Joyce Gibson Roach

Hearth Song : A Cookbook Introduction

Home is where the heart is—that’s what they say.  Home is also where the hearth is. Hearth?  What’s a hearth and where is it located in your house? The word has Old Germanic origins, but it means the part of the floor of a room where a fire is made, or the brick, rock or concrete floor of a fireplace.  In pre-historic times the hearth was simply the fire pit where food was roasted and where the group or family gathered for warmth in winter and where the blaze kept away wild animals.

In local communities of all races and cultures there is, and was, a custom known as a house warming, although in early times it was called a hearth warming.  Often there were gifts and a dance; good wishes for the family in a new home. Nowadays, we send cards in addition to other customs practiced when a family moves to a different town and house. It is a way of saying welcome.

The hearth today is in the kitchen, which has undergone many changes through the ages, but essentially has a hearth in modified form. The room has an oven, burners, microwave, grill, toasters and the like where food is prepared, but also where the family gathers to eat, snack, talk, study, read the paper, do homework. Granted, not all homes of today carry on such activities around the kitchen table but many do.  And it is to such a place where children often come first after school, maybe for a snack, something to drink, or to toss their books.

But what about here in Texas?  By now everyone knows, or ought to, that Texas was composed of explorers, conquerors and immigrants—Europeans, French and Spanish, particularly; but then Mexicans, a blend of Spanish and natives, already here before any of us; added to that were North American Native Americans, also here before us. None of these factions got on well with each other. All had their own special kitchen cultures and we are heirs to much of that today. We were a melting pot that never quite melted then, or do we today. Yet, if one factor unites us one with the other, it is food and recipes for that food.

During the years of the Republic in Texas (1836-1845-46), waves of Upper South people, many of Scots-Irish descent, rolled into North and Northeast Texas—here in Westlake and the surrounding areas. Most particularly, they came out of Tennessee, the granddaddy of Texas, it is said, but our settlers came from Missouri. They packed their few belongings into the wagon, lashed a crate of chickens to one side, a water keg to the other side, dangled a washpot from the rear, threw in some sacks of seeds, scrawled “Tone to Texas” across the weather-beaten boards of their emptied cabins and took to the westward trail, driving their sow and leading the cow behind the wagon to provide milk for the freckle-faced urchins peering out from beneath the raised wagon sheet.  They went into Arkansas, crossed over the Red River, and stopped for a time.  The climate was mild.  Water was plentiful.  A one-room log cabin could be thrown up for sleeping, cooking, eating, and whatever else went on indoors; the woman could make garden and gather fruits, nuts, and berries to feed the family; the man could hunt. Some cabins had a fireplace; others did not and cooking was done outside over a campfire.

This way of life suited the Upper South people.  They were fiercely independent; they lived in isolated places in a kind of loose kinship network, scorning town life where they would have to give up some of that independence to live socially. 

They held fast their dream that the good life lay westward, and they continued to live at almost subsistence level, not putting down roots, just expecting poverty to go away and sojourning in one place only until that day when they would hear there was better land lying somewhere beyond. 

So the Tennesseans and their ilk from other Southern states spread themselves around North Texas and Central Texas, leaving in their wake a tradition of down-home cooking, called in the turbulent 1960s soul food, and lately, white trash cooking.  There is even a cookbook by that title. It wasn’t healthy, making use of plenty of grease rendered from hog fat, called lard, and long on meat and potatoes. Meat, incidentally, was pork, not beef or chicken.  Pigs didn’t have to be penned but readily followed the wagons, foraging on wild acorns and nuts.

Randolph Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions, published in 1859, advised travelers to put in flour, coffee, sugar, yeast powder, salt, and pepper, the only items they were likely to purchase. He also recommended “cold flour” used by the Mexicans.  It was made from parched corn, pounded on a mortar until it was a coarse meal.  Then a little sugar and cinnamon could be added.  He said that a half-bushel of this corn flour mixed with a little water would keep a man going for thirty days. Didn’t say anything about the women.

Corn came to be the most important grain for early settlers. At “roasting ear time” the settlers had a feast.  They boiled the corn; they fried it; they roasted it, either by standing the shucked ears on end in front of the fire and turning them until they were browned all around, or by burying them, husk and all, in hot ashes. And corn was important as feed for chickens and horses. Today, corn is a valuable commodity for all the reasons named above, but also for experimental fuels.

Along the migration westward, the settlers picked up other food ways—German cooking, French, Mexican, Asian, Czech, Scandinavian, cowboy grub such as bar-b-que. The list goes on and on and we are heir to all of it.  Just as important were the recipes that came down through the ages, many of them passed by word of mouth through families, and then shared with other cooks. Often, measurements were given as “a pinch of that” or a handful of that.”

Recipe collecting and recipe parties for brides-to-be became occasions.  Today there is a cookbook culture—those who collect cookbooks and write and publish them. Measurements and ingredients are standardized so that we have an easy time in preparation.  Even on a less grand scale, recipes are still exchanged by teachers in schools, business workers, between home makers, by email, websites, and cell phones.  Let’s don’t forget the men, who have become a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen and over the grill.

Some of the most valuable and readable collections are done by families who, not only provide recipes but also recount the family history by remembering where, why and  when the remembered recipes were included in the collection. Genealogies of sorts are revealed in such publication, which are usually self-published or through a company who does such work. Old family photos and letters are included in the book. And a period in state or national history appears because the cooks came from other countries, or their ancestors did. 

The Westlake Academy Cookbook (or whatever you’re going to call it) offers the most valuable publication that may be undertaken in the school.  Because of the diversity of the student and teaching body, generations of many cultures are represented and behind each and every one is a story, a kinship with the past given to the present and the future—the essence of the hearth, the center of the home, binding family to family through the centuries—a hearth song with a timeless melody.  

Joyce Gibson Roach

Of course, you need a recipe from me.  I offer one called “By-Guess-By Gosh- Gingerbread.”  It is delicious, but you may find easier ways to make it.

I always take some flour, just enough for the cake I want to make.  I mix it up with some buttermilk if I happen to have any of it, just enough for the flour. Then I take some ginger, some like more, some like less.  I put in a little salt and pearl ash (potash) for leavening, and then I tell one of my children to pour in molasses till I tell him to stop.  Then the children bring in wood to build up a good fire, and we have ginger bread. (Anonymous)

Joyce Gibson Roach and Ernestine Sewell Linck

Eats: A Folk History of Texas Foods

TCU Press, 1989

Texas Institute of Letters prize winner, Best Non-Fiction book.