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!

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie

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What? It’s July now? Where is time going?? As amazing as summer is in Chicago, it can sometimes feel like a sprint. Almost every single one of our summer weekends are already booked. I’m not complaining, of course. It’s just always amazing to me how, when warm weather finally arrives, Chicagoans rush to pack in every ounce of living that we can. It’s because we know that in a few months it will be dark and cold again and, as much as you’ll want to see your friends, you’ll want much more to stay inside, curl up on the couch, and watch TV. Anyway, we’re now in summer-mode, which means we’ve been outside far more than we’ve been inside, and baking seems like a distant memory to me. However, also with summer comes a slew of backyard BBQs, and the tricky question of what to contribute. Luckily for me, I have discovered the perfect potluck dessert solution: Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

My initial interest in this recipe sprung from my love of superstition. Along the coast of North Carolina, where seafood is a staple, an old wives’ tale says that eating dessert after consuming seafood will make you terribly sick–with the single exception of a lemon pie, made from condensed milk, with a cracker crust.

Atlantic Beach Pie is known up and down the North Carolina coast. Sometimes it is called Harker’s Island Pie, and sometimes Down East Lemon Milk Pie. While searching for recipes, I came upon many variations. Some used Ritz crackers for the crust, instead of saltines. Most recipes were topped with meringue, instead of whipped cream. And all recipes called for condensed milk, but some were very, very particular that Eagle Brand condensed milk had to be used.

What was once just a local favorite has been brought into the national spotlight by Bill Smith, chef at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2014, Chef Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie made its way around the internet and was featured on food websites, from NPR’s Found Recipes to Food52’s Genius Recipes.

Once you have a bite of this pie, you will understand why. It’s as though a key lime pie and lemon meringue pie had a baby. Salty, sweet, tart, and buttery; it’s a magical mix of simple flavors. Summer in a bite!

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Atlantic Beach Pie

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie. Slight variation of this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsp sugar

For filling:
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup combination of lemon and lime juice (about 2 large lemons, 1 small lime)

For whipped cream, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt, for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust:
In a food processor, or with your hands, crumble saltine crackers into very small pieces, but not into a powder.

Add sugar and combine. Add the melted butter and mix with your hands, continuing to crumble the saltines.

Pour into a pie pan and press with your hands until the crust is shaped to your liking.

Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes. Leave the oven on at 350 degrees.

Allow the crust to cool as you make the filling.

For the filling:
Add condensed milk and egg yolks to a bowl. Beat with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Add lemon and lime juice to the mixture and continue to mix very thoroughly, approximately one more minute.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 16 minutes, just until the filling has set.

Chill for at least an hour and a half. If topping with whipped cream, beat together 1 cup of heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Top cooled pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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In terms of pie, I really feel like I’ve found my “one”. It’s a perfect balance of flavors, and, honestly, one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made. Little baking, very little fuss, and only 6 ingredients! Sheesh, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your house!

I already took it to a July 4th BBQ and I can’t imagine that I won’t be making it several more times this summer. If you’re looking for a simple dessert to impress people, give it a try. And, if you do, let me know. I want to see if other people are as impressed with it as I am. Three cheers for summer desserts and easy living!