There’s a whining at the threshold,
There’s a scratching at the floor.
To work! To work! In Heaven’s name!
The wolf is at the door!
~~~C. P. S. Gilman
The season of gift-giving will soon be upon us, with the mail deliverer knocking at our door, bearing credit card bills, not gifts. The holiday season hovers nearby, a wolf-skin draped ever so wolfishly across its flanks. And it will be time for a many of us to dust off belt-tightening culinary lessons from the past, such as la cucina povera, etc.
Prosperity for the many is a relative newcomer in the jousting of history. But for generations, poverty of the grinding-down kind drove the game.
And so people (read women) invented multitudes of recipes, tricks, and tips, for feeding families on next to nothing. In the good old agrarian days of yore, a Holy Trinity appeared in the larder, and it wasn’t the recipe of the Roman Catholic Church.
Not three persons, but flour, eggs, and milk.
Now the flour might not have always been wheat flour, but since we’re talking mostly Europe here — sorry, I’m not Eurocentric by nature but rather by culture and geography — let’s focus on wheat flour accompanied by its farmstead fellows.
Getting back to the agrarian past, now so mythologized by so many, we see that the domestication of cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, along with the growing of grain, led to the Holy Trinity of foodstuffs.
Of the food items available to most farm wives, flour (of some grain, if not wheat), eggs, and milk (and cream) lend themselves to some quite remarkable permutations.
- Grout (Norwegian dish)
- Tarte Flambée
- Cheese (of course)
- Sour cream and crème fraîche
- White sauce
- Yorkshire Pudding
- Cream Soups
- Milk Toast
- Cremets d’Angers
- Crème Anglaise
- Buttermilk Pie
- Baked Eggs with Cream
And that’s not all. Take cornmeal, for example.
In Hung, Strung, & Potted: A History of Eating in Colonial America (1971), Sally Smith Booth saw this tendency — to inventiveness using a few basic ingredients — when she wrote, “The American woman was particularly ingenious at inventing variations for what became a standard table item — corn pudding. The six most common recipes all involved meal and liquid, which were mixed in differing proportions and cooked various lengths of time.”
Among these six stood the following three, giving witness to the Holy Trinity concept:
- Hasty pudding (also called loblolly): cornmeal prepared with equal parts milk or water
- Indian Pudding: similar to Hasty Pudding, but made with more liquid and jazzed up with spices. The cooking method — boiling the mixture in a bag — sounds interesting.
- Suppawn: made with milk, thick like polenta, and eaten cold or hot. Cold, like polenta, it could be sliced and fried in grease.
African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem in dialect about cone pone, a dish that no doubt originated with the Native Americans and was adopted by colonists and slaves both. Chef Edna Lewis says this about Dunbar and cone pone in her The Taste of Country Cooking:
Corn pone was a delicious equivalent of the ash cake and is legendary in our history. A beautiful poem was written by one of our early great poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar, entitled “When De Co’n Pone’s Hot.” When there was need for a quick hot snack, we would light the cookstove and stir up some cornmeal and make a number of corn pones, sometimes adding cracklings to make them more interesting, but they were just as delicious plain. The rather stiff batter would be shaped with both hands, fingers closed, to make a large egg shape-the shape of your hand. The pones were about 3 inches wide, and were placed an inch apart on a baking sheet. Baked in a fairly hot oven, when done they were golden brown in color and very crusty outside, which made them more delicious. We would cut them in half and butter them.
Dunbar’s words take you to where food sings, no matter what cards the world’s dealt you:
When you set down at de table,
Kin’ o’ weary lak an’ sad,
An’ you ‘se jes’ a little tiahed
An’ purhaps a little mad;
How yo’ gloom tu’ns into gladness,
How yo’ joy drives out de doubt
When de oven do’ is opened,
An’ de smell comes po’in’ out;
Why, de ‘lectric light o’ Heaven
Seems to settle on de spot,
When yo’ mammy says de blessin’
An’ de co’n pone’s hot.
M. F. K. Fisher also hit on the profound and the timeless when she wrote her brilliant little book, How to Cook a Wolf (1942), a treatise on how to manage things of the table and kitchen during the austerity of World War II, fast on the heels of the Great Depression. She says,
“Every slick magazine [or Web site!] in the country is filled with full-page advertisements suggesting that all Americans ‘try the new thrill of thriftier meat-cuts,’ and home economics editors in the women’s journals are almost incoherent over the exciting discovery that dollars can and should buy more.”
She then plunges on, determined to tell us all these years hence how to carry on. Each chapter in this comfortably small book (200 pages) starts out with “How to … .”
Today my favorite chapter is the very last: “How to Practice True Economy.” In soul-soothing, fitting words she writes,
“When you think you can stand no more of the wolf’s snuffling under the door and keening softly on cold nights, throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table, and for your own good if not the pleasure of an admiring audience make one or another of the recipes in this chapter.”
Happily, she offers one of the very recipes dedicated subliminally to the Holy Trinity of food: “Colonial Dessert.”
Serves 2 or 4 (depending upon one’s concern with cholesterol or bella figura!)
2 cups thick cream
4 egg yolks
1 cup brown sugar
Boil the cream one minute. Pour over the well-beaten egg yolks. Heat in a double bolier 8 minutes, beating constantly. Pour into a shallow dish from which it will be served, and chill overnight.
Two hours before serving cover with a half-inch layer of brown sugar, and brown very quickly under a hot broiler. Chill again, and serve with thin crisp cookies such as langues du chat. [Translation: Cat’s tongues.]
Plus ça change, c’est la même chose?
It seems so, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yet there’s a silver lining in all this, appropriately in the words of another great American poet, Walt Whitman:
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun — there are millions of suns left …
Try some of these old classics for ideas on economy in the kitchen:
A Cookbook for Poor Poets (and Others), by Ann Rogers (1966)
Economy in the Kitchen, by James Breazeale (1898)
How to Cook a Wolf, by M. F. K. Fisher (1942)
How to Eat Better for Less Money, by James Beard and Sam Aaron (1970)
More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre (1976)
© 2008, 2016 C. Bertelsen