Since childhood, I have aspired to live the pioneer lifestyle. My favourite restaurant growing up was Cracker Barrel - not only because they served biscuits and cornbread, but also because I once convinced my mother to buy me a floral sunbonnet there so that I could dress like a pioneer girl. I read and re-read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and spent hours taking every possible route on the Oregon Trail - on my computer, anyway. I paid for my undergraduate degree, in part, by dressing in 1840s costume to give tours of John A. Macdonald's home. Yet I've never really tested myself the way that Catharine Parr Traill and other migrants to the backwoods of Canada did - I've never been camping without a Girl Scout troop, my family doesn't hunt or fish, and my sewing skills leave much to be desired. I do like to cook, though, so I jumped at the chance to test some recipes from the 1850s for the first installment of the Historical Cooking Group.
Knowing that I wouldn't have much free time in the week leading up to our meeting, I decided to choose one "challenging" recipe and one recipe that I was sure I wouldn't mess up. I had never made jelly before, but it seemed to me to be an onerous process, with sterilizing jars in boiling water, little packets of pectin, and molten sugared fruit just ready to plop all over the stove top. The recipe for apple jelly given in The Female Emigrant's Guide has just two essential ingredients, though: apples and sugar, a pound of each. I couldn’t find the type of cane sugar in the hard cones that would have been accessible to settlers in the 1850s, so I chose loose unrefined cane sugar. I made a simple syrup by combing the sugar, an equal quantity of water, a cinnamon stick, a dozen cloves, and a few threads of saffron which I had steeped in hot water. Traill recommended saffron or a piece of beet in order to colour the jelly. While the syrup bubbled, I peeled and chopped my apples – I only needed three and a half diced apples to equal the quantity of syrup as these were large apples which I had picked in Mont St-Hilaire, Quebec, a few weeks earlier. I tipped the apples into the syrup and let them cook.
As I had never made jelly before, I was expecting some part of this process to fail. In less than twenty minutes, however, the apples were turning translucent… just as Traill had said they would. After just forty minutes, the mixture was unmistakably jelly – not a solid mass, but jelly nonetheless. I then tried to strain the mixture, using a colander as I had forgotten to look for cheesecloth. This was an arduous process, and the jelly didn’t look much different after I had strained it than it had before I had strained it. It would have been easier to pick out the cloves with a spoon! I tasted the jelly and it was a bit sweet for my taste, but delicious nonetheless. Instead of sterilizing a jar, I took a clean spaghetti-sauce jar (not available to Traill, perhaps, but I was using what I had) and put the jelly in the fridge, just to prevent any possible spoilage in the week that still remained before I could share the jelly with the other members of our group.
On the day of our first meeting, I turned my attention to the Johnnycake. The recipe calls for “a quart of Indian-meal”, which I decided would be the coarsest grind of cornmeal available from the bulk bins at my local general store (it’s not actually called that, but it’s fun to pretend). Additionally, Google helped me to figure out that a quart is four cups.
The recipe seemed simple enough; you stir the cornmeal into one cup of melted butter, two eggs, a bit of sweetener (Traill recommended either one cup of sugar or two tablespoons of molasses – I used the molasses), salt and ginger powder. I mixed this all together in the same pan I had melted the butter in, which resulted in a dry mass of crumbs. Traill said to add scalding water or milk to make a batter; the only milk in the fridge that morning was my roommate’s strawberry soy milk, a beverage which I knew Traill and other settlers in the backwoods of Canada would not have had access to! Indeed, I doubt that even in the bustling port city of Montreal, emigrants would have had access to strawberry soy milk in the 1850s. I heated some water in the kettle until it was steaming and added it slowly to the cornmeal mix until the batter was pourable.
The batter then went into a buttered sheet cake pan and into the oven to “bake until brown”, as Traill recommended. I decided to bake the johnnycake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, knowing that my oven is usually warmer than the indicated temperature. After forty-five minutes, my johnnycake was indeed turning golden brown.
When it came time to cut and serve the cornbread later that day, however, it was a dry mess, impossible to cut into neat squares. The cup of butter seemed to have made no difference; even with jelly, the cornbread just wasn’t interesting to eat. I took most of the johnnycake home with me.
If I kept pigs at home, I might have been able to feed the crumbly mess to them (pigs will eat anything, right?). The only animals at my house, though, are cats, who are decidedly lacking in pioneer spirit; they refuse to eat anything that isn’t labeled with a picture of a cat. I decided to try to make something that I would be able to eat myself. I scraped about half the cornbread into a saucepan and covered it with milk, heating it over medium-high heat. With a bit of stirring, the cornbread turned into a uniform mush in no time, the consistency of porridge. I drizzled maple syrup on top for a delicious breakfast, fit for a settler in the backwoods preparing to spend her day stoking fires and canning jellies, or for a graduate student with a pile of term papers to mark and a presentation to write. As I ate, I thought that I might be able to survive backwoods life after all – at least for a weekend.
4 cups coarse cornmeal
1 cup melted butter, cooled
2 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Mix all of the above ingredients together and add:
2 cups hot water or hot milk
Bake 40-45 minutes in a 350-ish degree oven. Cut into squares, if you can.
2 cups crumbled johnnycake
2 cups milk (I used whole milk)
Put cornbread in a saucepan with enough milk to cover and cook on medium heat, stirring often. Add milk or water as desired, until the dish is the consistency of porridge. Serve with maple syrup.
Make a simple syrup from 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water, with a dozen whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, and a pinch of saffron threads steeped in warm water
Add 4 medium chopped McIntosh apples once the mixture is syrupy
Simmer over medium-high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. After around 30 minutes, I turned the heat down to medium to avoid scorching.
After about 40 minutes, the mixture was jellied.
Strain and put in a jar.