Friday, November 13, 2009

Cornbread, Chili, and the American Frontier

"We'll get along somehow . . . Why not? We're healthy, we've got a roof over our heads; we're better off than lots of folks."
-Pa Ingalls, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A few weeks ago I got the sudden desire to re-read the Little House series of books. I've been thinking a lot about economy in the home, using the resources available to their greatest advantage. The books provide ample insight into using your environment in a responsible manner (for example, Pa hunts and traps, but not in the spring when the animals could be caring for young, thus ensuring that the game will be abundant in the fall). What I did not remember about the books (I guess because as a child I wasn't concerned about such things) was the strength of spirit of Laura's parents. They moved three young children from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to South Dakota by horsedrawn wagon, leaving behind a house that they had built by hand each time. They were driven out of Kansas by the government, they lost crops to grasshoppers, experienced harsh blizzards and prairie fires, suffered malaria. Not only did they survive, they were happy and appreciative for what they did have. The books have provided me with a much needed reality check.

Also, all of the frontier cooking inspired me to do a little experimenting in the kitchen. I wanted to make a hearty meal, something that would sustain even the Ingalls family through the ridiculous amount of work they did each day. Cornbread and chili would fit the bill (and my husband would be happy to eat it). I realize that the Ingalls family didn't eat chili when Laura was young, but later in her life she did make the dish for her family on Rocky Ridge Farm in southern Missouri (see The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook). Ma Ingalls served cornbread frequently on the prairie because cornmeal was less expensive than wheat flour. Granted, this is most definitely not Ma's cornbread (which was essentially cornmeal, salt, and meat drippings); this is more like a sweet, dense corncake.

Crunchy and Sweet Northern Cornbread:
1/3 c. yellow cornmeal
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. granulated sugar
2/3 tsp. baking powder
Dash salt
1/3 c. milk
2 large eggs
1/3 c. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter two 16 oz. ramekins. Combine cornmeal and milk, allow to soak 10 mins. In a separate bowl, mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Mix eggs and oil into cornmeal mixture, then stir in flour until moistened. Divide batter evenly between two ramekins. Bake 30-35 mins, until puffed and cracked. A tester inserted in middle should come out clean. Run a knife around edges and remove from ramekins to cool. Cut into wedges and serve.

Thick and Spicy Chili:
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with herbs (I love the Full Circle brand)
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 lb. ground beef
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne
2 tsp. brown sugar
Dash oregano
Beef stock as needed

In a cast iron pot, saute onions in a little vegetable oil until softened. Add minced garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Add beef, breaking apart with wooden spoon. Cook until meat is no longer pink. Drain off most of the grease, then add in seasonings (including sugar). Cook spices with meat, stirring, for a minute or two until they are fragrant. Add in tomatoes/sauce and drained beans. Allow mixture to simmer (mine went for about an hour). I added beef stock to achieve the consistency I wanted, which was admittedly thick. If you like a thinner chili, add a larger can of tomato sauce or use juice instead.

This was exactly the hearty meal I have been craving since I started reading the Little House series. The cornbread could be doctored up in any number of ways: cut the sugar and add jalepenos or cheese, skip the ramekins and make corn muffins, even top with strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. Chopped green pepper could be added to the chili. Also, I buy rather strongly flavored dark chili powder, so you may need to play with the spices until it suits your tastes. You may want to forget the cornbread altogether (especially if you are a Southern cornbread purist) and serve the chili in bread bowls. Be creative and enjoy!

PS: I have a few Christmas projects in the works, but there won't be any pictures until after the holidays.


  1. Chelsea, loved this posting. It made me want to cook up a batch this week. The cornbread made my mouth water!! Great posting!

  2. I'm visiting my sister in Ohio this weekend and may make this to take. I believe it would travel well and be delicious reheated for a quick dinner. Thanks for the post.