When most scholars consider the year 1492, they see the collision of two great groups of peoples, of hunter-gatherer society and the Age of Exploration, of anthropomorphic spirit worship with Christianity, of “natural” man with the principles of parliamentary politics, accumulated capital and property rights. All wrong. Seen in the proper context, what 1492 really represents is the collision of two of the world’s great baking traditions: one wheat-based and the other maize-based. Like two busy bakers running into one another on the street in a great floury cloud, that meeting has ever since resounded with accusations of: Hey! You got your wheat flour in my corn meal! and No I didn’t! You got your corn meal in my wheat flour! In corn bread we see the effects of that great coming together, still being played out.
Like all great collisions, the great maize/wheat flour crash left a pile of debris behind, as witnessed by all the various corn meal/wheat flour bread and cake hybrids it created: johnnycakes, journey cakes, jonnies, hoe cakes, no-cakes, ash cakes, pone, bannocks, dodgers, Shawnee cakes, Indian bread, slapjacks and spoon breads, none of which have ever been satisfactorily defined. Historians, like determined accident investigators, have tried to sort out the what’s, who’s, when’s and where’s of all these assorted foods, but to no avail. The best they’ve been able to do is scoop the whole mess into one great heap behind a door that reads “corn breads” in official governmental type.
There was simply too much corn meal and too much wheat flour being consumed over too wide an area for anyone to make sense of what went on. One New England town’s ‘johnny cake’ was another’s ‘hoe cake’, one county’s ‘bannock’ was another’s ‘dodger’. And that was just New England. What’s since been passed down to us is a bewildering variety of recipes (under an equally bewildering variety of names) covering the entire spectrum of maize/wheat mixtures…and none of which seems to have the inside track when it comes to authenticity (whatever that means). It’s a pity we can only do one this week since there’s so much interesting ground here to cover.