An Alabama Plantation Breakfast

My current Kindle/gym reading is Letters from Alabama, by Philip Henry Gosse. I’m not sure what inspired me to download this title, but I’m finding it mostly pretty interesting reading, even though it is very poorly formatted for Kindle, which makes for some confusion and frustration.

Gosse (1810–1888) was a self-taught English naturalist specializing in entomology. He came to the New World in 1827 and, after a decade in Canada, came to Alabama in 1838 and was soon hired to teach the children of plantation owners near present-day Pleasant Hill, in the cotton-growing region of Dallas County. He recorded his observations in the form of letters, which were published serially in the periodical The Home Friend. In 1859, the revised pieces were published in London as Letters from Alabama.

The first letter, dated May 12 in the table of contents, May 15 in the letter itself, records Gosse’s miserable trip from Philadelphia to Mobile aboard a small coasting schooner. The second, dated May 20, contains his impressions of Mobile and then of his passage upriver to the place where he would stay. In the third, dated June 1, Gosse first describes his log-cabin school in the middle of the “piny woods” and then takes the reader through a typical day. All of the letters are full of descriptions of the local flora and fauna, illustrated with occasional engravings, but one of the passages I found of special interest was Gosse’s description of a typical breakfast, which he takes on the way to school:

To this “lodge in the vast wilderness,” this “boundless contiguity of shade,” I wend my lonely way every morning, rising to an early breakfast, and arriving in time to open school by eight o’clock.

Such a morning walk in such a clime, at such a season, you may easily imagine is not performed without multitudes of objects to catch the eye and delight the mind of an observant naturalist. A cloudy day seems to be almost an anomaly; and, even by the time the sun is two hours high, his rays are oppressively hot, scorching one’s back and head like a fire; yet there is a freshness in the morning air in the woods, while the dews are exhaling, which is delightfully pleasant. Many birds which, during the heat of the day, are sitting among the thick branches of the “piny woods,” with open beaks, as if panting for breath, are at this early hour busily hopping about the fences and roads, and trilling forth their sweet melody. But stay; suppose you just transport yourself (in imagination) to Alabama, and spend the day with me. I will be your cicerone, will point out to you all the birds and insects, and tell you “all about ’em;” and, as Hood’s schoolboy says, “I’ll show you the wasp’s nest, and everything that can make you comfortable.”

Well, then, here I receive you at old Buddy Bohanan’s gate, and am very glad to see you. Walk in; we are just going to breakfast, though it is but six o’clock. The “nigger wenches” have brought in the grilled chicken and the fried pork, the boiled rice, and the homminy.—”Hold!’ you say, “what is homminy?” Ah! I forgot you were a stranger; homminy, then, be informed, is an indispensable dish at the table of a southern planter, morning, noon, and night. Indian corn is broken into pieces by pounding it in a mortar to a greater or less degree of fineness, as coarse or fine homminy is preferred, and this is boiled soft like rice, and eaten with meat.

Here is another article of southern cookery with which I presume you are unacquainted,—woffles. You see they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges: but how shall I describe to you the mode in which they are cooked? At the end of a pair of handles, moving on a pivot like a pair of scissors, or still more like the net forceps of an entomologist, are fixed two square plates of iron like shallow dishes, with cross furrows, corresponding to the ridges in the cakes; this apparatus, called a woffle-iron, is made hot in the fire; then, being opened, a flat piece of dough is laid on one, and they are closed ,and pressed together; the heat of the iron does the rest, and in a minute the woffle is cooked, and the iron is ready for another.* They are very good, eaten with butter; sometimes they are made of the meal of Indian corn (as so little wheat is grown here as to make wheat-flour be considered almost a luxury), but these are not nearly so nice, at least to an English palate. Neither is “Indian bread,” which you will see at every table; this, too, is made of corn meal; it is coarse and gritty, does not hold together, having so little gluten; yet this is eaten with avidity by the natives, rich and poor, and even preferred to the finest wheaten bread. Such is the force of habit in modifying or creating tastes. I have somewhere read of a gentleman who had been brought up on the sea-coast of Scotland, where a species of seaweed is commonly eaten; and such was the taste which he had acquired for it, that in after-life, when residing far away, he was in the habit of procuring this weed to be transmitted to him, from a great distance, as an indispensable article of his diet.

*I believe both the article and the name claim a Dutch parentage.

While readers throughout the United States (and perhaps the world over) will doubtless be familiar with waffles (though usually made from batter rather than dough), I believe the popularity of cornbread is still primarily limited to the southeastern United States, and grits (the form of hominy most often consumed here) are almost unknown north of the Mason-Dixon Line, a fact turned to humorous account (“What is a grit?”) in my all-time favorite movie, My Cousin Vinny.

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3 Responses to An Alabama Plantation Breakfast

  1. I love that movie too, and recently had my first taste of grits, while visiting Charleston. I wasn’t sure what to expect, either in taste or texture, but the Shrimp and Grits dish was creamy and delicious.

  2. Dan Freeman says:

    Interesting.

    I’m definitely not a southerner but I do remember eating hominy growing up (and waffles, of course). Grits, on the other hand, not so much and the few times I’ve tried them were quite enough for me. It’s only recently that I even learned they were made from corn! (Shouldn’t things made from corn taste at least a *little* like corn? )

  3. Do grits taste less like corn than, say, a corn tortilla? I won’t even mention (spit) high-fructose corn syrup.

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