Cornmeal cakes called for good manners

March 26, 2000|By Rob Kasper

IT IS HARD for an old pancake maker to try a new recipe. Yet, last Sunday morning, I found myself taking a bold new step in pancakes. I made cornmeal mush, then fashioned the mush into pancakes and cooked them on a hot griddle.

The result was small, golden cakes, with an oval shape and a distinct corn flavor.

I was coaxed into making these cornmeal pancakes by the charm of Emily Whaley. Mrs. Whaley died in 1998 at the age of 87. Before she left this Earth, she gathered some of her favorite recipes and stories, and with the help of writer William Baldwin, put them in a cookbook called "Mrs. Whaley's Charleston Kitchen." A paperback version of the book was published last year by Fireside Books.

Flipping through the book recently, I laughed at her stories of life in Charleston, S.C., and North Carolina. Here was a woman who not only enjoyed food, but also enjoyed the interaction that occurs when families sit down to eat. She wrote, for instance, of the melancholy she felt when her grandsons said they were too old to have her cut their poached eggs for them, even though they used to tell her, "It tastes so good the way you cut it."

On the other hand, she wrote, she was in her glory a few years later, when one of her grandsons sent her out to sit on the front porch with a scotch and soda while he retreated to the kitchen to cook dinner for both of them.

The cornmeal pancakes hail from her aunt's kitchen in Flat Rock, N.C. These sweet cornmeal pancakes, she wrote, played a central role in an annual summertime effort to teach the clan's children proper table manners.

The pancakes were so good that the children were tempted to holler for more. But if the children didn't holler, if they maintained their manners, they not only got more pancakes, they also were rewarded with spending money.

A stack of nickels and dimes sat on the breakfast table. At the end of breakfast, the coins were doled out by the aunt to well-behaved pancake eaters.

After a story like that, I couldn't resist trying the pancakes. I ended up using more milk than the recipe called for. Some of my cornmeal cakes stuck to the griddle. But they had good flavor. The cornmeal cakes, like family table manners, are works in progress.

Thin Cornmeal Pancakes

Makes 24 small pancakes

1 1/2 cups water

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter

1 tablespoon sugar

1 large egg, well beaten

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 to 1 cup milk

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Slowly add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Continue to stir until thickened, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add the bacon drippings or butter, the sugar and the egg. Combine thoroughly.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Stir this mixture into the cornmeal in two parts, alternating with enough milk to make the batter the consistency of corn syrup. (You may need more than 3/4 cup of milk.)

Ladle 1/4 cup of batter onto a hot, buttered griddle for each pancake. They will be very thin. Cook for about 2 minutes, until bubbles form on the top. Flip and cook the other side for another 2 minutes or so. Serve with honey.

-- From "Mrs. Whaley's Charleston Kitchen," by Emily Whaley with William Baldwin

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