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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Cornmeal: Perhaps America’s Most Traditional Food

No other food exemplifies America and its plentiful bounty like corn. This is the second in a series of articles that explores the history and culinary uses of this versatile grain.

Thousands of years before Europeans first landed on the shores of the New World, corn had become a staple food of Native Americans. Among the many ways they used corn, one of the most important was grinding it into a coarse meal which was then used to make pone, a flat bread baked in ashes, drinks such as Atole, and Chicha, and a indian-pudding-athick cereal known simply as corn mush or Indian mush. Later, early British Colonists adapted their traditional “hasty pudding” into a corn version called Indian pudding, a dessert still very popular in New England.

When the Europeans first came to America, the Native Americans not only taught them how to grow corn, but how to grind and prepare it as well. Much of today’s Southern cuisine stems from recipes learned from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek, including those that incorporated cornmeal.

metate1Originally the Indians ground their corn by hand using mortars and pestles. Still used today by many culinarians, a mortar is a bowl, usually made of stone, wood, or other hard material, designed to hold whatever substance is to be ground (in this case dried corn). The pestle is a heavy, blunt, club-like stick or another stone used to do the crushing. Mortars and pestles constructed by Native Americans were as varied as the tribes who used them. The Caddo and Cherokee fashioned their mortars out of thick tree trunks and used a heavy stick about the size of a baseball bat to pound the corn. Some of the Southwestern Tribes used large rocks with a natural depression for the matate (mortar) and a smaller stone tool for the mano (pestle).

The first American gristmill (corn mill) on record was built in 1634 in the colony of New Amsterdam (what is now New York), although the Virginia Company records made reference to a water-powered mill being constructed in 1621 in present day North Carolina.

imgresMuch like a community barn raising, the local farmers and villagers usually helped the miller construct these mills to ensure a facility within one day’s travel from their farms in which to have their corn (and sometimes other grains) ground into meal or flour. In lieu of a monetary fee for his services, the miller received a small percentage of the finished product called the “miller’s toll.” This “toll” was then sold or traded by the miller for goods he and his family might need.

The gristmills also became social centers–a gathering place to catch the latest gossip with friends and neighboring farmers as they waited for their corn and grain to be ground. Newspapers would post their latest issue on the side of the mill, and children would play or swim and fish in the millpond.

imgresIn 1850, more than one hundred thousand such mills dotted American’s countryside. But by the century’s end the efficiency of steam had replaced many of the water-powered mills. And by the early 1900s, these small independent stone-grinding mills could no longer compete with the heavy steel and iron rollers of the larger, more efficient gas–and electric–powered mills.

Today, there are less than one thousand gristmills across the country. While many of these have been restored as tourist attractions and for other uses, a few others, such as Jenny Grist Mill, build in 1636 by John Jenney, still operate.

Both Native Americans and European colonists recognized the many uses of cornmeal, as well as the nourishment and energy its provided. Here is a brief description of some of the foods, past and present, made possible by cornmeal.

Indian Muffins: This recipe from The Kentucky Housewife, a 1839 cookbook compiled by Mrs. Lettice Bryan, is one of seventeen bread, cake, and pudding recipes using Indian corn meal, and the closest to today’s classic cornbread.

Beat five eggs light, stir them into a quart of milk with a small handful of flour and a tea-spoonful of salt; then stir in as much fine Indian meal as will make a tolerably thick batter. Having buttered some little scolloped muffin pans, place them in an oven that is moderately heated, put in each a small ladleful of the batter and bake them a nice brown; then take them from the pans, arrange them neatly in a plate, lay on the top of each a slice of firm butter, and eat them warm.

Anadama Bread: As the story goes, a New England sea captain’s wife, Anna, was well known for this sweet, cornmeal and molasses bread. Upon her death he had put on her tombstone, “Anna was a lovely bride, but Anna, damn’er, up and died.” Thus the recipe’s name.

In a bowl, whisk together one-quarter ounce of dry yeast and two cups of warm water; let stand about ten minutes, until frothy. Beat in the three-quarter cup of cornmeal, half cup dark molasses, six tablespoons soft butter and one teaspoon salt. Slowly add five and one-half cups bread flour and continue to beat until a moderately stiff dough forms. Turn dough out onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic.

Place dough into a large bowl, coating all sides with oil. Cover with damp towel and let rise until doubled in size. Punch dough down, divide in half, cover and let rest for ten minutes. Shape into two balls, place each in a buttered round baking pan and flatten. Cover and let rise until almost doubled in size. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. Remove from pans and serve.

cornponeCorn Pone: This traditional Southern dish is, simply speaking, cornbread without the eggs or milk. Also sometimes referred to as “hoecakes” or “Johnnycakes,” corn pones are fried in fat in an iron pan over an open fire, pancake style.

Corn Meal Dumplings: Another traditional Southern dish similar to a hush puppy that has been dropped into boiling chicken or turnip greens liquid to cook, rather than being fried.

Cornmeal Mush: Also called grits in the American South, where they may be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or the evening meal; with just butter and cream, or any number of toppings.

Hush PuppiesHush Puppies: Popular during the Civil War, these fried balls of cornmeal are said to have gotten their name from Southern soldiers who tossed them to their dogs to keep them from barking.

So from Americas Native Tribes to its early colonists and European settlers, corn and cornmeal have had a very important role in shaping the foods we enjoy today, especially the ever popular Southern and Southwestern cuisines. In the next issue of our series on corn, we’ll explore how corn oil has influenced our culinary world.

Make Em: Atole, Creamy Grits Casserole, Maverick Shrimp & Grits, Corn Pone, Hush Puppies, Homesteaders Cornbread