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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Mystery of Virginia's Hot Potato

17th century Virginia Indian vegetables, no potatoes

In 1621, two years after being selected to be the first speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, John Pory was invited to a feast as the guest of king Ekeeks chief of the Onancock Indian tribe that lived in what is now Accomack, Virginia. He was fed, among other things, roasted oysters and "batata" (Spanish word for sweet potatoes). John didn't like the sweet potatoes because one burned his mouth as he bit into it without letting it first cool down to a safe temperature.

After that experience Pory reportedly said, "I would not give a farthing for a shipload." While sweet potatoes and potatoes are both "new world" foods, potatoes were first introduced in the colonies from a shipment to Virginia via Bermuda in 1621 rather than through trade with Indians, or so it has been thought. This is because no other Englishman mentions Virginia Indians eating potatoes or sweet potatoes in the early 17th century.

And, while we are discussing potatoes, let's discuss what we know first before we get into what we don't know. First, sweet potatoes are a completely different plant species than white potatoes. Sweet potatoes belong to the Convolvulaceae family which is known by its scientific name of Ipomoea batatas and also includes several varieties of morning glories that you may have growing in your flower garden. White potatoes, like Russets for example, are part of the Solanaceae family of plants belonging to the nightshade group. Yams are also another completely different species as well. Yams are monocots and are related to lilies and grasses and are native to Africa and Asia.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes were originally domesticated in the area of southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia around 7,000–10,000 years ago. Seventeenth century Spaniards would have referred to potatoes as "patata" and sweet potatoes as "batata". In fact, the English word "potato" is derived from "patata." You say patata I say batata, that's what it was all about in the 17th century. The Spanish probably got both first from the natives that lived in South and Central America and took them back to Europe with them in the 16th century.

So, how did sweet potatoes show up in 1621 on the table (figuratively speaking) of a Virginia Indian king and why were the Algonquin speaking Indians of Virginia using a non-Algonquin word? It's the mystery of Virginia's hot potato that needs to be solved!

On a side note, how potatoes arrived in Europe has never really been well understood. For over 200 years the "official" story was that potatoes were brought into Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh who got them from Virginia. In fact, the Irish used to call them "Virginia potatoes." Again, this is doubtful as potatoes were not grown in Virginia in the 16th century as far as anyone can tell. Some now believe that Sir Frances Drake picked up potatoes while sailing around the coast of South America before picking up colonists from Roanoke Island around 1585 and brought them back to Ireland.

Muddying the waters more is the fact that in 1600, John Pory translated, edited, and published A Geographical Historie of Afirca, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo, a More, borne in Granada and brought up in Barbarie. In that work, Pory translated a passage and used the word "batata" saying it was from the West Indies. "They have good sustenance also by meanes of a root, called there Igname, but in the west Indies Batata." While the original author (or even Pory) could have been confusing yams with sweet potatoes just like we do today, the fact remains that the word "batata" was not unknown to Pory in 1621. Yet, he, supposedly, speaks of it in 1621 as though it was the first encounter he had with it. So, the questions around this event include:

1.) Is King Ekeeks' "batata" really sweet potato?

2.) Is John Pory relating a truthful account of the feast or did he embellish it?

3.) If "batata" is sweet potato, why didn't the other Englishmen like Smith, Clayton, Spelman, and Strachey mention them as they actually lived with Virginia Indians in the 17th century?

4.) Did king Ekeeks serve some other root or tuber that is native to Virginia and called it "batata" because he had learned the word from other European explorers and wanted to impress Pory?

5.) Did Pory misunderstand an Algonquin word that sounds like "batata"?

If Pory's account is accurate, and the "batata" he mentioned is in fact sweet potatoes, in all likelihood the Onancock Indians traded for them from the Spanish when they visited Virginia in the late 16th century and, for some reason, they didn't share them with other Indians in Virginia.

That is the story of Virginia's hot potato mystery. For some reason, it makes me hungry for sweet potato casserole.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Colonial Virginia Law Against Discharging Firearms at Barbecues: A Myth

There is an often repeated claim made in several books about barbecue that in the 17th century the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law outlawing the discharging of firearms at barbecues. The accounts mentioned in the various books vary only on the date of the establishment of the law. Some authors say the law was established in 1610, another says it was 1650, another says "the 1600s," another 1690, others say "the 17th century." While it's true that Virginians did cook barbecue in the 17th century and they did own firearms, a look through the laws established in Virginia in the 17th century does not validate the claim that there was a law that specifically outlawed firing guns at barbecue events.

The first law against discharging firearms established by the House of Burgesses was made in 1623. The purpose of the law was to conserve gun powder; "The commander of any plantation do either himselfe or suffer others to spend powder unnecessarily in drinking or entertainments, &c." In 1624 the law was expanded to prevent the discharge of firearms on Sundays or at parties except for weddings and funerals. The reason given was that a gun shot was chosen as the alarm that Indians were attacking and they didn't want false alarms. It's easy to see why the colonists were so nervous in 1624 when you think about the Indian attack in 1622 that killed 347, more than one fourth, of the colonists.

As to the claim that the law against the discharge of firearms was established in 1610 by Virginia's House of Burgesses, that is impossible. The first meeting of Virginia's House of Burgesses was held at Jamestown, then called James City, on July 30, 1619. A record of the proceedings comes down to us in an account written by speaker John Pory. Twenty two members comprised the first Assembly. John Pory was selected to be the speaker and John Twin chosen to be the clerk.

To sum things up, while it was impossible for the law against discharging firearms at barbecues to be established by the House of Burgesses before 1619 and while no law specifically referred to barbecues, you could make the claim that it was illegal to discharge firearms at barbecues because only weddings and funerals were excluded from the law and both of those were excuses to throw a barbecue. The impact of the law actually made allowances for discharging firearms at barbecues as long as the occasion was a wedding or funeral rather than outlawing the act on such occasions.

Virginia colonists were the first to establish a representative legislature in colonial America. As a result, Virginia was also the first to develop a system of standing committees for the transaction of business. The standing committee system that developed in Virginia was carried over to the federal government Congress and is still in use today.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sage Wisdom From Pitmaster Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell, "the Pope of Barbecue" from Wilson, North Carolina, sums it up best:

"Cooking barbecue is a craft handed down from generations to generations. I like cooking barbecue this way because it’s something to hold on to that hasn't been tarnished yet. It allows all of us to interact. Barbecue was one of the things that held the tension down during the race movement in the 1960s. When there was... a barbecue, it did not matter who you were, the only thing that could settle any issue would be having a pig picking. It’s a feasting time, a festive time. Nobody's upset or mad and there's no other dish that powerful. And don't ask me why because I don't know. Maybe there's a connection with the Bible -- prodigal son went away, and when he came back they said, 'Surely kill us a calf' and roasted it barbecue-style." (Holy Smoke – The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Origin of Brunswick Stew - An Authentic 19th Century Recipe

Old Virginia Brunswick Stew

“We crossed the stream upon a shaking plank laid from bank to bank, and strolled down the slope to the scene of operations. An immense kettle was swung over a fire of logs that were so many living coals. The smell of Brunswick stew had been wafted to us while we leaned on the fence. A young man, who had the reputation of being an epicure, to the best of his knowledge and ability, superintended the manufacture of the famous delicacy. “Two dozen chickens went into it!” he assured us. “They wanted to make me think it couldn’t be made without green corn and fresh tomatoes. I knew a trick worth two of that. I have worked it before with dried tomatoes and dried sweet corn soaked overnight.” He smacked his lips and winked fatuously.”

This brief account of an 1844 barbecue held in Richmond, Virginia describes a scene that was typical of such events in the nineteenth century. Smoke lingering in the tops of trees, the enticing aroma of roasting meat in the air and the large kettle of simmering “barbecue stew” was a scene repeated over and over again all across the American South. The phrase “barbecue stew” refers not to a stew made of barbecued meats. Rather, it is a stew that was (and still is) traditionally cooked and served along with barbecue and it differs from region to region.

For the rest of the article and the recipe, navigate over to the Smoke Signals Barbecue Magazine site and check out the latest issue 13. In it I discuss the origins of Brunswick Stew, the modern Brunswick Stew rivalry between Virginia and Georgia, and the recipe for an authentic, 19th century Virginia Brunswick stew.