By Dan Gill, Ethno-Gastronomist
My grandmother, affectionately called Mungee (pronounced with a hard "G"), was raised way out in the country near Chester. She was the prim, proper and fastidious product of finishing school and old Virginia society. In her day, proper young ladies wore high lace and could traverse rough terrain with large books balanced deftly on their heads to improve posture. She was meticulous and frugal: She had balls of string saved from feed bags and a drawer full of used plastic bags, many with Nolde's Bread printed on them. She loved to cook and had boxes and diaries full of recipes that she clipped from newspapers and magazines, many with annotations and comments.
Mungee was not only a good cook; she was an artist with desserts and could work wonders with her kerosene cook-stove. When I was in school at Urbanna Elementary, she lived in the old Jockey Quarters on the farm - also the end of the line for the school bus. Every afternoon, when I got off of the bus, Mungee would have some special treat ready for me. My favorite was her molasses gingerbread hot from the oven and slathered with butter or lemon hard sauce. I have her original recipe, adapted for modern ingredients, and we make it regularly at the store.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups molasses
4 each eggs
1 cup buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp soda
2 tsp ginger - ground
2 tsp cloves - ground
2 tsp cinnamon - ground
2 tsp allspice - ground
1 cup hot water
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, molasses and buttermilk and mix well. Slowly add dry ingredients and blend. Stir in hot water. Pour into greased and floured pan. Bake at 350°F about thirty minutes until it tests done in the center with a toothpick.
Lemon hard sauce
1 cup softened butter
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbsp lemon juice
Cream butter, add sugar gradually, then vanilla, drop-by-drop, and slowly mix in lemon juice.
Mungee's green enameled New Perfection kerosene cook-stove with three burners and an oven. She bought it shortly after she was married, about 1910, and cooked on it for over fifty years. Crude by today's standards, kerosene offered a great improvement over the old wood cook stove prevalent at the time: it was instant, controllable, reliable and relatively clean.
After a hearty Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, you don't need a heavy dessert. Wine jelly is a simple but elegant end to a heavy meal: light, not very sweet, and seems to reduce that 'stuffed' feeling. The tradition of serving jelled wine on special occasions is centuries old and was a great favorite of Thomas Jefferson. George Washington served a Madeira molded wine jelly at the farewell banquet for his troops after the Revolution.
Though any wine may be used, fortified wines are more traditional and have more "presence". They were used extensively in colonial Virginia because they were substantial enough to survive the trip from Europe. The Jamestown settlers brought casks of sack (fortified wine from the Canary Islands), Thomas Jefferson was "most particularly attached" to a pale sherry from Spain and George Washington was partial to Madeira.
Traditional wine jelly is made with gelatin or refined collagen, the same stuff that makes barbecue taste good. Back in the old days, cooks had to make their own by boiling hooves, bones and hides and then straining the stock through cloth sacks. Mary Randolph describes how to make a savory jelly with white wine in The Virginia Housewife and Methodical Cook, published in 1860. We now use powdered gelatin in pre-measured packets. This recipe comes from a little booklet (still in my mothers recipe box) packaged with Chalmers Gelatine sometime in the 1940's:
2 Envelops CHALMERS Gelatine
Soak gelatin in cold water; dissolve sugar and soaked gelatin in boiling water; add wine and lemon juice; strain into molds; set on ice. Serve with thick cream after fine dinners.
Chalmers is long gone so we use Knox unflavored Gelatine. During the later years of Mother's life, my wife, Barbara, was responsible for making the wine jelly. She found it easier to mix the gelatin and sugar and then dissolve it with boiling water. We always served wine jelly in stemmed glass sherbet cups, but it can also be chilled in a bowl and cubed to serve.
Long before Sesame Street, when Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie were about the only children's programs on television, many stations tried producing their own low-budget shows. One Richmond station featured the Storybook Lady, an attractive motherly figure who read stories to me – and I loved her for it, as any six-year-old would. Back in those days, television was personal. The Storybook Lady did not last long, and my friend went off to New York to help produce the Howdy Doody Show.
Some years later, Elizabeth Harrison escaped from the big city, moved to Irvington and bought the King Carter Inn. She remodeled the large old building, previously Chesapeake Academy, and soon gained widespread recognition as an accomplished hostess. Sometime in the mid sixties, the Highway Department tore up the road in front of the Inn to repave it – a process that consumed most of the summer. Dust was everywhere. One evening Mrs. Harrison tried to serve vanilla ice cream but could not prevent fine dust settling on the surface. She tried to rinse it off with a little crème de cocoa, but that didn't work so she camouflaged it with a liberal sprinkling of cocoa powder and announced that the she was serving a special treat called "Dusty Roads". It was an instant hit and became a featured dessert at the King Carter Inn. An unlikely combination; the sweetness of the ice cream is contrasted with the almost-harsh bite of liqueur and the dry bitterness of cocoa. Now, whenever we need to serve a special dessert which requires little advanced preparation, we make Dusty Roads.
My parents had several memorable meals at the King Carter Inn, all culminating with Dusty Roads for dessert, and discovered that Elizabeth Harrison was the Storybook Lady that I so fondly remembered. She is also fondly remembered in and around Irvington, where she was known to gather small children around her and read Dr. Seuss books to them. The old Inn has again been resurrected as the prestigious "Hope and Glory"
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(c) Dan Gill 10-07
Published in Pleasant Living magazine November-December 2007
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