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!

Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake

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Happy New Year!

We are still trying to dig out of the holidays over here. A couple days before Christmas, we made our annual trek up to Marie’s for pizza. On Christmas Eve morning, I made Chex Mix (I used the recipe that one of my guests, Mandy Ross, shared on here a while back, because it’s very easy and very good), while playing Christmas music. We had our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of steak, potatoes, and mulled wine. Then we woke up to a white Christmas, exchanged gifts, and had a Christmas dinner of delicious Indian food with Alex’s dad. Solid times. But now it’s just cold, cold, cold. It’s the time of the year when I try not to leave my house and I eat my body weight in Clementines.

For New Year’s Eve, we did nothing. Alex kept giving me updates on the temperature that went something like, “It feels like -9… and now it feels like -17”. I fell asleep by 10:30, woke up at 11:59:45 to countdown to the New Year, then promptly fell back asleep, like a rock star.

And, speaking of New Year’s Eve, you may want to stop reading right now if you made a New Year’s resolution to avoid any of the following: cake… chocolate… carbs… desserts… soda… butter… Because this post is basically your New Year’s resolutions’ biggest nightmare.

Last year, when Alex was on a business trip in Atlanta, I got lost down a rabbit hole reading about Coca-Cola’s history and requested that Alex bring me something called a Coca-Cola cake. Unfortunately, he was traveling with colleagues and didn’t feel comfortable demanding a stop to buy cake. So, the idea of a chocolate cake made with soda pop sat at the back of my mind. Until now.

Today marks the 230th anniversary of Georgia becoming a state. And, of course, Coca-Cola was born and raised in Georgia. Coca-Cola was created by John Pemberton, a pharmacist by trade who suffered a saber wound to the chest (!!) during the Civil War and became addicted to opiates as a way to combat his pain. He developed the early version of Coca-Cola, made from coca leaves (and, yes, at least trace amounts its famous alkaloid), and kola nuts, which contain both caffeine and other stimulants that Pemberton hoped would help conquer his addiction. Before his death, needing money, Pemberton began selling some of the rights to the Coca-Cola formula. After his death, his son Charley, also suffering from alcoholism and a morphine addiction, possibly coerced, sold the remaining rights to Asa Griggs Candler, a business tycoon who would later become the mayor of Atlanta, and who was responsible for the aggressive marketing that led to Coca-Cola’s status as an American staple.

As for the cake, there is not a lot of information on how it got started. It doesn’t seem that it was created by the Coca-Cola Company as a marketing ploy. There have been suggestions that, because of its importance to American morale during the second World War (both Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were said to be addicted to it!), the Coca-Cola company was not subject to the sugar rationing that restricted the American public, so it was a way to sweeten a chocolate cake. That seemed like a fair assumption, but the recipe also calls for an egg, and a fair amount of butter and buttermilk–items that were either rationed themselves, or just scarce at the time. More likely, it seems that the recipe was created by happy accident, as a way for home bakers in the south to infuse the beloved soda into their chocolate cake. The earliest recipes for the cake that I found were from newspapers in the 1960’s, and interestingly enough, not from Georgia. A frequently-used version is often attributed to Lee Avery Catts, a member of the Junior League of Atlanta, whose recipe was published in the Junior League’s Atlanta Cooknotes starting in the early 80’s. Her recipe closely follows the recipes I found in earlier newspapers.

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Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake
Serves 12-15. I followed this recipe from Serious Eats, which seems to be very close to several recipes I found from newspapers in the 60’s.

Ingredients:
For cake:
Cooking spray
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
2 sticks of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 cup Coca-Cola
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups miniature marshmallows

For icing:
2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
6 tbsp Coca-Cola
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans, optional

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the inside of a 9×13-inch pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, white and brown sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and baking soda. Stir to combine thoroughly. (Be sure to use a bowl that is at least 1 cup in size because the mixture will foam up to almost double.)

In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the flour mixture and stir until fully combined. Add the buttermilk mixture, stirring until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla, and finally stir in the marshmallows.

Pour the mixture into the 9×13-inch pan, spreading the mixture to the edges with a spoon and moving the marshmallows around so they’re evenly distributed.

Bake between 35 and 45 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool for about 10 minutes before beginning the icing.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar and salt into a small bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa powder, and Coca-Cola. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Pour the Coca-Cola mixture into the confectioner’s sugar. Whisk together until completely combined and smooth. Stir in the vanilla.

Pour the icing over the still-warm cake. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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This cake was actually quite different than I imagined it would be. I figured it would be extremely sweet and very dense like a brownie. Definitely not! It’s actually just a really tasty chocolate cake. You can also include pecans in your icing. I did not, because I’m almost exclusively a no-nuts-in-dessert type of girl. Use your discretion.

Happy birthday to the great state of Georgia! And, Alex says, congrats to your Dawgs! (I literally have no idea what that means.)