Friday, February 26, 2010

The Old Grist Mill Tavern (and Johnny Cakes)

Seeing that so many of you enjoyed my post about johnny cakes with its mention of the Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, Massachusetts, I hope some of you find interest in these images from an Old Grist Mill Tavern menu dated January 21, 1953.  The menu's cover features a sign detailing the restaurant's johnny cakes, while the menu itself notes that johnny cakes were offered as a side and as an entree with sausages.  You should be able to enlarge at least some of the images by clicking on them.

The above two images, a view of the waterfall from the interior of the restaurant and two illustrations of the mill depicting how it looked in 1745 and 1950, are found on the front of the menu's cover.

This sign, seen here in an illustration located on the inside of the menu's cover, stood outside the Old Grist Mill Tavern.  

Below, we have images from the menu itself.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Johnny Cakes (and The OId Grist Mill Tavern)

I don’t know when, but at some point I acquired this postcard from the The Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, Massachusetts. It originally belonged to my Aunt Harriet. That much I know.

I have had quite a few meals at the Grist Mill, but never, despite the declaration on the back of the postcard, have I ever had a johnny cake there. “ ‘Home of the Johnny Cake,’ ” it reads in quotation marks as if to imply that any customer might have uttered the phrase upon hearing the words Grist Mill. Yet if you look at the Grist Mill’s present menu, there are no johnny cakes to be found.

So much for the Grist Mill’s claim to fame.

I have no intention of boycotting the Grist Mill for not keeping true to some assertion a former owner made in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the postcard was probably printed. I don’t even know if the Grist Mill ground corn when it was in operation as an actual grist mill in the eighteenth century.

The card simply reminds me that I don’t see johnny cakes, supposedly a mainstay of New England cooking since the colonial period, too often anymore.

In December I was in Rhode Island and decided to pick up a box of Kenyon’s white corn meal so that I could remind myself of just what a johnny cake tastes like. Now, normally I’m skeptical of buying pre-mixed flours or meals, because I can just purchase corn meal or flour in bulk and save myself a lot of money. I know how to make pancakes, for instance, and it’s not so difficult that I need to buy the ingredients pre-mixed. But, seeing as Rhode Island’s economy is in the toilet, I thought I’d do my part to help out both a Rhode Island grocery store and the folks at Kenyon’s Corn Meal Company in Usquepaugh, R.I.

Since then I’ve been reading up on johnny cakes and, among other things, found that Kenyon’s packaged white corn meal is really stone ground, while most corn meal is made using steel blades. This means that Kenyon’s corn meal is not only more nutritious than others, but that it also has a distinctive taste and finer texture.

It’s a good thing, or so Martha Stewart Living tells me.

Strangely, in Rhode Island, by law it should be spelled jonny cakes, not johnny cakes. (So, in a state where native speakers add an h to the end of any word ending in r, you’re supposed to drop the h in the middle of this one particular word. Up to speed?) In that respect, opening a box of Kenyon’s corn meal for johnny cakes could be considered a revolutionary act.
Someone might want to alert the Rhode Island Tea Party about this.

I recently made johnny cakes for breakfast, following the recipe on the box of Kenyon’s corn meal. Judging from the company's website, the cakes I made were in South County style, as opposed to Newport style, which requires milk rather than boiled water. You can make them any way you like. Mine came out about a quarter of an inch thick, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. We had them with eggs and a bit of maple syrup. They were quite good. I plan to make another batch whenever I get around to cooking some sort of seafood with a cream sauce.

I like a food that works for both breakfast and supper.

Johnny cakes also remind me of a certain passage in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 account of how he, a Boston Brahmin and Harvard undergraduate, spent two years as a lowly sailor. Dana’s description of the way his brutal "down-east johnny-cake" captain, a Mainer I presume, reacted to the demands of the crew reads as follows:

“Well, what the d---l do you want now?” Whereupon we stated our grievances as respectfully as we could; but he broke in upon us, saying that we were getting fat and lazy, didn’t have enough to do, and it was that which made us find fault. This provoked us, and we began to give word for word. This would never answer. He clenched his fist, stamped and swore, and ordered us all forward, saying, with oaths enough interspersed to send the words home, “Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up. You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful, I’ll make a hell of heaven! . . . You’ve mistaken your man! I’m Frank Thompson, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built, down-east johnny-cake, when it’s hot, d----d good; but when it’s cold, d----d sour and indigestible; -- and you’ll find me so!”

It probably goes without saying, but I made sure my Rhode Island johnny cakes were piping hot when we ate them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Brown Bread

I can make bread in a can!

In December I posted an unnamed recipe that turned out to be my great-grandmother’s recipe for brown bread. That receipt, as she would have called it, did not explain how the brown bread ought to be cooked, but right before I began making it myself I scanned a few on-line recipes for brown bread and was reminded that in New England it is traditionally made in a can.

I knew this, but not having cooked in a can before I must have forgotten that part.

To be honest, the thought of cooking bread in a can was a bit daunting, if not also absurd.

Then I recalled my mother’s cousins’ making some references over the years to their grandmother’s cooking something in a coffee can. It had to be the brown bread, I figured, and so I began looking for something akin to a coffee can in which to cook my bread. Since I buy my coffee in the form of beans in bulk, I opted for a tin can that once held 28 oz. of tomatoes. When I make the bread again I’ll use two cans, as I had just a little overflow of bread after it rose.

Basically, you mix the ingredients and pour them into a buttered tin can. Then you find yourself a larger pot, securely cover the top of the open can with tin foil (I tied dental floss around the foil to keep it from shifting), place the can in the pot on top of some kind of platform (don’t just let the can rest on the bottom of the pot), and fill the pot with enough water to cover half the can. Bring to a boil and let it run for two-and-a-half to three hours (yes, that long), adding extra water if necessary. When it’s done, let the can cool and extract the bread. It will be in the shape of the can mold and very moist from the steam.

I made the brown bread with baked beans and hot dogs, because that is how my great-grandmother made it every Saturday for the mid-day meal. My mom was very disappointed when she learned that I didn’t season the hot dogs with celery salt (who knew?). I guess I missed that detail of Saturday dinner over the years. At any rate, my great-grandmother made this every Saturday and one of her three daughters, Barbara, continued the tradition with her Friday night meals using canned beans and canned bread. B&M continues to sell brown bread in a can if you need a quick fix.

According to my mother, her grandmother also served her brown bread with cod cakes, so brown bread is apparently quite a versatile side.

Mom remembers this, she said, because she hated the smell of the cod in the kitchen. Nevertheless, on many Fridays mom and her Aunt Harriet would also go to Leonard’s Restaurant in Taunton, Massachusetts for cod fish cakes and carrots.

The joys of Lent and fish on Friday could not be more understated.

When my great-grandmother and her daughter Harriet lived on the second floor of a two-story house on Bradford Street in Taunton, she would steam the brown bread and two unmarried women on the first floor, the O’Brien sisters, would make the baked beans. (I assume this helped to even out the molasses purchases, as both baked beans and the brown bread, in particular, require a lot of molasses. Not to mention the fact that baked beans take something like five hours to cook. A little shared labor surely went a long way.) Every Saturday, after confession at St. Mary’s, they would bring the two dishes together for Saturday lunch. My mother and her cousins also joined in this weekly ritual.

After my great-grandmother passed away, the O’Brien sisters continued to make baked beans for Harriet. (They also apparently locked Hat out of the house if she, a woman in her thirties, stayed out past midnight. That must have added something a little stronger than molasses to Saturday dinner.)

I saved a slice of the brown bread for my mother and she said it was just like what her grandmother made. “It has that tang,” she said in reference to the pronounced molasses flavor.