O ne of the most appropriate facts of American history is that Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the American Revolution. If a president had to die on a July 4, thank goodness it was Jefferson and not, say, Millard Fillmore. So, this weekend, on America’s 233rd birthday and 183rd anniversary of Jefferson’s death, we can raise our grits to both.
Thomas Jefferson certainly served grits, says Craig Claiborne, one of the King’s of Culinary America and food editor for The New York Times. In a June 23, 1976 (at America’s Bicentennial), Times piece (available for purchase), Claiborne says, “When it came to the pleasures of the table Jefferson possessed extraordinary, undisputed taste.”
He refers to the most comprehensive work of Jefferson’s kitchen adventures -- Marie Kimball’s Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, available from the University of Virginia Press and from booksellers. A true grits lover, Claiborne goes on to say:
Throughout his lifetime, Jefferson’s table was no doubt supplied with such Southern staples as fried chicken, country ham, numerous kind of foods based on corn, including corn bread made in a black skillet, grits, and whole hominy.
But there’s more to raise our grits to. And grits is/are appropriate, as you can already see, for a toast.
As noted in the May 4 post, First Food, First Family, some call corn products -- grits, hominy, and meal -- America’s First Food, having saved the lives of Capt. John Smith and his group at Jamestown the winter of 1608. This fact suggests that America is more like 400 years old this summer.
And there’s even more. It took a while for America to become thoroughly American, for the Western World to shed the notion that America was just the Englishmen’s Annex. You don’t accomplish such a feat over a night in 1776. Certain political and cultural things have to happen, such as the right guys being born at the right time in order to intersect with history, including Ben Franklin, T. Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere and guys like that. Those are some of the political factors.
American had to also find its voice through writers, artists, musicians, artisans and many other venues.
The Grits Venue
Twenty years after the Revolution, in 1796, a cultural event took place that is one of those special markers on the unlit path to becoming America.
That year a young orphan lady named Amelia Simmons published a cookbook. Yeh, it wasn’t a guy and it was a cookbook. Prior cookbooks were just reprints of European works. All had been written by men for men and usually for the upper classes. Until then no cookbook dealt with the indigenous food ingredients available in America. This little 47-page democratic gem probably sealed America’s culinary fate:
AMERICAN COOKERY or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and all Kinds of Cakes from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake Adapted to the Country and All Grades of Life.
This was the first cookbook aimed democratically at the masses and slanted towards women; it is the first book to show corn meal as a primary ingredient. It includes the first recipes for Indian Slapjacks and Johnny Cake, as well as “A Nice Indian Pudding,” all of which became staples in the following centuries. Text and page images of this original edition are available at the Michigan State University Digital Library “Feeding America” site.
In the preface, Miss Amelia says:
As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society.
It’s a lot to celebrate. So this 4th of July, serve grits.
No. 1. 3 pints scalded milk, 7 spoons fine Indian meal, stir well together while hot, let stand till cooled; add 7 eggs, half pound raisins, 4 ounces butter, spice and sugar, bake one and half hour.
No. 2. 3 pints scalded milk to one pint meal salted; cool, add 2 eggs, 4 ounces of butter, sugar or molasses and spice q.s. it will require two and half hours.
No. 3. Salt a pint meal, wet with one quart milk, sweeten and put into a strong cloth, brass or bell metal vessel, stone or earthen pot, secure from wet and boil 12 hours.