Soundscapes – Croakers Croaking

Croakers destined for the table.

First, a bit of introduction. Elizabeth Ritson’s 1816 poetical description of Norfolk, Virginia, its people, customs, manners, buildings, and foodstuffs stands out as one of the most remarkable renderings of an early American seaport town ever penned. Among my favorite passages are the enumerations of provisions for sale in the city markets.  Reading Ritson’s couplets my fascination begins with the diversity of what shoppers could procure for their tables and then drfits to speculation about the elusive sensorium she invokes. Her’s is a vivid world of curiosity experienced through sound , texture, and flavor. Take, for example, Ritson’s catalog of fish harvested from the mouth and lower tributaries of the Chesapeake, some familiar delicacies, others forgotten or shunned by evolving tastes. All poetically memorable:

Of fish they’re many sorts, it’s true,

H.M. Arnold on Nassawadox Creek

But none that’s very fine to view;

The firmest sort that can be found,

Are rocks, from seven to forty pound;

They are a white and solid fish,

Making a truly valued dish;

In shape like cod, from head to tail,

And cover’d with a shining scale.

But all fish lovers most admire,

And more than any sort desire,

Their fine sheep’s-head, which all declare,

Surpasses any turbot here.

[155] Fine mummychog are too be had,

With tailors, alewives, drum, and shad,

Sword-fish, sun-fish, dog-fish, skip-jack,

Cat-fish, black-fish, and tickleback.

 Descendents of Ritson’s finned horde still swim the waters of southeastern Virginia as do others she doesn’t name: spots, fatbacks, menhaden – all once constituent in local diets, now distressingly diminished in their numbers. But, Ritson reserves her longest passage for the humble croaker:

Another fish, much priz’d, they seek,

H.M. Arnold fishing for croaker

Bringing to town from Tanner’s creek;

A horn proclaims the hog-fish near,

Quickly the light horsemen appear;

Upon a shabby nag they ride,

A pannier loaded on each side,

With fish so fresh that people hunt

Their coming in, to hear them grunt;

Declaring if fresh they’re found,

You certainly may hear the sound!

Perhaps, being us’d the pigs to hear,

The sound’s for ever in their ear.

The vision of fishmongers astride tottering nags slung with baskets of  gasping fish destined for city tables is made more compelling by the sonic imagination. Horse hooves clop, the wet wood of the panniers creaks, hucksters sing out, a trumpet herald news of the catch…and croakers croak. For Ritson, an Englishwoman recently arrived in Norfolk, the cacophony of croakers resonated the exotic. For local gourmands, the grunt vocalized summer plenty. Croakers Croaking

Purchasing fish in the Bayford Oyster House

It’s early on a fine warm August morning when I join H.M. Arnold at the dock of the Bayford oysters house and we push out onto Nassawadox Creek in search of fatbacks (jumping mullet or striped mullet). Before we pursue the mullet, though, H.M. checks his regular nets for croakers, blues, and spots. We motor through lifting mist up to one end of the net set near the far shore and H.M. starts the process of hauling in the mesh with its entangled unfortunates. “Andrew,” he notes, “says they were here yesterday.” Most of what he catches is menhaden (known locally by the dismissive nickname of Carolina spot) he shakes loose and sets free.

But there are croakers! And, they grunt indignantly as they are pulled from the still night darkened water, unwound from ensnaring mesh, and tossed into a basket for market. Splash, rasp, thud, croak. The last the distinctive grunt that captivated Ritson, a sound I remember from my childhood, a sound that reminds me that the world should be heard and smelled and tasted and touched. It is a sound forever in my ear.

Savoring Hannah Mary’s Pone

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah in 1936, Lewes, Delaware.

Wistfulness infuses Sarah’s words smilingly spoken:

Hannah Mary was her name. She was a lovely lady. She always came into town on Saturday morning, pulling a little wagon and one horse, and she always had made a few pies. And once or twice I tasted her pies, but we really couldn’t afford them because we always made those at home. But Hannah Mary made what she called a “corn pone,” and it was huge. I’m trying to think, it was certainly more than a foot round about six, seven inches deep. I don’t know exactly how she made it, but I know it took cornmeal and molasses and water. I don’t know what else she put in it, but I know she baked it. She had an old cookstove range that was wood burning or coal burning, but she would bake it probably for about six hours. And she used to make just one and she would sell it in chunks. You could buy a quarter of a one or an eighth of a pone, I guess. We didn’t get it every week, but when we bought it we would always get a quarter of it and, boy, was it good! You cut in slices and then either steamed it and then with lots of butter or you cut it in slices and kind of sautéed it on each side and had it with eggs and bacon. That was good!”

Corn pone, as regional fare and culinary concept, covers a good deal of territory, but Hannah Mary’s pone offers a glimpse into a dish well-seasoned with Southern associations that inflect so much of Eastern Shore life. Hannah Mary’s pone is not to be confused with cornbread or its cornpone variations. Hers bore only the most distant relation to the familiar miniature cornbread loaves baked in cast iron pans, each pone embossed with the impression of a shucked ear of corn. These cornpones, typically chokingly bone dry beyond the redemption of all liquid, offer something of a dim caricature of their origins as ashcakes baked in hot coals at fire’s edge. But, these baked asphyxiations happily are not the only pones out in the world nor are those other pones without their own extraordinary histories.  Pone (from the Algonquin “apan”), as encountered and adapted by Africans and Europeans in the early 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay country, designated breads baked by American Indians and subsequently acquired more specific reference to the cornbreads of the American South.

Hannah Mary’s pone has its parallels and precedents. Mrs. Bertie Powell, resident in the Eastern Shore of Virginia waterside town of Onancock, shared a recipe for “Maryland Yellow Pone” with her friend and neighbor Bessie Gunter, who published it in her 1889 cookbook, Housekeeper’s Companion:

“Maryland Yellow Pone: Scald three quarts or one gallon of meal. Let it stand until cool, then add half teacupful of flour. Stir with cold water until the ordinary consistency of corn-meal batter, and salt to taste. The art in this bread is entirely in the lightening and baking. It is necessary to have a small [Dutch] oven, which you can set inside the stove as it bakes too quickly in flat tins. Make up after [midday] dinner and pour it in the oven which must be slightly greased. Set the oven with the lid on, on the back part of the stove (mine is a range) where the bread will lighten gradually, but not bake, until tea is over. Then take the lid off the oven, set the oven inside the stove and have a good coal fire, and let the oven remain till morning. A thick crust forms on top which you remove as you cut the bread, only a plate full at a time. You will find the bread as yellow and almost as sweet as pound-cake. Remove the crust only as you cut the bread, as that keeps it moist. You can set the oven in the stove and warm the bread as you like. This is the genuine ‘Old Yellow Pone of Maryland.’ It is so ‘fussy.’ [I] don’t know how it will sound in receipt book, but the bread is excellent.—Mrs. B.P.”

Like Hannah Mary’s pone of Sarah’s reminiscence, Powell’s pone is slow baked in a cast iron Dutch oven on a coal or wood fired range. Powell’s recipe is also notable for cooking the cornmeal twice: first scalding the meal and letting it cool before baking. Powell’s recipe offers directions couched in the rhetorical authenticity, of time and place. The “genuine” pone derives from an “old” recipe from Maryland. She marks time through meals, situating dinner at midday and a light “tea” or supper in the evening. Properly concocted, the pone will be excellent, but, in its making, the pone is “fussy,” requiring a patient, practiced hand. And, then, there is the problem of translation. Powell implicitly locates the pone in oral tradition and hand-in-hand learning, wondering in conclusion how the dish will “sound” in print. Sarah, more than a century after the publication of Powell’s recipe, similarly recognized the fussiness and the inability of print to capture the art of making Hannah Mary’s pone.

Recollecting her childhood in the town of Lewes at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Sarah Jastak (born Sarah Ellen Rickards) recounted the weekly appearance in the 1930s of an African-American huckster, Hannah Mary. “She had a wagon pulled by one horse, and you could hear that horse clip clopping down the street, Sarah begins and then continues, “it was just an open old wooden wagon. It just looked creaky and very, very rustic, and I don’t even remember how she had her baked goods stored. Maybe boxes or something, but nothing fancy.” Sarah adds, “she came around every Saturday morning with her produce. She would have made maybe three or four pies. She made just the one big corn pone and she sold it by the quarter, a quarter of a corn pone. I forget what else she sold, but I remember her pies were delicious and her corn pone – you just can’t get it now.” Hannah Mary’s route carried her from her modest clapboard home in the black community literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks, past the high school, and into McFee Street where she sold pone, pies, and a bit of garden produce to a white clientele.

Hannah Mary’s bona fides offer something more of a mystery. Sarah in consultation with her younger sister Ruth remembered Hannah Mary’s surname Burton, adding that her wooden house faced the old Savannah Road just across the railroad tracks.  The 1930 census enumerates the household of William Stockley and his wife Hannah, both in their early 50s. Living with them, listed as mother-in-law, is Hannah Burton, 83 years of age. But, murkiness confounds the details. William Stockley appears to be the elder Hannah’s son, who for reasons unstated has changed his surname from Burton to Stockley. More to the point of pone, William found employment as a cook in a white residence. Hannah, his wife, works as a housekeeper similarly employed.  In 1920, ten years earlier, William is Burton, not Stockley, working as a cook as does his mother Hannah. The younger Hannah is not on the scene. Weighing Sarah’s recollections of Hannah Mary, a neatly dressed woman in her 50s, with the census takers incisive notations, we get a sense of an aging, childless African-American household where the two Hannahs and William augment the family income with baked goods and garden produce. Younger Hannah carts those small commodities through the streets of Lewes where eager white customers purchase the pone on offer.

In the genealogy of Hannah Mary’s pone, one thought lingers. The elder Hannah Burton, born in 1855, grew up in a place where slavery, although increasingly rare, was legal and in a state exempted for political expedience from the immediate implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. The pone Sarah remembers with such affection, a great cake of cornmeal sweetened with molasses, is consonant with the deep histories of laboring foods – notable for qualities of being low-cost, filling, and sustaining in a world of arduous rural work and limited means. Baked goods also offered poorer households, in particular African American families, a means to supplement income. In some instances, home-baked goods made a big difference. An 1889 obituary for “Aunt Maria” Bivens, one of Bessie Gunter’s Onancock contemporaries, praised her industry, “it is estimated that she made over 3,000,000 cakes, the entire number being consumed in this country. ‘Aunt Maria’ redeemed herself from slavery with proceeds obtained from the sale of her cakes. Sometime ago she purchased a valuable farm. She never did any other work except the making of her cakes. She supported her husband and a large family of children, and left considerable property.”  Not nearly as successful, Hannah Mary participated in deeply established economic strategy. Nostalgia drives the pone’s apotheosis from a dietary artifact marking hard times to a lovingly remembered treat.

When we write about food we all too often forget core considerations about flavor and texture and smell. Interest in food as object tends to privilege appearance over flavor, process over aroma, ingredients over consistency. Sarah’s recollections remind us that food history engages a wider array of sensory evocations: “It’s very hard to describe what that pone tasted like, except it was delicious. It was not really sweet, but not unsweet. It was dark brown in color. It was not light and feathery; it was of a heavier, denser consistency. It’s very difficult to tell you, except it was absolutely delicious, but it was not feathery like light bread.” “It was just delicious,” Sarah concludes with palpable longing. Molasses imparted sweetness; the long baking time produced the smoothly dense pound cake-like texture remarked by Mrs. Powell.

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah’s mother with a favorite chicken.

Sarah locates Hannah Mary’s pone in the intimate temporality of a huckster’s rounds and a family’s meals, “We knew she was coming on Saturday morning and it was always about the same time. And you could hear her horse clop, clop, clop, clopping down the street… It was an old horse and it looked like it was on its [last legs]…It was not a young horse. It was an old nag, kind of, and she pulled this two wheeled cart…She kept everything covered with a kind of sheet or something, and she would stop on the street and get down from the bench in the wagon and then go around [to get] whatever it was that she had for sale, and whatever we could afford, we’d get some of it.” “Life in those days was very much a kind of routine,” Sarah observes, “You knew what time to expect the iceman to come around, what time you expected the milkman. There were just times you expected certain things.” Hannah Mary curtailed her rounds in the winter months, requiring Sarah’s mother to visit her at home on the northern edge of Lewes,  “It seems to me that my mother would sometimes go out in the wintertime and get a pone. I don’t think she’d come around in that little open cart [in winter] because it would be cold.”

Sarah sets the table, “Basically, we had it for breakfast. It was something we served in the mornings, on Sunday mornings. We’d get this on Saturday morning when she came around and we couldn’t afford to get it every Saturday. We would have it on Sunday morning for breakfast and with either bacon or sausage or something like that and eggs…It was superb.” Sarah laughs, “It would keep for a week without any refrigeration. Of course it didn’t last long.”

More than once, Sarah, an accomplished cook, confided that Hannah Mary’s pone was a dish she could not replicate: “It was just basically cornmeal, molasses, I think hot water – but she baked it in a huge iron skillet. But, of course, the size of it alone would take a long time to bake, not that I would ever make one that size.” Then, Sarah adds, “Nobody nowadays knows what I’m even talking about when I’m talking about that kind of pone.” As proof, Sarah cites her continuing search for a recipe that replicates Hannah Mary’s giant pone. Recounting her failures, Sarah places two notions in play: the limits of historical knowledge and the reproducibility of past sensation.  As an object, Hannah Mary’s pone survives only as narrative, a thing that exists in the present only as story, a sensory world reprised exclusively through words.

The connections between Sarah’s childhood pone purchased from the back of Hannah Mary’s wain and the Mrs. Powell’s earlier recipe for a Maryland Yellow Pone triangulate this pone’s historic place in the culinary landscapes of extreme southern Delaware, the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and adjacent Virginia. The dish, already deemed old in the 1880s, even then recuperated memory and authenticity. Mrs. Powell lards her narrative with asides on the art and antiquity of pone. Sarah does the same, extending those associations to race and class. Sarah and Mrs. Powell together voice uncertainty about the translation of memory into action. Theirs is a pone best consumed through listening and savored in the imagination.