One of my favorite memories from the block where I grew up concerns a Swedish couple that lived a few houses down. The woman of the house, a classic round-faced Nordic matron by the name of Lily, was the most accomplished baker in town. My sister and I would sneak in her back door on summer afternoons to snap up cookies and cardamom rolls, and wonder at the sight of her huge upper arms slapping against her armpits as she beat egg whites into angel food cake (she did it all without a mixer, just an egg board and a flat whisk).
With a ringer like Lily living on the block, the bar was set pretty high come Christmas Eve, when everyone in the neighborhood exchanged holiday foods. By and large, all the moms remained competitive with the exception of the lady across the street, who, inspired by newly-emerging “healthy” baking trends, subtracted 50% of the sugar from her cookie recipe, and substituted wheat germ (you should see how her children turned out as a result of this sort of baking…a tragedy).
Christmas day was always the same comic ritual. Because of the gradation of the adjoining properties, my sister and I could look right down into Lily’s back yard. Come 9:00 or so her husband Inge would emerge and begin gesturing broadly, as though he were waving a Christmas greeting to all the houses on the block. What he was really doing was scattering the crumbled wheat germ cookies to the four winds (and a flock of excited birds).
I bring this up because this is almost exactly how early Americans received the gift of corn cakes from the Indians. The Colonists were of course descendants of a wheat-eating culture, accustomed to soft, fluffy white wheat breads. One can only imagine how they greeted what the natives had on offer: flat, dense, grainy, largely unleavened (and unseasoned) cakes of pounded corn that tasted vaguely of ashes. Oh, er, thank you! The wife and I just love these things! I gobble’em down by the box! Just can’t get enough. Thank you so, so much.
Of course when the flour ship didn’t come in, the colonists didn’t do much better with the stuff. Writings of the time reflect the sense despair they felt trying to turn “Indian pone” as it was often called, into palatable bakery. Being completely devoid of gluten, pure corn meal resists leavening of virtually any kind, though the Indians did manage to lighten their cakes to some degree by adding home-made potash (hence the burnt wood aftertaste). It would take much trial and error (and an eventual blending of wheat flour and corn meal) before the colonists arrived at something that approximated the taste of home. Even then, for many of the first Americans, corn meal-based cakes remained a food of last resort.