Grains – Introduction

The Indians harvested grass and grain by hitting the seeds with a stick over a basket. Then, they usually tapped and shook a bowl of seeds to bring the chaff to the top where it was burned with a torch. Alternatively, dry seed heads were set afire or the grain was stirred in a pot at a temperature high enough to parch the grain (see below) and burn the chaff to ash. Any grain, cracked grain, or meal can be eaten after soaking in cold water until swelled and then boiling until soft. The taste is better if husks are removed before cooking. Most grain can be cleaned by dumping into cold water where loose chaff floats. Small grains can also be soaked until soft, boiled, dried, and then coarsely ground and sifted for husk removal. Seeds can be coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle or with a flat rock and a stone.

All whole grains can be parched by frying or roasting (shake or stir to prevent burning) and are then edible without further cooking; intense heat causes grain to puff up because of steam pressure. Shelled corn can be parched in a frying pan, and corn nuts were a favorite of country children who did not have popcorn. The Indians parched dry corn in hot ashes. Parched grain can also be boiled in stew or ground and mixed with water; the paste can be boiled for porridge or fried for unleavened bread. Any cracked grain or meal (including oatmeal and corn-meal) tastes better and is more digestible after browning in a skillet or oven. The Indians soaked cracked corn and then boiled it with pumpkin, bean pods, or bean leaves; ashes were added for flavoring. Some Indians made a stiff dough of corn meal and water, molded it into balls, and baked the balls in hot ashes. Southeastern Indians preferred boiled bread: mix corn meal with a little wood ashes, hot mashed beans, pumpkin (optional), and enough boiling water to form balls; do not add salt. Drop the balls in boiling water until cooked. The Indians also sometimes cooked and dried ears of green corn; it could be eaten on the trail, cob and all, after soaking.

Early civilizations parched wheat for easy grinding and made porridge from the meal. Yeast bread was later made in Europe, but in other areas, porridge or unleavened bread is still preferred. The Egyptians ate unleavened bread and used it to make beer. The first Romans ate porridge, but there were 330 bakeries by the time of Augustus; for leaven, they mixed ground millet or bran with fermenting wine.

Later, in the U.S. bakeries supplied bread to city dwellers, but store-bought bread was not common in rural areas until 1930. Southern housewives made biscuits and cornbread daily.

Millet and Sorghum Grain

Pearl millet blends the flavors in soup. Millet flour can be mixed with water to make a thin batter, fermented for 1-3 d (stir together several times), and cooked on a griddle like pancakes. The ripe grain on sorghum stalks was usually fed to chickens in earlier days, but it was sometimes boiled or made into fresh or sour-dough pancakes. The seeds had to be pounded in a wooden mortar and winnowed to remove some of the husks. The seeds were then soaked in a bowl of water for 12 hours, ground in the bowl while moist, and set aside to ferment for 8-48 hr (until bubbly) before stirring into a batter.

Hominy

Hominy is made by soaking dried corn in cold water until swelled and then boiling with wood ashes (1-5 parts by volume of ashes to 10 parts dried corn) to loosen the skins or husks. Or dissolve 4 Tbs. store-bought lye in 2 gal water; add 2-4 qt. of dry corn and boil 30 min; drain and use the lye water for the next batch. After cooling, the skins can be removed with a strong water spray or by rubbing between the hands in a bowl of cold water; pick out the remaining hulls by hand. Hominy can be cooked until soft (2-4 hr), added to stews, or dried and ground for grits or tortillas. It was commonly mashed with a fork and fried with a little butter or bacon grease until soft. Pioneers who were not near a mill cracked or ground some grain with a wooden mortar and pestle. For this purpose, corn was usually soaked until soft, parched, or made into hominy.

Sprouts

All whole grains, including grass seeds, can be sprouted and then eaten raw, but some sprouts taste better after husking or cooking. The best tasting raw sprouts are alfalfa, clover, flax, rye, and wheat. Flax sprouts were eaten by the Romans. Wheat can be sprouted to a ¼-inch length, heated to near boiling in milk, and simmered for 5 minutes; when seasoned with salt and butter, it tastes like sweet corn. Corn sprouts are sweet but have an earthy taste; they are better after roasting until slightly brown at 180-200deg F. Cooked sprouts of beans, red clover, pumpkin, mustard, radish, sunflower, squash, and flax are enjoyed by most people, and sprouts are an easy way of processing these seeds for food. Sprouts can also be added to stews, dried for future use, or dried and ground into flour. Seeds need both moisture and oxygen for sprouting. One easy way to sprout grain is in a cloth bag; dunk the bag in water 2-3 times a day. Sprouting in soil is reliable but the sprouts then need washing. Softened and partly sprouted or fermented grain for animal feed is more digestible; hogs and chickens love it.

Egg Noodles

Fresh egg noodles taste better than the dried noodles in stores and can be used for cheap meals. Beat 2 eggs, 2 Tbs. melted butter (optional), and ¼ tsp. salt. Add flour to make a stiff dough, roll flat, and cut off thin strips. Add the noodles to boiling water, and cook (about 30 min) until tender but not mushy.

Hasty Pudding

Hasty or Indian pudding was served once or twice a day in Colonial times: boil 4 cups of milk or water with ½-1 cup corn meal until thickened. Optional ingredients included ½-1 cup of sweetener such as molasses, a beaten egg, dried fruit, mashed nuts, and spices such as ginger or cinnamon.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is an art. There are many recipes with different ingredients and amounts, but taste can always be improved with more butter or lard. The basic old recipe was 2 cups of meal, an egg-size chunk of butter or lard, 2 eggs, a tablespoon of yeast, and milk to make a batter; let rise 1 hour and bake in a greased pan. Cracklings, bulk sausage (raw or cooked), grated cheese, or a few finely chopped chili peppers are delicious in corn bread.

Southern Biscuits, Shortbread, and Pastry

Genuine southern biscuits start by blending 8 Tbs. of the best lard into 2 cups flour. Stir in 1½ cups butter-milk and 1 tsp. salt. If the flour is not self rising, add 2 tsp. baking powder or 1 tsp. baking soda. Roll out 3/8 in. thick on a floured board. Cut out circles (a drinking glass dipped in flour is traditional), and bake at 425deg F for 15 min. Other biscuits contain milk, eggs, and yeast; cream, butter, lard, or shortening produces a richer taste. Mix the dough with cream instead of milk and add sugar for shortbread. Pastry is made with 1/3 cup lard or butter blended with one cup flour plus a few drops of water; baked pastry sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon has long been a favorite for children.

Yeast Bread

The basic recipe for one loaf of yeast bread is 1-2 cups water or milk, 3-5 cups plain flour, 1-4 Tbs. sugar or honey, 1 tsp. salt, 1-3 Tbs. lard or butter, and 2 tsp. dry yeast. The sugar causes the bread to rise faster. The salt inhibits wild bacteria and fungi. Butter or oil makes the dough less sticky and the bread less crumbly. Let the dough rise, punch down and knead, form loaves, let rise again, and bake (325 deg F for 30-35 min). Our ancestors began with a dishpan half full of flour. They made a hole in the flour, and poured in 4 cups of water or buttermilk mixed with ¼ cup sugar or honey and 2 tsp. salt; the liquid was covered with dry flour and left overnight. If the batter was bubbling next morning, they added 2-4 Tbs. of melted shortening or lard, stirred a dough, made 2-3 loaves, let rise, and baked. If the batter was not bubbling, they added yeast or left the liquid exposed to the air another 8-16 hr. Good bread can be made with any white wheat flour. Bread can also be made with 60% white flour and 40% of any other flour, rolled oats, or mashed potatoes. Using canned fruit or cottage cheese for part of the liquid makes moist, tasty loaves. Eggs support the gluten. Raisins, chopped apples, or mashed nuts (½-1 cup per loaf) can be added as a treat for visitors. Brush the top of baking bread with oil for a soft crust; brush with water for a crisp crust. Sliced bread fried in bacon drippings was an old breakfast favorite in the south.

Baking powder or a combination of a weak acid (buttermilk, molasses, or sourdough) and a weak alkali (baking soda or wood ashes) can be used instead of yeast, but the bread must then be baked immediately. Our ancestors added baking soda to flour and sourdough starter for quick-rising biscuits, but the soda was omitted in bread, which was set aside to rise slowly.

Hardtack and Sea Biscuits

At one time, sailors lived mostly on hardtack that was made from only flour, water, and salt; it was baked hard and dry for long storage. Sea biscuits were made by mixing 5 cups oatmeal, 6 cups flour, 3 tsp. salt, and 2 tsp. baking soda. Separately 3 cups buttermilk were mixed with 6 Tbs. honey and 1 cup of melted lard. The ingredients were mixed, rolled flat, and baked.