Sweet Potato Pie

Quail Cove Sweet Potato Farm near Machipongo, Virginia (2012)

Quail Cove Sweet Potato Farm near Machipongo, Virginia (2012)

The news item remains poignant and strange. On May 25, 1882, the Peninsula Enterprise reported, “At the Alms House on last Saturday night thieves entered the smoke-house on the premises, by undermining the foundation, and carried off all the meat, four pies in number, deposited there for the use of the poor of that institution.” Tunneling under a foundation to purloin pies and bacon seems like a lot of effort to devote to culinary skullduggery. But, there you have it. The impoverished poorhouse residents deprived of pies provided by a caring community. I’d like to think that sweet potato pies were the object of such villainy.

Hayman Sweet Potatoes curing

Hayman Sweet Potatoes curing

Laura Dennis recalled the family pie business in the town of Cape Charles during the Great Depression: “Mother was most famous for her pies. She had the best recipe for piecrust, and it was just as flaky, never soggy. She made lemon and coconut pie. Butterscotch, cherry, apple, mincemeat, pumpkin, sweet potato.” As a little girl of nine or ten, it was Laura’s job to deliver those pies to customers in the community, “They would order the cakes and the pies and the rolls. She would take orders during the week. And, we would deliver the goods, and we had a little wagon that my uncle fixed. It had a little cage on it with two shelves and we put the pies in there and pulled the wagon around and deliver. And that’s how she made her living.” The one pie Laura Dennis never made, though, was a Hayman sweet potato pie, inscribed in a recipe in her collection with the caution “Will be slightly greenish in color, and very, very rich.” I’ve baked and eaten  this sweet potato pie and it is both slightly green and exceedingly rich.

Hayman Swet Potatoes for sale. Nassawadox, VIrginia (2012).

Hayman Swet Potatoes for sale. Nassawadox, VIrginia (2012).

“White Hayman Sweet Potato Pie”

 3 cups cooked white Hayman sweet potatoes

1 stick butter

1 pinch nutmeg

1 1/3 cup sugar

4 eggs beaten

1 tsp vanilla

1 (13 oz) can evaporated milk

1 unbaked pie shell, large, or 2 small

Combine potatoes, butter, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Combine beaten eggs and milk; mix with potato mixture until blended. Pour into pie shell or shells. Bake at 350º for 1 hour or until knife inserted comes out clean. May take 20 minutes longer in large pie.

Gloria Harmon, married to William Harmon whose family has cultivated Hayman sweets for generations, makes a different sweet potato pie, a confection that draws its accent from the lemon juice she adds.

William Harmon with his harvested sweet potatoes. Franktown, Virginia 2010

William Harmon with his harvested sweet potatoes. Franktown, Virginia 2010

“Sweet Potato Pie”

2 X-large eggs

2 Cup sugar

1 Stick butter

3 Cup cook[ed] potatoes

½ Cup whole milk

1 Cup canned milk

2 Tbsp vanilla

2 Tbsp lemon

½ Tsp salt

Mix ingredients together. Bake at 375º. Use unbaked pie shell.

Ms. Harmon’s instructions are simple enough. Collect the ingredients, blend them thoroughly, pour the filling mixture into the piecrust, and bake and until the pie is done. There are no steps but these; there are no intervals but those defined by practice. I’ve made this pie according to these exact specifications and in doing so discovered the pie as the craft produced from a deeply naturalized and unstated reservoir of knowledge achieved through practice and the most literal acts of consumption. At heart, the sweet potato pie is an idea encountered on a plate.

Planting Sweet Potato "Slips" near Eastville, Virginia (2008).

Planting Sweet Potato “Slips” near Eastville, Virginia (2008).

“Cook” Sara Ross of Accomac kept her recipes in a blue cookie tin that held two small file boxes and a handful of loose papers. Her handwritten recipe consists only of a list of ingredients with no instructions for a crust and no directions for mixing and baking the filling. Cook Ross presumed that if you were going to make something as familiar as a sweet potato pie you shared the common knowledge (the lingua franca of pie) central to the enterprise. The enumeration of ingredients told the experienced baker of sweet potato pies all they needed to know. Her ingredients, consistent with those listed for other sweet potato pie recipes, vary in proportion from those of Gloria Harmon and Laura Dennis, but the alchemy of evaporated milk, sweet potatoes, butter, eggs, spice, and sugar is much the same.

Pie Auction poster featuring a sweet potato pie on right. Exmore, Virginia (2011).

Pie Auction poster featuring a sweet potato pie on right. Exmore, Virginia (2011).

“Sweet Potato Pie”

2 cups potato

1 large can milk

1 ½ cup sugar

1 stick melted butter

pinch salt

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cook Ross also collected recipes, some sent by friends, others shared by neighbors, and many clipped from newspapers, magazines, and promotional literature exemplified by the trade brochure “Nema Gold Sweet Potatoes from Virginia’s Eastern Shore” prepared by the Accomack and Northampton County Farm Bureaus (n.d.). The sweet potato pie recipe was surely the product of a rural affairs test kitchen.

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes. Franktown vicinity, Virginia (2011).

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes. Franktown vicinity, Virginia (2011).

“Nema Gold Sweet Potato Pie”

1 ½ cups boiled sweet potatoes (mashed)

1 cup milk

1 ½ cups sugar

3 eggs (separate)

4 tablespoons butter

Pinch of salt,  1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and  few drops of vanilla

Put sweet potatoes through sieve. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks, salt and flavoring. Add milk and mix. Fold in egg whites. Bake about 20 minutes at 425º. Reduce temperature to 300º and finish baking. About 45 to 50 minutes total baking time is required. Makes 1 large pie.

The contrast between the collected recipe and the handwritten list of ingredients is dramatic. The published recipe is “busy,” requiring the separation of the eggs and the temperature adjustments. It’s a program for prescribed action. More to the point, this recipe takes pains to communicate the fact that the sweet potatoes should be boiled before making the pie. I never boil the potatoes, but roast them instead. Roasting concentrates and preserves flavor; boiling diminishes the sweet potato, robbing it of its distinctive richness. Becky taught me this – and she possesses a lifetime of sweet potato pie expertise.

Carrying Sweet Potato "Slips" to the field. Eastville vicinity, Virginia (2009).

Carrying Sweet Potato “Slips” to the field. Eastville vicinity, Virginia (2009).

All of these pie recipes (and there are many, many more in my field notes) set me to thinking about their origins. After all, evaporated milk, central to many recipes, is a comparatively recent invention that did not begin to gain market traction until the canning process was perfected in the 1890s. The rest of it, though, is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t require a eureka revelation to realize that the sweet potato pie is essentially a pudding – and that it can be baked without a crust and served in slices. A “Sweet Potato Pudding” recipe from Marion Cabell Tyree’s 1879 Housekeeping in Old Virginia foretells Gloria Harmon’s recipe: “Boil one and a half pounds potatoes very tender. Add half a pound of butter, and rub both together through a sieve. Then add a small cupful of milk, six eggs, one and a half cupful sugar. Beat all together and add a little salt, the juice and rind of a lemon. Then beat again, and prepare pastry. Bake twenty minutes. It may be baked without pastry. Irish potato pudding may be made by the same recipe.”

My friend Dave Shields freely shares his thoughts on sweet potato history, varieties, and recipes, tapping into the rich agricultural and culinary histories of the 1800s. Sweet potatoes (not to be confused with true yams) are native to the Americas and were quickly adapted into New World European and African cuisines. The pudding was a European notion that covered a centuries old universe of thoroughly blended dishes, sweet and savory. Think blood sausage; think liver pudding! The nutmeg that commonly flavors sweet potato pies, Dave adds, firmly establishes that Old World pudding genealogy. There are other sweet potato confections, some, the pone and the soufflé for instance, cousins to the sweet potato pie. Then there are biscuits, breads, and sweet potatoes baked in the skin.

William Baines's Sweet Potatoes For Sale near Eastville, Virginia (2009)

William Baines’s Sweet Potatoes For Sale near Eastville, Virginia (2009)

Sweet potatoes in the land of Gloria and William Harmon, Laura Dennis, Cook Ross, and just about everyone else I know are a staple. When I go to the Exmore Diner for spot, toads, or drum, I always order greens and a baked sweet potato on the side. When I chat with folks about Eastern Shore of Virginia dishes like salted black duck, oyster cakes, and clam fritters, they invariably sigh with longing and then rhetorically fortify the plates of recollection and imagination with sweet potatoes. Brick-lined pits under the floorboards in front of the hearth in old houses were sweet potato drop-ins. And, then there were the specialized sweet potato houses (wonderfully documented by Judi Quinn) designed for storage, curing, and propagation. Sweet potatoes, where I come from, are iconic and the sweet potato pie is their perfection and my redemption.

I just know those pies pilfered from the poor of Accomack County so long ago were sweet potato pies – a conclusion that renders their theft understandable and unpardonable. In a truly just America, everybody gets a slice of the sweet potato pie.

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Reconnoitering Thanksgiving

Reconnoitering offers one of the most joyful aspects of Thanksgiving – second only to the excitement of lighting off the burn pile and then realizing that the wind picked up and the flames are kissing the top of a nearby pine. Everybody runs around looking for a garden hose to cool the tree. My 86-year-old mother, Lucy, and I simply watch as a branch ignites and then flares out. I never liked that tree much – and out of stubbornness, it survives the threatening inferno. You have to engage potential disaster to sweeten the day, I guess.

Josh Nottingham with sweet potatoes at Pickett’s Harbor.

The loop that runs from one end of the county to the other begins on a brilliant blue-sky morning with a stop at Pickett’s Harbor Farm where Josh Nottingham meets me with a selection of sweet potatoes, featuring the locally favored Hayman. The field crew pulls up in a farm-tagged pickup loaded with broccoli, cauliflower, and red and green cabbages. Josh, his mother Tammy, and I talk of crops, markets, family, and books recently read.

Friends at A&J’s Meat Market in Cheriton.

Next stop: A&J’s meat market out by the main highway leading into the village of Cheriton. James Elliot produces some of the best old school sage sausage to be found anywhere on the planet. Browned, crumbled, and mixed with whole hominy (yellow and white), James’s sausage is the cornerstone of the stuffing that goes into the fresh turkey he also provides. His manifest knowledge of pork provides tangible proof that art resides in the soul of everyday life.

Dinner rolls in progress at Kate’s Kupboard.

Onward to Bellehaven and Kate’s Kupboard for sweet potato biscuits. Sweet potato biscuits are the subject of much partisan debate. Some gourmands advocate for Tangier’s with little bits of sweet potato visible in the biscuit; others argue passionately for Charles Thain’s served with a bit of salt ham and jam. The Yellow Duck coffee shop in Exmore offers home-baked sweet potato biscuits that exert a real presence at the table – and they are good. But it’s Kate’s for Thanksgiving. Her biscuits are perfectly sized, orangey yellow, not too sweet, and the perfect vehicle for fried oysters and bacon. When I arrive midday, Kate’s is in full swing with Kate and her assistants kneading dinner rolls and racks of just-from-the-oven breads cooling on rolling racks. The scent of baking bread always raises the questions of why there isn’t a perfume – say, Eau d’Boule – the engenders pure delight.

Tom and Ann Gallivan shucking Shooting Point Salts at Chatham Winery.

Down to Bayford Oyster House where I hand H.M. Arnold an array of smoked eel and fatbacks packed in oil, freshly smoked eel rolled on parsley and garlic, and a jar of fig chutney. Late last summer, H.M. and I fished together for the fatbacks in Nassawadox Creek, and he set aside a dozen fat eels from his catch in September. The promise of his meeting them again all smoked and preserved was my bond – and it’s a bargain happily met. Up the hill, Tom and Ann Gallivan’s crew is noisily culling oysters for the holiday trade. Tom, off fishing, left us two bags of Hog Island Bay clams and a few dozen Shooting Point Salts oysters in the walk-in cooler. Fig chutney, a jar of smoked eels, and a freshly smoked bluefish replace the shellfish.

Wines of Chatham Vineyard at the early November wine and oyster tasting.

One the road again: past Chatham Winery where just two weeks earlier we participated in a wine and oyster tasting for 200 folks. Several bottles of Mills and Jon Wehner’s excellent 2009 steel chardonnay chill in our smokehouse fridge. The thought of those bottles drives me onward where we’ll savor all the things collected and toast the people and place who define our corner of the world. The vineyard, gone dormant in the early days of winter, marches its skeletal ranks of November vines forward to the promise of a warmer season. I drive on, spurred on with no small excitement by the fact that Maiana and Jessyca G. are delivering homemade tamales (pork and chicken) along with sweet potato empanadas. Their voyage to this corner of the South has not been the easiest – but they are here as a family and looking to the future. “What are you having for Thanksgiving?” I ask Maiana. “Turkey and tamales,” Jessyca translates. We are on the same page! They drive into the settling darkness and I head back indoors to get after a sweet potato empanada – the new sweet potato biscuits that brings us all together.

Maiana and Jessica with tamales and sweet potato emapanadas.

Storm Pairings

Hurricane Sandy on the move

The thing about storms is the weirdness they occasion. A hurricane approaches with assured ferocity, the mid-Atlantic coast shudders in a frisson of near-erotic anticipation, and the rush is on for the holy trinity of disaster commodities: milk, bread, and toilet tissue. Now, of course, schismatic voices advocate for other trinities like bottled water, generators, and gas – or some other more radical constellation of necessities that might include duct tape, shotgun shells, and a chainsaw. It’s a sectarian/partisan world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hurricane, blizzard, or severe cold front breeding a tornadic frenzy that threatens, the first stop is shopping for survival goods – milk, bread, toilet tissue. Clearly, the weather is not only the world’s greatest unpaid actor, it is also the compelling infomercial shill inciting the purchase of extraordinary quantities of croutons-waiting-to-happen.

Our list veers storm-like in another direction.

Number one: wine. I’m sure others have written on this topic, but the dilemma of wine pairings for potential disasters receives too little attention. For a late October storm, part hurricane/part northeaster, I look for well-structured reds with rustic, yet delicate notes of windblown leaf mold, fallen apples and pomegranates, and tide-churned marsh mud. A powerful bouquet with the architecture of an armageddon; the kind of wine that went with the demolition of the Tower of Babel; old world wines that speak to millennia of unresolved conflict – and definitely not one of those new world, new age, over-extracted West Coast or Oz wines. You can find great vintages to accompany the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it on the apocalypse preparedness shelf of any respectable wine shop.

Number two: roasted chickens. Almost every grocery store with a working U.S. military surplus rotisserie markets roast chickens. Confronting the potential devastation of sustained twenty-five mile an hour winds, we lay in a supply of two and, if it looks like the End of Days, three roast chickens. The last thing we want to do, having delved into the cataclysmic cellar and uncorked a good bottle of disaster wine, is cook. Glass in hand, this is the moment to survey the mayhem of downed leaves and twigs (unless something really bad has happened and it’s trees snapped and uprooted, cars smooshed, and roofs torn off, in which instance we go out with a bottle and two straws). Knowing that a roast chicken along with some pre-roasted potatoes with baby bella mushrooms (talk about a marketing scam) sprinkled with rosemary, black pepper, and sea salt awaits us at home base offers the greatest consolation.

Number three: a plan for capitalizing on frozen goods that thaw in the wake of power loss. Admittedly, power fails in the wake of really, really, really bad atmospheric and geologic events, for example a rain sodden crow landing on a transformer – and sometimes the lights go out for more than 24 hours. To deal with the potential power outage induced tsunami of delectables that include eels, soft crabs, blackberries, pre-cooked sweet potatoes, and more, we maintain a collection of recipes suitable for the grill and smoker – and a guest list of fellow survivalists who are likely to bring a good bottle as a contribution in their hour of greatest need.

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.

Aberrant Things

Peelers in the Bayford Oyster House

Aberration possesses the noteworthy quality of rendering the unremarked norm visible. So it is with the current state of blue crabs in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Striding past the old concrete oyster shucking tables in the Bayford Oyster House, Jonathan Bunce extends his hand, not in greeting, but to display a three-inch blue crab. The sight is disturbing not because the crab is small but because of what it is and where it stands in regimes of understanding. The tiny crab he holds, its claws folded inward in repose, is a mature egg-bearing sook. “That,” H. M. states, “just isn’t right.”

She crabs go by a variety of names that designate their state of maturation. Sally crabs are immature females, sooks are sexually mature, busted sooks or sponge crabs are egg bearing. A fully adult busted sook carries millions of eggs. The diminutive busted sook in Jonathan’s palm might hold thousands – and not many thousands at that. Those are big numbers to be sure, but in a watery world where everything is on everything else’s menu only a few of those eggs will hatch and grow into crabs. It takes millions of fertilized eggs to hatch out as larvae destined to grow into a handful of adults. The tiny busted sook is bad news for the crab world and the universe of creatures that depend on them –  including the human realm of watermen, fishmongers, crab pickers, and gourmands.

Speculation ensues. Jonathan notes that the crab he holds is the norm this year – and so the aberrant becomes a new commonplace. H. M. wonders at what might be in the water, citing a recent study that found measurable trace amounts of Prozac and other pharmaceuticals in the marine biostream. What about the ag-industrial use of hormones – say, estrogen – we offer. Or, has the population in terms of gender become so imbalanced that a natural accommodation to redress a dearth of females is underway. We own only hypotheses.

The petite busted sook Jonathan displays raises questions about the work that objects perform in our understanding of the world and our place in it. In a “normal” year, the conversation turns to numbers caught, dockside prices, and the range of topics that govern crab economics. This crab-as-object is different from the one at hand and in its difference describes the ways in which the things we understand the least force questions that reveal the unarticulated expectations and ideologies that govern everyday life. The biology of the crab that indicates an imbalance in nature simultaneously reveals a parallel imbalance in culture. Where the physiology of the crab addresses distortions in its reproductive population, interpretive process reconciles the aberrant thing to the world of sense. In essence, the strangeness of the tiny busted sook demands sense making.  The challenge rests not only on the worrisome state of the natural world but also on equally worrisome ecologies of understanding. It’s not just what the crab illuminates about itself but what it reveals about us. What we learn from the busted sook is the ways in which we substitute sense for solution. When we posit believable explanations, we act as if we have resolved the stubborn thing, and at the heart of that action we discover the deepest work of words crafted as narrative into explanations that may not matter.

Oyster Shucking Blocks

H.M. Arnold shucking oysters, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia (Winter, 2009)

When Francis Ponge poetically reprised the oyster in 1942, observing on its interior a “firmament of nacre,” he considered too briefly the cruel instruments of destruction that invaded the oyster’s heavens: “hold it in an open cloth and use a cheap chipped knife.” His vision originates from the gastronome’s perspective, whether lodged in kitchen or bistro or wartime longing, where the oyster shucked to the perfection of a laboratory specimen purveys aesthetic delight. But what of shucking blocks scarred by the shells of thousands in their final immobile moment, pinned to oak by practiced hands, bills nicked on an upright iron spud to create the opening that admits the stabber’s severing knife? To one side the stainless steel pail where hundreds measured out in gallons passed from this world into another of stews and fritters. The shucker’s block bruises the elegance of Ponge’s rhapsodic revelations evoking constellations composed of ocean flavor, hidden worlds, and sometimes a pearl. The worn and checked contours of the shucker’s block record invasions and violence stained deep in a patina of wood and liquid, the physical trace of remorseless determination and futile resistance.

Oyster Shucking Block, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia. Materials: oak, iron, and (after years of use) oyster essence.

The shucking block, like most effective lethal “old school” artifacts, is a simple thing. The oak block, much stained with the oyster’s viscous seawater effluvia, measures nine inches long by six wide by 3 ½ deep. There is no science to the dimensions of the block beyond vagaries of personal preference (the comfort of hand and wrist, the ergonomics of reach and bench) and so approximation informs understanding more richly than exactitude. A wrought iron spud driven into the block offers the blunt edge that sheers the oyster’s bill with an authoritative tap from oyster knife or culling hammer. That’s it. An oak block furnished with a single dull blade hammered from an old file or iron scrap. Within those narrow specifications there is room for innovation. Spuds driven into opposite corners distinguish right-handed versus left-handed adepts. The deep grooves hollowed out by abrasive shells pressed against unsympathetic wood in the last instant of life write epitaphs without words. The small variations of spud and bolt, the evidence of relentless hands, the stained trace of countless oysters etches humanity into the shucker’s block.

The oyster block at rest.