To me, a library is the closest thing to heaven on Earth. I spent so many lazy summer afternoons and winter weekends holed up in a chair in libraries all over the city. And the Central Library is a jewel in Indianapolis’ Downtown crown, one of my absolute favorite spots. But it’s a bit tough to navigate without the help of the lovely librarians who, during my most recent visit, guided me through the stacks and right to the recipes section. That’s where I picked up Sesqui-Samplings: 150 Years of Cooking in Indianapolis.
Sesqui Samplings was released in 1971, in celebration of Indianapolis’ sesquicentennial year. Charlene Lugar, wife of Richard, served as Honorary Chairman for the cookbook, in which she inscribed this introduction:
“In this day and age of car pools, TV dinners, punching time clocks and doing civic duty, it is hard for today’s mobile woman to comprehend the ‘simple’ life our pioneer women not only endured but endowed. The recipes of early settles were simple and unsophisticated, with a lot of “a pinch” of this and “a lump” of that. … The phrase “Hoosier Hospitality” expresses the happy combination of superior cooking skills and the genuine warm-heartedness of our people.”
The book’s collection of recipes ranges from 1820 to 1970, neatly paired with historic facts about the city and notated recipes. I would happily cook anything in the collection, but I found myself drawn to a recipe attributed to the very first European American settler of Indianapolis, George Pogue. Pogue’s life may have ended in mystery (some call it Indiana’s very first cold case), but one of his favored recipes had a much simpler explanation. Corn dodgers (also called Johnnycakes, hoe-cakes, or one of a hundred other names) were a staple of early American settlements.
William Frederick Vogel writes in Home Life in Early Indiana (excerpted and published in June 1914 in the Indiana Magazine of History):
“Johnny cake was baked on a board made for this purpose, about ten inches wide and fifteen inches long and rounding at the top. The thick corn dough was placed on the board which was set against a chunk of wood near the fire. After one side had been baked to a nice brown, the other side was treated the same way. The resulting cake was often delicious. If a johnny-cake board was not at hand, a hoe, without a handle, was cleaned and greased with bear’s oil. The dough was baked on this metal surface and was called a hoe-cake.”
1 cup corn meal
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 tbsp butter or bacon drippings
1 cup boiling water
Mix all ingredients except water. Pour water over mixture and beat until well blended. Dip hand in cold water, take a handful of batter, and drop onto a greased cookie sheet or griddle. Bake in a 400 degree over about 8 minutes, or fry in griddle on top of stove.
I imagine most home cooks putting together the Pogue Corn Dodgers would use a cast iron skillet to fry them up quickly over a fire, or use the Johnny cake board that Vogel wrote of. I didn’t have my cast iron skillet handy, so I opted for the next best thing: my great aunt’s 1930’s heavy-bottomed saucepan. I have an almost-complete set of her cookware, which I treasure (and scrub heartily – anti-stick technology wasn’t at its height in the ’30s!).
Ivan’s recipe makes no mention of oil used in the pan for frying. Throw some extra bacon drippings in to make sure your dodgers don’t stick.
When there’s a choice between using butter and bacon drippings, I always – always – pick bacon drippings. As I started putting the Pogue Corn Dodgers together, I wondered what this said about me. Then I came to the realization: bacon is awesome. Everybody knows this. Later, I decided to use some of the cooked and diced bacon as a topping, along with some chopped green onion. A few quickly chopped toppings, and the Pogue Corn Dodgers are elevated to a rustic and tasty appetizer.
Source: Ivan Pogue, great-great-great grandson of George Pogue; recipe contributed to Sesqui-Samplings in 1970