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!

Hannah Spiegelman’s Family Haroset

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I’m so very excited to welcome my guest, Hannah Spiegelman, to the blog today! I first learned about Hannah through the magic of the Instagram algorithm when I had Emelyn Rude on the blog. I checked her out, liked what she was doing, and asked her to be on the blog–and I’m so pleased that she accepted!

What was she doing that I liked so much? Hannah has a blog called A Sweet History, where she shares ice cream concoctions that she’s created–inspired by history. Genius. Some of her recent combinations include the Queen of Song, an allspice ice cream with candied cranberries and hibiscus flowers, inspired by Flora Batson, a 19th-century concert singer; the O’Keefe, a raspberry frozen yogurt with bone broth caramel sauce, inspired by the painter Georgia O’Keefe; and a blueberry mint sumac sorbet, inspired by Blue Lake, a body of water located just north of Taos, New Mexico, believed by the Taos Pueblo Indians to be the birthplace of their people.

Hannah is originally from New Mexico, and attended Goucher College outside of Maryland to study history, eventually hoping to attend grad school for art history and enter the museum world. She’s been making ice cream, and experimenting with different flavors, since she was a sophomore in college. After college, she did an internship at the Holocaust Museum in D.C., traveled to South America, and did a stint working back in her hometown, before returning to Goucher for a research project about the women’s suffrage movement. While trying to make some extra money, Hannah started working at Little Baby’s Ice Cream and BLK//SUGAR in their shared space. The owner of BLK//SUGAR, Krystal Mack, helped Hannah “realize I could pretty easily connect my two passions (food and history) together. So in February 2016, I started my blog/Instagram where I share ice cream I made and the history that inspired it.”

When I asked Hannah if she would share a family recipe, she chose one that comes from her love of history and that was inspired by her grandfather: the Jewish dish haroset. “My grandfather, also a history major, had the most impact on my path in history,” she told me. “Starting at a very young age, he would tell me stories about experiences during WWII and Vietnam, college, and working as a U.S. Foreign Service diplomat.” It wasn’t just stories that her grandfather shared either. “My grandparents collected a lot of objects from their travels,” she said. “One of these objects was an Egyptian scarab figurine, which led to my interest in Egyptology, which then extended to my greater interest in history.”

The origin of the haroset recipe is more or less a mystery to the family. “My grandfather didn’t really talk about his family’s past (despite his obsession with history), but my family believes that this recipe came from my grandfather’s grandmother, who we believe was from Odessa, Ukraine (although it was probably part of Russia at the time),” she told me. Hannah had the chance to ask her relatives about this dish while taking a Russian Jewish history class in college. For a creative project, she chose to make an authentic Russian Jewish meal, including the family’s haroset. The research project gave Hannah a surprise. “It wasn’t until that project, after interviewing my grandpa, that I realized I was part Russian, and it was the first instance where I realized I could explore history through food.” I hear that, Hannah! (That’s what I love to do too, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.) “This year, my family has started a deeper exploration our family’s history, so this recipe is especially meaningful right now.” Food is a powerful tool for remembering and celebrating.

Haroset is dish served at the Passover Seder, which begins the eight-day celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The dish represents the mortar used by the slaves to make bricks. Hannah explained to me, “It is also one of the five or six foods on the Passover Seder plate. Depending on where your family is from, the recipe’s ingredients will vary. For instance, Israelis tend to incorporate dates in their haroset.” Food transmits the history, and history leaves its mark on the food.
At Hannah’s family Seder, the haroset recipe is the oldest guest. “While there are a lot of traditional foods surrounding every Jewish holiday, this recipe for haroset is the only ‘family’ recipe that goes back generations,” she said.

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Passover Haroset

Ingredients:
6 large or 8 small assorted apples, mainly sweet, but at least one Granny Smith
3 oz almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup golden raisins, plumped in water and cut in half
4 tbsp dry red wine
1 tbsp sugar

Instructions:

Peel and core the apples and cut into quarters.  Feed into food processor and finely chop, without turning into applesauce.  You may have to do this in two batches.

Add rest of the ingredients, and taste.  Add more wine and/or sugar if necessary.

Refrigerate overnight and taste again. Add more wine or sugar if needed. This haroset recipe shouldn’t be sweet, but the taste of the apples should be mellow.

Can be served straight, or on matzo.

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As for where Hannah sees herself in the future, she told me, “I’m currently working on a couple commissions for the holiday season! This coming spring, I am organizing an ice cream workshop at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. A couple of ice cream pails from the 17th century were found in the collection, so the curator will talk about their fascinating history and I will do an ice cream demonstration using a piece from the collection as inspiration.” In the future, Hannah hopes to do more events focused on history and ice cream. She is currently applying for graduate programs focused on Food Studies.

If you’re interested in following Hannah’s creations, you can and should follow her on Instagram.

Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share your family recipe. I can’t wait to see what delicious creations you make next!

Parker House Rolls

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Yesterday was the first day of winter, the longest day of the year. But I’m so ready, because that means today it will start getting a little lighter a little earlier, and 4:30pm will start to feel less like midnight. I am unexpectedly back in Indiana this week, because my poor mama fell and broke her wrist! And even though I didn’t plan on coming home for Christmas, it’s nice to be home around the holidays, even if it’s for an unfortunate reason. AND! With Christmas approaching, I’m obviously thinking a lot about food. For some people, the holiday means presents. For me, it means food.

Awhile back, Alex sent me an article that says the favorite Thanksgiving side dish of the Midwest is rolls and biscuits. Biscuits, maybe, but rolls?! Is this who we are? Judging from the amount of carbs I consumed as a child, it must be. I mean, I love bread. As a kid, I would ask my mom for a loaf of Italian bread from the store to eat in front of the TV: A LOAF of bread. Rolls, though? Idk. We always had crescent rolls at holiday dinners when I was growing up. They’re…OK. I remember biting into one once when I was little, thinking it would be buttery like a croissant. I was mistaken. So, anyway, long story short, I’m leery of rolls. I’ve been burned before.

I also realized that the only non-sweet rolls I’ve ever made were A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls for a Friendsgiving a few years back. We couldn’t stop eating them. This year, though, I wanted to try a much older recipe. This holiday season, I offer you a recipe for very traditional Parker House rolls.

Parker House rolls were created in the 1880’s at the Parker House Hotel in Boston. The original hotel no longer exists, but it is located where the Omni Parker House sits now. The Parker House was famous in its own right, hosting both the famous and the infamous: In the 1860’s, Charles Dickens lived at the Parker House, and recited A Christmas Carol (how timely!) there, for the first time in Boston, 150 years ago in 1867. Two years earlier, John Wilkes Booth stayed in the hotel eight days before he assassinated President Lincoln, while visiting his brother, an actor who was performing in a play in Boston. And, Parker House rolls are not the only enduring recipe to come out of the Hotel’s kitchen. The Parker House is also said to be where the Boston Cream Pie, the official state dessert of Massachusetts, was created.

A traditional Parker House roll is unique because of its fold. Usually oval in shape and then folded over, most origin stories credit the fold to when an angry baker threw the unfinished rolls into the oven. The rolls became a staple on tables all over the country after the recipe was featured in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, the first cookbook to include standardized measurement.

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Parker House Rolls
Makes about 2 dozen rolls. This recipe is a variation of Yossy Arefi’s recipe on Food52.

Ingredients:
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, very soft
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup warm water (about 120 degrees)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 egg
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (for greasing pan and brushing on top of the rolls)
Flaky sea salt, to taste

Instructions:

In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour, salt, and softened butter. Beat with a hand mixer or wooden spoon until it just begins to come together.

In a smaller bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water. Whisk briefly and allow to sit for about five minutes.

In a two-cup measuring cup, or small bowl, beat together the milk and egg.

To the flour mixture, add the milk and egg mixture and then the yeast mixture. Then, add 1/2 cup of flour to the mixture, incorporating the flour fully into the mixture, and repeat this 1/2 cup at a time until you reach 4 1/2 cups of flour total. Transfer the dough to a large, greased bowl. (The dough will be quite sticky!) Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Once it has risen, remove and uncover the dough and punch it down. Then divide the dough into four equal pieces.

On a well-floured surface, take 1/4 of the dough and roll out into a 18′ X 5″ rectangle. Take a butter knife and make a line lengthwise down the dough, not cutting all the way through. Fold the dough over on top of itself, at the crease. Make five cuts, creating six 3-inch rolls from the dough. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it inside two large rectangular pans, or cast iron skillets. Lay each individual roll into the dish. Continue with the other three sections of dough. Cover and allow to rise another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoon of butter, brush the top of the rolls with melted butter, and bake for about 30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.

Remove from oven, brush with more melted butter, sprinkle with sea salt, and serve warm.

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Consider this a solid for my Midwestern folks out there who love their rolls. And—you’re going to either hate or love me for pointing this out—these rolls are perfectly crafted to help you mop every bit of butter from your butter knife. (Butter mopping is an important thing to consider here in the Midwest.) Super soft, slightly sweet, and very light, with a slightly crisp exterior, Parker House rolls are a great addition to your holiday table. Or… like… any morning, smeared with butter and jam or honey. Plus, if you bring homemade rolls to any dinner, you look like a champion. You get bonus points if they’re still warm when you sit down to eat.

So, this is probably my last post of the year, unless I get to baking again and feel like there’s something I really need to share. If you don’t hear from me until next year, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all! I wish you lots of cookie eating and mulled wine drinking for the rest of the year. Catch you in 2018!