Farina or Cream of Wheat

1186651-at_the_dinerOne morning on a recent road trip, I stopped at the local diner in a small Mississippi town. While sitting at the counter having breakfast, I overheard several guys discussing the proper way to season their grits. One gentleman remarked that he and his fellow Arkansans favored sugar while a couple of the local boys said they preferred salt on their grits. Another local spoke up, declaring he too liked sweet grits, “with a big pat of butter.”

Then one man, originally from the Northeast, declared that he was raised on Cream of Wheat instead of grits.

“Isn’t that the same as Farina?”

“Farina is made from corn.”

“No, no, they’re both made from wheat. Farina is just a brand name.”

“Cream of Wheat is a brand, too. It’s the one in the red box with the old white guy on the front.”

“Yeah? I thought that was Quaker Oats.”

With that I quietly paid my bill, walked to my car, and got back on the road, thinking how little we sometimes know of cultures and foods outside the surroundings in which we were raised. It was obvious that most of the locals at that diner had probably never traveled more than fifty miles from their small town, and certainly had the limited palate to show for it.

I myself, in spite of a culinary career that has exposed me to all kinds of foods from around the world, tend to list the foods I grew up with as my favorites. And, having grown up as the son of a couple of Oklahoma farmers, cream of wheat would certainly not make the list!

productsCream of Wheat is a brand of farina, a porridge-type breakfast food that while having a texture similar to grits, is ground simolina wheat kernels instead of ground corn. There are also several other brands of farina sold in this country, the most prominent being Malt-O-Meal, third largest cereal manufacturer in America founded in 1919, and Farina, a cereal-boxes-origbrand started by Pillsbury in 1898 and purchased by Malt-O-Meal from U.S. Mills in 2009. And there are several smaller brands including Phoebe, Bob’s Red Mill, Goober Gourmet, and Honeyville.

Cream of Wheat was invented by Thomas S. Amidon, head miller at Diamond Mills in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Amidon had begun making the hot breakfast porridge for his family, when in the midst of a national economic downturn he went to the mill owners, Emery Mapes, George Bull, and Clifford George, and convinceddownload (1) them to market the cereal he called Cream of Wheat (so named because it was so white).

Demand for Cream of Wheat soon outgrew the Grand Forks mill, so in 1897 Mapes, Bull, and Clifford moved the mill to Minneapolis. Growth continued and by 1928 the plant had expanded two additional times. In 1962, after sixty-nine years of being run by generations of the original owners, the mill was sold to Nabisco. Nabisco merged with Standard Brands in 1981 and was then bought out by Kraft Foods in 2000. In 2007, Kraft sold Cream of Wheat to B&G Foods where it continues to be produced by the same formula it began with 120 years ago.

The Cream of Wheat package is indeed red, however the “guy on the front” is an downloadAfrican-American chef named Rastus, developed by artist Edward V. Brewer. It is said that an actual chef by the name of Frank L. White was Brewer’s model for the box. Mr. White died in 1938 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Leslie, Michigan. On his headstone is an etching of the man depicted on the Cream of Wheat box.

Today, there are six kinds of Cream of Wheat, including Original, Whole Grain and COWCream of Rice, as well as five flavors of Instant Cream of Wheat on the market.

My wife, an Italian lady from New York, initiated me to the delicate taste of the original unflavored Cream of Wheat some thirty years ago. She prefers it lightly salted with butter and a little milk or light cream. And while it’s certainly not a bad way to get started on a cold morning, I myself am partial to oatmeal over either Cream of Wheat or grits.

Yep, you guessed it. Oatmeal’s the hot breakfast cereal I grew up on.

Make Em: Cream of Wheat Breakfast Bake, Apple Cranberry Crumble, Chocolate Chip Pudding, Country Polenta

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Cornbread: America’s Iconic Quick Bread

The first baked goods I ever mastered was cornbread, that iconic quick bread so loved by just about everyone in American, especially in the South.

cornbreadCornbread was a dinner staple in my home growing up, and I suppose that’s why my mother was so adamant about me learning to make it. It may have also had something to do with cornbread being my favorite snack at the time, and therefore I was always requesting her to make it. Shortly after my tenth birthday, I received my first lesson in the art of making cornbread–one I remember to this day.

Like so many of America’s early country “chefs,” my mother (affectionately called “Sugar” by me, my sister, and most of our friends) didn’t own many of the smallwares and utensils so seemingly indispensable in today’s kitchens. And that included a proper set of measuring cups and spoons. Instead, like her mother and grandmother, she used a teacup and teaspoon from our table service. So as “Sugar” stood next to me in the small kitchen of our frame tract home, my lesson went something like this:

“Get that large green mixing bowl and put in one and a little more than half a cup of cornmeal. No, no, that’s too much . . . that’s better. Now add about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda and a slightly heaping teaspoon of baking powder. Okay, add half a teaspoon of salt, and stir everything together.

Alright, crack an egg into the meal and be careful not to get any shell in it. Now add about a cup and a half of buttermilk and about half of the hot bacon grease from the skillet. Stir the whole thing until smooth. Good, good!”

cornbreadThen she had me sprinkle some cornmeal into the melted grease left in her cast iron skillet. Only after the meal was nicely browned was I allowed to add the batter and place the skillet in the oven. After about 20 or 25 minutes it was done–tender and fluffy on the inside with a crisp, deep mahogany crust on the outside. It was this crust that my father loved to cut off, slather with gobs of “butter” (actually margarine because it was cheaper), and eat with his supper. Sometimes he’d drown a large piece of buttered cornbread with molasses and eat it for dessert.

I, not being a huge fan of molasses, enjoyed another of my father’s cornbread rituals–crumbling it into a bowl, pouring ice cold buttermilk over it, and eating it like cereal. Man, it just doesn’t get much better than that!

Many people credit the rural South for creating cornbread when in reality we can thank the Native Americans for its humble beginning.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the cultivation of corn had spread throughout the middle and eastern parts of America and as far north as southeastern Canada. Corn was a major food staple for the Native Americans, who were roasting it, grinding it into meal, and turning it into all kinds of cakes, breads, and porridges long before the first European set foot on our shores. As the local Indians introduced early colonists to corn, they also showed them numerous ways of using it, including making a bread called “pone” (or sometimes referred to as “Indian pone”) made of cornmeal (Indian meal), salt, and water. This was the first cornbread.

Soon colonists begin developing their own recipes for “cornbread,” referring to them by any number of names–ashcakes, hoecakes, journey cakes, johnnycake, and dodgers, to mention a few. These names varied by region and community, as did the differentiation in recipes.

One reason cornbread has always been so popular is that flour and yeast–commodities that were once expensive and hard to get–are not needed. Another is that making cornbread is quick because it does not need to rise, as do yeast breads. Cornbread was the bread of life for America’s rural poor and working class.

cornbread squaresToday cornbread is enjoyed by everyone throughout the United States, with as many recipes as there are people who make it, although the basic ingredients–cornmeal, eggs, oil, and milk–remain the same. This is particularly true in the South and Southwest where it has become a traditional staple with many uses, from a side dish for barbecue, chili, and various legumes (such as pinto beans, butter beans, and blackeyed peas), to stuffing for chicken, turkey, and pork.

Northern and Southern cornbread differ in several ways, from the preference in types of cornmeal used (yellow cornmeal in the North; white in the South), to the amount of eggs and sugar in the recipe. Northerners typically use a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal and flour, making the finished product lighter with a more cake-like consistency. Southerners tend to use little if any flour. And contrary to the beliefs of many, sweet cornbread is not limited to people in the North. Actually, the practice of adding sugar began in the South, although tastes in this region seem to run more to the savory side. Southerner’s also tend to favor buttermilk in the batter as well as the use of flavorings such as corn kernels, chilies, cracklings, or green onions. And finally, it is traditional in the South to bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet using hot bacon grease to give it a distinctly crunchy crust, whereas Northerners prefer vegetable oil and square metal or glass baking dishes. Having grown up in the South and Southwest, I tend to be partial to sugarless cornbread, although I do prefer yellow course ground cornmeal.

Iron skilletToday “Sugar’s” black cast iron skillet hangs in my kitchen, having been a gift from her in the mid-1990’s shortly before she passed on to her heavenly home. And although I do own a set of measuring cups and spoons, I continue to measure the ingredients for her cornbread recipe using a tea cup and a teaspoon from my stainless flatware set.

Make Em: Sugar’s Country Cornbread, Northern Style Golden Cornbread, Homesteader Cornbread