History and Memory, Food and Forgetting

ECHO underway, posted Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The image for this post is available at Connecticut History Online.

Sachem’s Head Corn Cake.

One quart sifted Indian meal, and a teaspoon of salt.  Three pints of scalded milk cooled, and a teaspoon of saleratus [bicarbonate of soda], dissolved in two spoonfuls of hot water, and put into it.  Beat eight eggs, and mix all together. Bake one hour in pans, like sponge cake.  It looks, when broke, like sponge cake, and is very fine.   If the whites are cut to a froth, and put in, just as it goes to bake, it improves it very much.  Some think this improved by adding a tea-cup of sugar.  Much depends on the baking, and if you fail, it is probably owing to the baking.

–from Catharine Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 1846

Corn, according the great social historian Fernand Braudel, was a “plant of civilization.” That is to say, corn, along with other cereal grains, moored human beings to place by creating economic, political, and social relationships based on the cultivation and consumption of these dependable foods.

Corn, to Europeans, meant grain—wheat in England and France and the German countries, oats in Scotland and Ireland. The indigenous peoples of North America had domesticated their own corn—maize—a thousand years before Europeans appeared on its shores. Poached, boiled, roasted, parched, ground, dried, and baked, maize was integral to many native peoples’ diets and cultures. English naturalist John Josselyn observed in his Account of Two Voyages to New-England (1674) that “their Indian Corn and Kidney beans they boil, and sometimes eat their Corn parcht or roasted in the ear against the fire; … They beat their Corn to powder and put it up into bags, which they make use of when stormie weather or the like will not suffer them to look out for the food.”

To differentiate these grains, the English in North America called their wheat English corn and Natives’ maize Indian corn. But New England’s wheat crop in the seventeenth century suffered from the “blast,” a black stem rust brought on by the importation and cultivation of barberry bushes. Connecticut passed a law in 1726 to destroy the barberry, but weevils, weather, and soil erosion led farmers to abandon wheat as a crop by the 1820s.

So New Englanders consumed Indian corn (the “Indian meal” in the recipe above). They also consumed histories of Native Americans, issued by the presses and penned and published by Connecticuters such as John William De Forest and Samuel Griswold Goodrich. One well-known story, spread in antiquarian histories and children’s magazines alike, was that, after the Pequot Massacre at Mystic in 1637, the Mohegan sachem Uncas severed the head of a captive Pequot sachem and placed it in the crotch of a tree at a small peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. This was later named “Sachem’s Head.”

At the time that these histories and Miss Beecher’s recipe appeared, Sachem’s Head had been transformed into a summer resort of cottages, anchored by the popular Sachem’s Head Hotel, built in 1832. So it isn’t clear if the title of this recipe refers to the hotel’s version of this popular food, or to the legendary tale linked to the English triumph in the Pequot War, or both. What is clear is how the study of foodways may inform our understanding of our shared and contentious past. As Braudel said, “The mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilization.” Or, we may add, civilizations in conflict.