Day 4: Corn – Celebrate American Food History


English novelist Charles Dickens once compared eating cornbread to eating a pincushion. In that disdainful sentiment, I see generations of English and other European people trying to adapt to this New World grain when their favorite grain – wheat – failed to thrive.

Corn, or maize/Indian corn as it was called by the early settlers, originated – as best we know – in what is now Mexico, its genetics traced to a plant called teosinte. The DNA of these two plants resemble each other uncannily so. It’s a story that’s still being unraveled, especially the mystery of how the grains grew from tiny seeds into plump bits the size of small pearls, the jewels that we enjoy today.

The Portuguese probably deserve credit for the arrival of maize in West Africa, around the end of the fifteenth century, but there’s no hard and fast documentation for this. Although some historians such as M. D. W. Jeffreys suggest that maize varieties existed in Africa prior to Portuguese contact, this controversial theory finds few supporters. So no matter who introduced maize into West Africa, people adopted it as a part of their diet early on and it became a vital part of the diet fed to slaves on slave ships. In other words, corn was a known and familiar food in Africa by around 1650, when slavery became a major source of labor for sugar and cotton plantations in the New World.

Corn formed a crucial part of the diet of nearly everyone in the  New World, although the very wealthy preferred their grain to be wheat, not corn, belying the culinary determinism that sailed with the English and other Europeans when they settled in the New Eden.

However, until 1796, no American writer published a truly American cookbook, though you could point to William Parks’s edition of The Compleat Housewife, or, Gentlewoman’s Companion, (1742) by E. Smith*, in which Mr. Parks left out recipes useless in the colonies. He included only the “useful and practicable.” By the time 1805 rolled around, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy featured a few recipes calling for Indian corn. And The Indian Meal Book, by Miss Eliza Leslie, put the crown on corn in 1846, partly in answer to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland at that time. Interestingly enough, Lucy Emerson plagiarized Simmons’s book and published it in 1808 as The New-England CookeryAmelia Simmons herself seems to have dipped her pen in the ink of plagiarism,  having lifted numerous recipes from Susannah Carter’s 1772 edition of the The Frugal Housewife.

Indian Slapjack (p. 34)

One quart of milk, 1 pint of indian meal, 4 eggs, 4 spoons of flour, little salt, beat together, baked on gridles, or fry in a dry pan, or baked in a pan which has been rubbed with suet, lard, or butter. [You may have to add a bit more flour.]

Indian slapcakes rs
Amelia Simmons’s “Indian Slapjacks” soaked in sorghum syrup (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

This recipe conjures up a certain truth: all of the ingredients could very likely be available to cooks with access to cows and chickens and dry storage facilities – wheat flour, cornmeal, salt, eggs, and milk. Plus fats available for frying –  butter, lard, and suet.  Using cornmeal this way, in conjunction with scarcer wheat flour, enabled cooks to almost-but-not-quite recreate some of the tastes and textures of their culinary heritage.

As for the name of the recipe, “Indian” in those days also referred to “Indian corn,” and it doesn’t necessarily have a racist connotation, because there’s also the well-known “Rye ‘n Injun” combination that you might remember from Little House on the Prairie, etc.

All I know is that those “Indian Slapjacks” taste pretty darn good. They’re not fluffy, like IHOP’s pancake, but they’re light nonetheless. Just fry the batter in a tiny bit of butter and slather on more (lots more?!) when you’re ready to eat. Don’t forget the maple syrup. And if you do all that, you’ll be tasting a bit of American history, not exactly what pioneers like my ancestors ate in western Pennsylvania, Texas, or Missouri, but close, I think. Yes, close. Ah, yes, Johnnycakes … .

An advertisement from Issac Beers, who opened a bookstore in New Haven, CT in 1778


For further reading:

The Mysterious Corruption of America’s First Cookbook,” by Andrew Beahrs, The Atlantic, December 7, 2010.

“Dare Not to Speak the Name: The Foul Art of Plagiarism in Cookery Books,” by Cynthia Bertelsen, 2016.

James McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2005.

Amelia Simmons, The First American Cookbook [1796, facsimile of American Cookery], Dover Publications: New York, 1958.

*Note that this link will take you to the 1773 version.

Note:  It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.

To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.

See the other days:

Day 1: Tuckahoe

Day 2: Oysters

Day 3: Chicken

Day 5: Tomatoes

Day 6: Beef

Day 7: Squirrel


© 2016 C. Bertelsen