- Hannah Mary's Corn Pone
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Sweet potatoes flourish in sandy soil. Strawberries announce the advent of spring. Figs sweeten the landscape in August. Canada geese flock to harvest cornfields in winter. Oysters, drum fish, mullet, clams, and spot add a signature dimension to coastal tables, but so, too, do local preparations for stewed pork and pumpkin, black duck and dumplings, peas and doughboys, and sweetened cornbread. The foodways of the coastal South offer a lot more than seafood.
Corn pone, as regional fare and culinary concept, covers a good deal of territory, but Hannah Mary's pone offers a glimpse into a dish well seasoned with Eastern Shore associations that embrace relations between the well-to-do and the poor, black and white, and memory and practice. Hannah Mary's pone is not to [End Page 151] be confused with cornbread or its corn pone variations. Hers bore only the most distant relation to the familiar miniature cornbread loaves baked in cast iron pans, each pone embossed with the impression of a shucked ear of corn. These corn pones, typically chokingly bone dry beyond the redemption of all liquid, offer something of a dim caricature of their origins as ashcakes baked in hot coals at fire's edge. Happily, these baked asphyxiations are not the only pones in the world, nor are those other pones without their own extraordinary histories. "Pone" (from the Algonquin apan), as encountered and adapted by Africans and Europeans in the early 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay country, designated bread baked by American Indians. Over time and habit, it acquired more specific reference to cornbread of the American South.
Recollecting her childhood in the town of Lewes at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Sarah Jastak (born Sarah Ellen Rickards) recounted the weekly appearance in the 1930s of an African American huckster, Hannah Mary Burton. Hannah Mary's route carried her from her modest clapboard home in the black community located across the railroad tracks, past the high school, and onto McFee Street, where she sold pone, pies, and a bit of garden produce to a white clientele. "She had a wagon pulled by one horse, and you could hear that horse clip clopping down the street," Sarah begins. "It was just an open old wooden wagon. It just looked creaky and very, very rustic, and I don't even remember how she had her baked goods stored. Maybe boxes or something, but nothing fancy." Wistfulness inflects Sarah's words, spoken with a smile:
She was a lovely lady . . . And once or twice I tasted her pies, but we really couldn't afford them because we always made those at home. But Hannah Mary made what she called a "corn pone," and it was huge. [I]t was certainly more than a foot round and about six, seven inches deep. I don't know exactly how she made it, but I know it took cornmeal and molasses and water. I don't know what else she put in it, but I know she baked it. She had an old cookstove range that was wood burning or coal burning, but she would bake it probably for about six hours. And she used to make just one and she would sell it in chunks . . . We didn't get it every week, but when we bought it, we would always get a quarter of it, and, boy, was it good! You cut it in slices and then either steamed it with lots of butter or you cut it in slices and kind of sautéed it on each side and had it with eggs and bacon. That was good!1 [End Page 152]