Amy Nawrocki is a contributor to Connecticut Food and Wine. She is the author of three collections of poetry, Potato Eaters, Nomad’s End, and Lune de Miel (forthcoming). Her two prose works, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard and A History of Connecticut Food, were written with Eric D. Lehman. She teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Bridgeport and lives in Hamden with husband and two cats.
Our notions of what constitutes “dessert” and what constitutes a “meal” need to be challenged when we think about early American cooking. Cakes and puddings, which today we expect to be sweet, were often savory. Vegetables and herbs were used in desserts, and a “pie” just as well could have had meat, as fruit or custard, just as well served as a main course as for a dessert. Suet, lard, and pork fat were often used in pie crusts and “cakes.”
Likewise, distinguishing between bread and cake also seems a contemporary assessment; we now expect bread to be yeast-risen, relatively un-sweet, with crispy crusts and flaky (doughy) centers. A cake, on the other hand, is relegated to the confectionary realm, using carbonate-based leavening, moist, sweet, and deserving of equally sweet frosting or icing. An interesting example of these mutable perceptions can be found in Pork Cake—more bread than cake, it showcases not only the cake-bread continuum, but also the surprising ingredient of salt pork that was a staple in most early Connecticut kitchens and used in ways that today we’d say are odd.
Salting pork meant preserving the pig’s bounty for the entire season. Because we no longer have need of innovative preservation techniques, and because bacon is easy to find now, we often also forget or remain unaware of the range of uses for salt pork. It’s still a key ingredient in chowders and soups, but fat and salt are usually the first to go from our health-conscious menus. And rightly so. But dishes like these remind us of the resourcefulness that was necessary just to put a meal on the table, and its odd combination of ingredients tells us that our modern labels may actually prevent us from trying something potentially delicious.
Researching early foods, I came across more than a few mentions of Pork Cake, like this one from Abner Judson, a Stratford lumber dealer and boot maker. The recipe was entered into his account book in 1854.
12 ounces pork (salt pork)
1 pint boiling water
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 pound seeded raisins
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 coffee cups molasses (1 ½ cups modern conversion)
1 cup sugar
Flour in your judgment
Dice the salt pork, cover with boiling water to remove salt. Then add molasses and sugar. Add flour, raisins, and spices. Put into 2 greased and floured pans and bake at 300 for 2 hours.
A couple generations later, Elnora Wilcoxen’s Pork Cake uses dark brown sugar, citron, and orange and lemon peel, as these ingredients became more available. A slightly more “modern” rendition can be found in Hyla O’Connor’s Early American Cookbook. It calls for slightly less fatback (1/2 pound), equal amounts of sugar and molasses (1 cup each), 2 eggs, 1 tsp baking soda, ground cloves and allspice in addition to the nutmeg and cinnamon.
O’Connor’s suggestion of 4 cups of flour corresponds nicely to Judson’s “in your judgment” prescription, and 50-60 at 375 minutes is plenty if using two 9×5 inch bread pans, greased and floured.
The results are surprising. When I made the cakes, after soaking the pork, I drained off the salty water, but added about a cup of fresh water (milk would work also) to make the batter moist enough to mix. The molasses gives the loaves a dark color, and the cake is dense, moist, but not overly sweet. Knobs of salt pork pop up in every other bite, and these are chewy, sometimes a little tough, but they unexpectedly complement the raisins and spice.
I made a light cream cheese frosting and this not only made it seem more dessert-like but helped to balance the flavors. The color and texture reminded me of those horrible fruitcakes that grandmothers everywhere pawned off on unsuspecting eaters. The concept is similar—a heavy “cake” that will fill you up and keep well, but without the burden of multicolored candied fruit, there is a slightly more authentic feel and taste to this classic New England dish.