Monday, April 18, 2016

Corn Pone in Literature and Life

Virginia Corn Pone

The Recipe & Its Inspiration

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, 1876

What could be more basic than a recipe for corn pone? 
That's what I thought when I started this challenge; however, that couldn't be further from the truth. Soon after I started the search for a corn pone recipe, I realized that there is really no set definition of what a pone is meant to be. When trying to differentiate it from cornbread, even more of a jumble of information presents itself. Some sources claim pone should never have milk, eggs or butter, that it should be make only with cornmeal, water and salt; while other sources claim those ingredients can be used. Additionally, some sources claim pone should be fried on an iron griddle, while others say it can be baked. As to this recipe's history, some sources will insist corn pone emerged in the south during the Civil War while others claim it goes back to a lot further than that. 

To try to wade through all this information to get a better sense of what corn pone should be, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Earliest Definitions of Corn Pone:

south. U.S.
A Kind of Indian corn bread made with milk and eggs; also a loaf of this bread.

Earliest Notation:
  • 1860 in J.R. Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (ed.2) 

This definition seemed a bit lacking in detail, so I did another search for just the word "pone"and it revealed more helpful information:

1a. U.S. regional (chiefly south and south Midland). Originally: a North American Indian bread made of maize flour in thin loaves and cooked in hot ashes (now hist.). Now: any unleavened bread or dough-like cake made usually with maize, esp. = corn-pone n.

Earliest Notations:
    • 1612 J. Smith Map of Virginia 17 Eating the broth with the bread which they call Ponap.
    • 1634 E. Wintour et al. in  A White Relation LD. Baltemore's Plantation Mary-Land 7 Their ordinary diet is Poane and Omine, both made of corn.
1b. A cake of loaf, usually of cornmeal, typically shaped in the hands and baked, fried, or griddled.

Earliest Notation:
  • c.1612 W.Strachey Hist. Trav. Virginia (1953) I. vi.81 The flower . . . they make into flat broad cakes. . . and these they call Apones.

2. orig. Caribbean. A baked pudding made from sweet potato, cassava, or cornmeal, with sugar, milk, eggs, butter, and flavoured with spices and a variety of other ingredients.
  •  earliest notation: H. Sloane Voy. Islands II. 365 Patatas bak'd are excellent Food and call'd Pone.

19th c. Corn Pone
By the time Twain wrote Tom Sawyer in the 1870s, the definition of corn pone became more broad and less definite. Here are some examples:

1846: The Indian Meal Book by Eliza Leslie, London: 
This book is interesting because it was written by an American for an impoverished British audience, to educate them in the nutrition and practical aspects of adding Indian corn to their diets as a "substitute for potatoes less costly than wheaten flour." Leslie's recipe for pone clearly contains eggs, milk, and butter and is baked in a tin pan.

Leslie, 1847
 1847: The Caroline Housewife by Sarah Rutledge:
Butter, milk, egg yolks are key ingredients here and the cakes are baked in a pan or individual patty pans.

Rutledge, 1847

1857: The Great Western Cook Book by Angelina Maria Collins: 
Collins has some very definite ideas about what corn pone should be: basically just water, salt, and corn meal that, she insists, must be baked in an iron Dutch oven or skillet:

1869: Domestic Cookery by Elizabeth Lea (Baltimore):
Lea's recipe uses eggs, milk, butter, and requires baking.

Lea, 1869
1890: Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking by Mary Hinman Abel (New York)
Hinman's recipe uses just water and salt, but milk can be used instead of the water. This recipes instructs the maker to either bake in an oven or fry in pork fat.

Abel, 1890
1893: Favorite Dishes by Carrie Shuman (Chicago):
Buttermilk, eggs, butter or lard, baking soda, and stiff egg whites make this baked pone distinctly different from its 19th century cousins listed above.

Shuman, 1893

Some Conclusions
Clearly, based on the documents used to derive these definitions, the word and earliest forms of pones in North America were simply just baked, fried or griddled flat cakes of cornmeal and water as taught to the English by the local Eastern Woodland Indian. Therefore, no milk or eggs were likely used. But when looking at recipes over the course of time, it becomes clear that by the 19th century, the word pone was really just another word for a type of cornbread, with a variety of meanings and recipe variations. However, what corn pone recipes, as opposed to cornbread recipes, all seem to have in common is that they do not use wheat flour at all, just cornmeal, leavening agents other than eggs are rarely used, and no sugar is ever added. Additionally, this research definitely proved that "pone" definitely existed prior to the Civil War despite the numerous many ways in which it could be made.

Virginia Pone by Elizabeth Lea (Baltimore, 1869)

I chose this recipe because it is the one closest in age to the publication date of Tom Sawyer. Note: I did modify it slightly by cutting the recipe down to one-third the original amount and I added bacon drippings as the fat by which the pan is to be greased.

Modern Recipe Adaptation

1 Large Egg
1 1/3 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Tablespoon Salted Butter, Melted
1 3/4 Cups Stone-Ground Yellow Cornmeal
Bacon Drippings


1. Whisk the egg until frothy. Then add the milk and salt. Whisk until well-blended.

2. Add the melted butter to the above mixture. Then add the cornmeal. Stir until the milk mixture and cornmeal combine as best they can. The mixture will be a bit milky.

3. Allow this mixture to rest for about 15 minutes to let the milk soak into the cornmeal.

Corn Pone Batter

4. While the mixture is resting, heat the oven to 378ยบ F. Then, rub a large cast iron skillet with bacon drippings and place in the oven for about 5-10 minutes.

5. After the cornmeal has rested, stir it well and then pour it into the prepared and heated skillet.

6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the pone is firm throughout and nicely browned on the edges.

7. Serve immediately with butter, molasses, honey, and/or jam.

Virginia Corn Pone Slices

1 comment:

  1. My understanding of corn pone is that it's a southern name for what we New Englanders call Johnny Cake. It seems to have the same origin and later modifications. The difference is in how you bake it. I made Johnny Cakes for one of last year's challenges from a local grist mill recipe.


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