Cornmeal Muffins from the past

Food is influenced by the times we live in. Certain times we need to change our habits due to food supply restrictions. Nowadays this happens in the winter when the watermelon supply gets short and the prices go up. And we are bumped. Awwww 😦  . Did I mention that it is not even seedless? I know! Total agony. We turn to forget some other times back in the turn of the last century when war was a reality to every part of the world; from Europe to Americas and from Asia to Africa. Back then food supply was already short and the war made it even worst. Lucky people had to improvise and adjust their habits; most would just suffer.

Foods That Well Will the War and How to Cook themI found a book that is called “Food that will Win the War and How to Cook Them” circa 1918. For the curious reader it is easy to find it as part of the Project Gutenberg for free. The same time the book was written as you can guess from the title there was a war going on. A Great War that now is called War World I, since we liked it so much that another one had to follow. These days the four most common commodities were flour, sugar, meat and fat. Energy and protein; all that an army needs. As Napoleon said it first, armies march on their stomachs. As the book describes, “Food will win the war, and the nation whose food resources are best conserved will be the victor. This is the truth that our government is trying to drive home to every man, woman and child in America.” That line sums it all. The authors of the book, C. Houston Goudiss and Alberta M. Goudiss collaborated with the United States Food Administration (this is now USDA) to reassure the consumer that the suggested recipes although lacking in elements like meat and flour they are still balanced and nutritious.

The whole concept of the book is actually very welcome in the modern era. All they said was to reduce flour consumption and make space for other grains, primarily whole grains; reduce the fat consumption and use only as much as required; reduce the meat to only 5 times a week and reduce sugar and when possible replace it with molasses, honey and corn syrup. By modern standards this is what all nutritionists suggests and what most of us trying to do on our daily life. Back then, however this was not a very welcome change to the lifestyle of Americans. We can tell from the page after page of arguments why this is equally nutritional with the, until-then diet of the Americans. Off course keep in mind that back then most of the workforce in America was employed in heavy and laborious jobs that required energy. Bacon was on the table every morning.

I also have to mention that this book also conveys the era of the days were women were solely responsible for the food. One line from the forward of the book says it all: “Not only have its authors planned to help the woman in the home, conserve the family income, but to encourage those saving habits which must be acquired by this nation if we are to secure a permanent peace that will insure the world against another onslaught by the Prussian military powers.” Not the man, not even the housekeeper; the woman. The one person in the house that should be doing the cooking.

In this post I decided to try one of the recipes in this book. Just for the sake of it. See how they were cooking back then and how subsidized meals tasted like. Since I love corn and corn meal I chose to try a muffin recipe that utilizes only corn meal.

The ingredients called in the recipe are:

  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fat
  • 2 cups sour or buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soda

—–

  • 1/2 tbsp baking powder (extra addition instead the soda after reconsidering the recipe)

As you noticed it calls for fat. You can use butter, oil or as we learn later in the book any kind of fat you might have saved. It urges the woman of the house to safe pan drippings, bacon fat, or render her own fat from fatty cuts of meat before she uses them.

The recipe reads simply: Dissolve soda in a little cold water. Mix ingredients adding soda last. Bake in hot oven for 20 minutes”. If you look back the cake recipe we discussed you will see a similar pattern: egg that will support the structure, grains that are the bricks, fat that is the tenderizer and some sort of leveling agent to raise the muffin, in this case buttermilk with the soda. That is the reason soda has to go in last. It will react with the buttermilk and create the leavening required to make the muffin from brick to soft. If it goes in too early it will lose power by the time it start baking.

So following the instructions I dissolved the soda in the water.

In a bowl add the cornmeal.

Add the buttermilk.

The sugar.

The salt.

And the fat. In this case it is melted butter.

I am not very confident with only the buttermilk and the soda. So I add 1/2 tbsp of baking powder.

Mix everything well.

Add the egg.

Mix again and follow immediately with the dissolved baking soda.

Grease well the muffin tins.

And equally split it among the tines. leaving about 1/2″ from the top. Notice that the mix already started bubbling up.

Now put them in a 350 F oven for 20-30 mins.

They will look golden brown.

You might need to use a knife to help them come of the pan.

And here is the final product.

The taste of the muffin was clearly that of a cornbread. True south cornbread. The texture is soft but mealy. There are ok with butter but that would defeat the purpose of conserving the fat. The biggest problem, however was the strong alkaline taste, coming from the baking soda, that lingers in the mouth for very longtime after eating it. I looked it up and it turns out that the buttermilk or sour milk of the era was a lot more acidic than it is now. It required 1/2 teaspoon of soda to counter act the acidity of a cup of buttermilk. Nowadays it only requires 1/4 per cup. I clearly used twice as much. It was actually evident during the baking as well with strong odor of the alkaline. It reminded me Easter when my mom was cooking with ammonia. I will stick to the baking powder only. The unreacted buttermilk will just be there to add some mild acidity, which is welcome; a lot more welcome than the alkalinity.

At the end I am just glad that war is over.

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