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"Not to Be Forgotten" Recipe Archives

Federal Pancakes from an American Orphan

Thanksgiving is over, and with it the annual talk of pilgrims and American beginnings. Today also marks the end of a highly political November, which I am glad to be done with. But before moving on, I turn to the old American culinary books for some thoughts on the beginnings of American identity and American food.

This simple 18th century recipe for pancakes is one you can easily make at home. It comes from a culinary founding mother, Amelia Simmons, author of the first cookbook written by an American and published here in the U.S.

Amazingly, it took about two hundred years of colonization on this continent before an authentically American cookbook began to emerge from the experience. Though the recipes in Amelia Simmon's book were still heavily British, she also featured American specialties like pumpkin pudding, cranberry pie, and hoecakes. In some cake recipes, she also called for chemical leaveners instead of the more time-consuming yeast-foreshadowing the enduring American interest in speed and short cuts that would eventually lead us down the path to Bisquick and Betty Crocker. Her pan cakes however are simple and pure.

Federal Pan Cake

Take one quart boulted rye flour, one quart of boulted Indian meal, mix it well, and stir it with a little salt into three pints milk to the proper consistence of pancakes; fry in lard, and serve up warm.

-- Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, 1796 (second edition)

*boulted (bolted) means sifted to remove bran and germ.

Now some of you may wonder why in the world I am sharing such a simple, dare I say, homely recipe-why I think this deserves "not to be forgotten" status.

There are several good reasons. First, I for one like to remember the world before abundant quantities of sugar and refined white flour changed our palates.

But the real reason I share this recipe, however, is because of Amelia herself and the era in which she wrote--right after the Revolutionary War, a time that would help shape the nature of American identity. Having just miraculously beaten the monarchy, Americans felt full of righteousness about their fledgling democracy. They were obsessed with being moral and virtuous. They were proud of their greatness.

Amelia expresses all these things in the first American cookbook. For one thing, she conveys her own patriotism in the titles of recipes. Note these are not just any pancakes, but "federal" pancakes. She also features recipes for "independence cake" and "election cake"--singing forth a little about the time in which she lived.

The words "independence" and "freedom" meant different things at the end of the 18th century-mainly liberation from Britain rather than personal freedom. Yes, she gave us election cake, but as a woman she did not have the right to a vote, an education, property ownership and many other things. Amelia's life and times remind us that democracy and its meanings are not fixed or permanent, but an ongoing process.

Most interesting of all is the preface of "American Cookery" where Amelia pours out her heart, explaining that she is an "American orphan" with "no natural protectors," meaning no men to look out for her-no father, no husband and no brothers, not to mention no money or other family connections. We can also bet that she was illiterate and that she created "American Cookery," by dictating it to a scribe.

And yet, despite the odds, this poor and orphaned girl did the most amazing thing of authoring the first American cookbook. No small accomplishment. From humble kitchen servant to mother of the American written culinary tradition. You've got to hand it to her.

How did she do it? Amelia tells us straight out that any woman in that situation quickly learns she's got no one to count on but herself. The only path is to be impeccably virtuous. "How immensely important," she writes, "that every action, every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity . . ." In short, she decided to be a good girl, as she tells it, or, in her own words--to adhere to the rules and maxims that have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character a virtuous character."

Amelia's story-her appeal to our distinctly American obsession with purity and the potential for self re-creation-is irresistible. And let's not forget her marketing savvy-for putting the phrase "by an American Orphan" on the frontispiece of her book.

And what about the pancakes themselves? Well, you will probably be disappointed if you make them exactly as Amelia instructs. As I mention above, tastes change, and most of us will find these far too bland to the modern palate-they are simply flour made into a batter with milk and then fried in lard.

Below is an adaptation that contains all the luxuries (if they are luxuries anymore) of our American life: white flour, sugar, egg, and leavening. It is delicious--fluffier and sweeter than the original. This is not historic cooking in any way, but you do get to taste an essential flavor of old New England. That flavor is the combination of rye and corn-an old world grain and a new world grain-that came together in the collision of global encounters, adaptations, and re-creations that led to a new country. Not to mention the story of an illiterate kitchen servant who became something great.

I suggest you hold the maple syrup and enjoy these with stewed apples some cold morning.

Modern Version of Federal Pancakes

cup rye flour
cup cornmeal
cup white flour
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1 cups milk

Mix the dry ingredients well. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs well and add milk. Stir this into your dry ingredients until smooth. Fry on a greased griddle until light brown. Makes 12 to 15 small pancakes.

Serve with stewed apples or pears. Maple syrup optional but not necessary.

This installment of Not to Be Forgotten is adapted from A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances, which is being published in paperback this very month. For more information about my book or me, please visit www.lauraschenone.com.

Next in "Not to Be Forgotten," antique treats for the holiday.

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