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!

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Katie Lowman + Kitchen Possible

Katie Lowman

I am so excited to welcome my guest Katie Lowman to the blog today! Katie is the founder of Kitchen Possible, a non-profit that builds empowered mindsets in kids through cooking. Kitchen Possible offers weekly cooking classes to kids (aged 8-12) in low-income Chicago neighborhoods. Over an 8-week session, kids use cooking to experience the benefits of patience, setting goals, following a plan, asking for help, and course correcting when things don’t go as planned.

Katie started Kitchen Possible in 2017, but it had been on her mind for several years before that. She realized that, for herself, cooking was a way to feel capable and in control. This led to the initial idea for Kitchen Possible. She discovered that kids in underserved communities are “less likely to believe that they have control over what happens in their life.” Katie thought that these children might be able to benefit from the the accomplishment and power that she felt from completing recipes as a kid. She tells me, “The idea behind Kitchen Possible is that we could use cooking to show kids how powerful they are–that when they set a goal, follow a plan, and follow it through (what we do every time we cook something), they can make amazing things happen.”

Katie’s exposure to a variety of foods started when she was young, in an unexpected way. “Growing up, I was a really competitive BMX racer, which gave me some interesting opportunities to travel the country and eat lots of different regional foods as a kid,” she tells me. “My parents always tried their best to expose me to lots of interesting foods. They insisted I at least TRY everything, and I’m really thankful for that today.” On top of her national travels, her dad began teaching her to cook when she was only 5 or 6.

Katie and Dad.jpg(Katie and her dad)

One recipe that she often made with her dad, and now teaches the kids at Kitchen Possible, is a simple barbecue sauce. “It’s actually the first food I learned to really make on my own, and it’s the thing that made me fall in love with cooking,” she says. “It made me feel so powerful at that age, being able to combine a handful of ingredients and turn them into something delicious,” and this is exactly the feeling she hopes her organization will stir up in a new generation of youngsters. She wants them not only to make something, but to make something that’s really theirs, which makes this recipe ideal. “It’s such a good recipe for them to start to learn to own their flavor preferences. It’s super adjustable, and they can really turn it into something they love, no matter what kind of flavors they like best.” That kind of flexibility is good for adults too, as Katie herself can vouch. “I usually start here, and depending what I’m using the sauce for, or what I’m feeling that day, I might add something else. You can add a couple of chipotle peppers or some cayenne pepper, some fresh or frozen fruit, or more mustard for extra tang. I’ve even added some instant espresso for something a bit more complex.”

Barbecue Sauce

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Simple Barbecue Sauce

Ingredients:
Olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans tomato sauce, 28 oz. total
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp Worchestershire sauce
Several pinches of black pepper
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tbsp yellow mustard
1/4 tsp celery seed

Instructions: 

Heat large pot over medium-high heat, adding a bit of olive oil to your pot. Sauté onion until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add all ingredients to the pot. Simmer on medium heat for 20-25 minutes, until the sauce is thick and flavorful.

If the sauce gets too thick, thin with a bit of water. Adjust sweetness and spice as it simmers.

Blend with immersion blender until smooth.

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Katie tells me that the most fulfilling part of her work is the way the kids respond to their adventures in the kitchen. “I love watching them cook with such focus and intensity, and then seeing their faces light up when their food starts to come together. You can literally watch a kid go from thinking they might not be able to do something to realizing they totally can. It is so cool to see them experience the same sense of confidence and control that I felt, and still feel, when cooking,” she says.

The students show their confidence not only by their demeanor but by their desire to share their work. There’s an “amazing thing that happens at the end of each class,” says Katie. “While the kids are gobbling down their food excitedly, many of them intentionally save a very small portion, even just a few forkfuls. They love to bring a few bites home for mom or dad to try. It fills me with so much joy to see them so proud of what they’ve made that they want to share it with someone else. Last week, a kid brought a tiny portion of chicken stir-fry to me and asked if I could wrap it up for him. He said he’d be visiting his cousins the next day and really wanted them to try it. My heart just explodes over this stuff!”

Katie’s organization also checks in with the parents to track the kids’ behavior outside of class. “Ninety-one percent of KP parents have seen an increase in their child’s confidence since beginning the program. And 86% say their child is more willing to take on new challenges,” she reports. “I’m so proud of the results we’ve seen.”

In the coming year, Kitchen Possible has some exciting things on the horizon. Right now, the program is operating in East Garfield Park and Pilsen. However, Katie and her team are working to bring the program to a third (as of now, secret) neighborhood this summer! Eventually, Katie hopes to expand the program even further. She tells me, “With our new location this summer, we’ll have the opportunity to really expand our impact, but we’re not stopping there!”

Kitchen Possible is also gearing up for their May Menu Fundraiser, which partners KP “with some of Chicago’s best restaurants to raise money for our upcoming summer classes. Each participating restaurant will donate a portion of proceeds from a popular menu item to KP. It’s a really cool opportunity for Chicago’s food lovers to come out and support an important cause, while enjoying a delicious meal.” Stay tuned to find out where you can get a bite of this yourself!

If you’re interested, you can learn more about Kitchen Possible at their website, or follow them on Instagram

Thanks to Katie for sharing Kitchen Possible’s story and her family recipe! Keep up the great work!

First two photographs provided by Katie Lowman.