlement, or large farm, North or South had grist mills to produce flours and cornmeal ~ White breads were not the only breads baked by the European Colonist....One favorite, especially in the North was brown bread commonly referred to as a rye or Indian bread.... Corn Pone and Johnny Cakes made from corn were very popular items fit for Colonial tables.

Here’s a recipe you may find interesting and fun to try

George Washington’s Favorite Corn Cakes
(1732-1799)

2 Cups of Stone Ground Cornmeal
1/1/2 Cups Warm Water
½ teaspoon of Salt
1 Tablespoon yeast
1 Egg
Oil or lard to grease the griddle
Honey & Butter

Mix 1 Cup of the Cornmeal, and the yeast into 1 ½ Cups of luke warm water. Stir well, cover tightly and leave it out on the counter overnight. The next morning stir in the salt, egg, and remaining Cornmeal. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes. More water can be added to thin the batter if needed.... Heat fat on a medium hot griddle and cook until golden brown on both sides. Serve with honey and butter....

According to Nelly Custis, the youngest grand-daughter of former First Lady Martha Washington, the first President’s morning routine included, rising before sun up...reading and writing until about 7:00 AM or so, then eating three or four of these Corn Cakes “swimming in butter and honey”.. I’m sure most folks would consider Mount Vernon a “proper” household.

Sometimes I think foods that are thought of as “Southern” are more Rural American’ in scope than anything else.........
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Old 05-14-2011, 05:48 PM   #8
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Here's some additional information if you're interested:

Jonnycake - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I like this kind of stuff...
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Old 05-14-2011, 06:28 PM   #9
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Uncle Bob is right when he says this topic cannot be covered in a few lines.

One book on the subject called Cornbread Nation by John Thorn covers a great deal of information on southern foodways. He also has done one that I believe is simply called Pig. They are very interesting and not very expensive.
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Old 05-14-2011, 06:38 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aunt Bea
During the Civil War wheat flour was hard to get in the south due to shipping blockades from the north. This also contributed to a shift in eating habits.
Aunt Bea every time I "hear" someone say 'Civil War' I have to remind them there was nothing "Civil" about it....600,000+ Americans lost there lives in that conflict...Anyway the more appropriate term is "The War For Southern Independence" or "The War of Northern Aggression"
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Old 05-14-2011, 06:42 PM   #11
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Very nice post, Bob.
I saw an episode of American Pickers where they were picking up one of those grist stones for William Shatner's retreat (I believe). Those big round stones were pretty neat. They had grooves in them to "funnel" the ground grains out. The guy they "picked" one from must have had a few dozen of them. Nifty piece of history.
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Old 05-14-2011, 06:45 PM   #12
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The south may have lost the war but, they got to console themselves with some fine sippin whiskey. Nothin like it up north
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Old 05-14-2011, 06:47 PM   #13
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I think a lot of our cooking traditions stem from the climate and economics of a region.
In Colorado, meat was sometimes allowed to dry and hung on the north side of the building in winter. In the south this was not possible, and meat was preserved by salting. Cattle did not do well in the south, and pork was the preferred meat. In addition, ribs and briskets were not much used by whites and were given to the slaves, who developed methods of cooking these cuts, hence the slow cooking. As for bread vs biscuits and corn bread, I can't remember the last time I have seen a wheat field in the south. I don't know how much yeast was available in the south. That may have had something to do with risen bread. Corn would have been more available.
As stated, the subject of regional cooking is an interesting and complex subject.
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:01 PM   #14
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Uncle Bob, your recipe for George Washington’s Favorite Corn Cakes (1732-1799) is the modern adaptation. The quoted recipe is as follows as written by his step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis:
"The bread business is as follows if you wish to make 2 1/2 quarts of flour up-take at night one quart of flour, five table spoonfuls of yeast & as much lukewarm water as will make it the consistency of pancake batter, mix it in a large stone pot & set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight & let it remain until the next morning then add the remaining quart & a half by degrees with a spoon when well mixed let it stand 15 or 20 minutes & then bake it - of this dough in the morning, beat up a white & half of the yilk of an egg - add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other - the griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef..."

The turn of the phrases used makes it such fun!
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:10 PM   #15
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Thanks for the recipe, Uncle Bob. It's been on my list to make corn cakes. I tried making a batch last week. The batter looked great. but didn't work. I think I got one edible one and it didn't hold together. I'll be trying this one soon.
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:19 PM   #16
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I can't remember the last time I have seen a wheat field in the south.
Jim you're like me....Ya need to get out more often!!

Virginia wheat farmers expected to double production in 2011 to 17.2 million bushels - The Washington Post

Wheat Production in Mississippi
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:22 PM   #17
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Thanks for the recipe, Uncle Bob. It's been on my list to make corn cakes. I tried making a batch last week. The batter looked great. but didn't work. I think I got one edible one and it didn't hold together. I'll be trying this one soon.
You're welcome! ~~ I can't vouch for it however. ~~ Then again if it was good enough for old George's Table, it's probably good enough for mine!!


Have Fun & Enjoy!
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:32 PM   #18
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You are right. Virginia is coming on strong in the wheat business. Doubling production the past year. The farmers must be replacing tobacco and cotton with wheat.

That's why I am here, to learn. Thanks

Now I've got to do some research and find out how much wheat was grown in the years prior.
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Old 05-14-2011, 07:59 PM   #19
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One of the staples in the South is White Lily flour. It's supposed to be the best for biscuits as it's made with soft southern wheat. I assume that means the wheat is grown in the South. I don't know how long that has been going on.
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Old 05-14-2011, 09:54 PM   #20
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One of the staples in the South is White Lily flour. It's supposed to be the best for biscuits as it's made with soft southern wheat. I assume that means the wheat is grown in the South. I don't know how long that has been going on.
White Lily is/was made with Soft Southern RED Winter Wheat. When J. M. Smucker's bought White Lily, they informed me that Ohio, Michigan and Indiana were their primary sources of the Wheat at the time.... with very small amounts coming out of the South. ~~ This informatuion and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee...Maybe.
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