The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!

Boston Molasses Disaster + Joe Frogger Cookies

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Hi! Welcome to my first post of 2019! I was away from this blog for the entirety of December, and instead spent that time working, and napping, and snacking in the light of my Christmas tree. It was a great December. And now we’re in the post-holiday January yuck, and I need something to brighten my days, so I’m back to blogging.

Last summer, Alex had to go to Boston for a work trip. Having never been to Boston before, I tagged along and explored the city’s oldest neighborhood, the North End. It had everything I could ever want: Graveyards dating back to the 1600’s, tiny Italian bakeries, historic homes, and narrow winding streets. But a less noticeable feature of the ward, a tiny plaque near the water, commemorates a tragedy in Boston’s history. On January 15, 1919 (100 years ago today), a tank of molasses exploded in Boston’s North End, sending what some witnesses described as a 25-foot wave of molasses flooding through the neighborhood. Twenty-one people were killed and several others were injured. The explosion, as well as flying debris, was responsible for some of the deaths. Others died trapped in the sticky substance, unable to breath. Some blocks were flooded with two to three feet of molasses and some of the dead were missing for days as rescuers combed the muck.

The failure of the tank, designed by a man named Arthur Jell who had little to no engineering or architectural design experience, was caused by poor construction, and weak rivets and steel. Pressure internally from increasing external temperatures may have also played a role. Finally, some say that the company that owned the tank, Purity Distilling Company, may have overfilled it, due to the expected ratification of the 18th amendment (the prohibition of alcohol), which took place the day after the explosion. Molasses has a long history in Massachusetts, not so much for its use in cookies and cakes, but in rum.

In all, the area immediately surrounding the tanker took at least two weeks to clean, but by that time, people had tracked molasses through the rest of the city, as well as into the suburbs. The class-action lawsuit that families of the victims brought against United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the company that had purchased Purity Distilling, helped shape modern laws on corporate regulation.

Today’s recipe, the classic Joe Frogger, combines molasses, rum, and a little Massachusetts (though not Boston), history. These spiced molasses cookies have their own interesting story, so be sure to stay tuned after the recipe to learn more about them.

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Joe Froggers
Adapted from this recipe from Taste of Home. Makes 24-30 cookies.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 large egg

3/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup hot water
2 tbsp rum
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger

White sugar, for rolling

Instructions: 

Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg.

Stir together molasses, hot water, vanilla extract, and rum.

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, ground cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger.

Add creamed mixture to dry ingredients, alternating with molasses mixture, beating after each addition. Cover and refrigerate for four hours, or until it’s easy to handle.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Fill a shallow bowl with 2/3 cup of sugar.

Scoop out enough dough for a 1 1/2-inch ball. Roll in your hands, and then drop into the bowl of sugar. Roll to coat, and set on parchment paper. Continue, leaving about 2 or 3 inches between each ball, until the cookie sheet is full. Taking a flat bottomed cup or bowl, press down on each ball slightly, until each is about a 1/4-inch thick disk.

Bake for 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet at six minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool for two minutes on pan, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Enjoy!

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While the focus of this post is the Boston Molasses Disaster, it’s hard to share a Joe Frogger recipe without discussing its own interesting history. Very rarely can you pinpoint a place of origin for a food, but most historians agree that this cookie was created in Black Joe’s Tavern in Marblehead, Massachusetts. “Black Joe” referred to a free African American Revolutionary War soldier (and some sources say hero) named Joseph Brown. Joseph Brown was born into slavery in 1750, the son of an African-American mother and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe. He was likely freed because of his service as a militiaman in Captain Francis Felton’s Company. Shortly after the War, Brown and his wife Lucretia, along with another couple, Joseph and Mary Seawood, purchased a Saltbox, a N.E. architectural style home, where they lived and worked. After Joseph Seawood’s death, Mary Seawood sold her half of the home to the Browns.

Brown’s wife, Lucretia, was born in Marblehead, the daughter of two former slaves. After marrying and establishing their home, the Brown’s opened the front part of the building they had purchased as a tavern. The tavern owned by the Browns was integrated, and was popular with sailors at the time, though women and children would have frequented as well. Lucretia Brown would have done the cooking for the tavern, and she is the one credited with creating the cookie now known as the Joe Frogger. Though Lucretia Brown’s original recipe is lost to history, the constant in any close-to-authentic Joe Frogger seems to be the addition of both rum and molasses. The cookie  was popular with the sailors because they were sturdy enough to survive long trips at sea better than the average confection, and better than many fresh foods, thanks to the addition of the rum. Likely the first recipe contained no eggs, but might have contained a curious addition of seawater.

There are several suggestions for why they are named Joe Froggers. Some say that the name “Frogger” comes from “flogger,” a name for a ship’s provisions. These particular “floggers” came from Joe’s Tavern. Another theory is that, as the cookie would have traditionally been made in a skillet, as opposed to baked, the cookie would take the shape of a frog when the batter hit the pan. Alternatively, some sources say the name comes from the fact that these cookies would have been much larger than what we think of today and would have been as big as the lily pads in Joseph Brown’s pond.

Both of the Browns are buried in Marblehead. Their former home and tavern, built in 1691, stayed in the Brown family until their adopted daughter, Lucy, sold it in 1867. Amazingly, it still stands today, though it is a private residence.