Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Civil Wartime Bride

Imagine a lifetime spanning four wars. This was the case of Minnie's maternal grandmother, Margaret Colson Van Slyke. Margaret was born in December 1840, during the Presidency of Martin Van Buren, who began life as the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer in Kinderhook, New York. During Margaret's childhood, the United States went to war with its southern neighbor (Mexican-American War 1846 - 1848), during the Presidency of James K. Polk. She was a young adult during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865); a grandmother during the Spanish-American War (1898); and a great-grandmother during World War I (1914 - 1918).

The photo below was probably taken around 1915, when Margaret was 75 years old. As you can see, her first great-grandchild was named after her:

Four generations in 1915
I don't know how greatly the foreign wars affected life in the small towns of the Mohawk Valley, but I can't help but think that life there was deeply impacted by the omnipresence of the Civil War. The New York State Archives contains a database of more than 360,000 soldiers from New York State who served in the Civil War, including contemporaries of Margaret who served in the Fort Plain Battery, a regiment of light artillery.

Margaret took her marriage vows at the height of the Civil War; she and Jonas Van Slyke were married on June 26, 1864. I doubt that Margaret wore any of the finery and frippery sketched out in the May issue of Godey's Lady's Book, such as the "pompadour porte-jupe," but we do know that she had a fine silk shawl that I picture her wearing on her wedding day.

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One of the recipes in Minnie's handwritten cookbook is called "Johnny Cake." It's an old-fashioned recipe for cornbread. For some reason, I tend to associate this recipe with the Civil War, perhaps because it makes me think of the old song from that era, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." But this may be a false connection, as this type of pancake or flat cornbread is also variously known as "journey cake" or "hoe cake" in other parts of the country. It may originate from Native American methods of preparing corn meal, either baked in the ashes of a cooking fire, or steamed. Here is Minnie's original recipe:

Johnny Cake Recipe

I didn't have to do much modernizing here  --  only substitute 1/3 cup cooking oil for the notation "Butter size of egg." I followed these steps:

- Pre-heat oven to 375 F.
- Grease and flour cake pan. (I used a 10 inch spring-form cake pan.)
- Sift together corn meal, flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar:

- Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
- Pour in milk, egg, and oil; beat until well mixed.
- Pour in cake pan and bake for about 20 minutes.

This made a rather flat cornbread, that I can imagine travelers could easily wrap in a paper or cloth, and carry off in their saddlebags on a trip  --  hence the possible name "journey cake."

Johnny Cake - fresh out of the oven
I enjoyed a piece while it was still hot, smeared with a dab of butter and drizzled with honey:

It made a good breakfast or snack on a chilly morning.


  1. Loved your story, and loved the recipe. My kids, 9 and 12 yr olds love them! My son (12 y/o) kept asking me to make corn muffins, and so I did with the Martha Washington box recipe. I wasn't impressed. That lead me to making them in the frying pan and I added a can of cream corn. They loved that too. I found your recipe this morning and they love it the best. I am thinking of swapping the whole wheat flour out for sorghum flour to reduce their gluten intake (as we have some issues). I'm curious to see out that goes, but I wanted to tell you how much we have enjoyed yours!

  2. Thank you for your comment! Sometimes simplest is best. I like this recipe too, with butter and honey it makes a filling breakfast. Hope your boys like it with the sorghum flour; that sounds like something different to try as well.