I returned home from Austin’s newest farmer’s market on Saturday feeling a lot like my ancestors in slavery, but without the mad kitchen skills. The day began as a predictable, seasonal treasure hunt for fresh and local produce, cage-free eggs, maybe some grass-fed lamb, and a bar of my favorite lavender-scented handmade soap. The trip quickly turned into a lesson in industriousness and creativity when I encountered the folks selling domesticated Texas Yak.
I immediately started channeling my great, great, great grandmother and women like Mary, whose images graced the covers of recipe pamphlets and brochures at the turn of the twentieth century. While domestic scientists in the north, and plantation mistresses in the south were publishing cooking textbooks, like Mrs. Parloa’s New Cook Book, and “entirely original” journals, such as The Virginia Housewife, food manufacturers were printing recipe booklets to teach young cooks how to prepare their latest food inventions. Black cooks were right there in the mix, their images plastered on cookbooks and product labels as statements of culinary authenticity and authority.
The Farmer Jones Cook Book, printed in 1913, clearly reflected this. The collection included recipes for using sorghum syrup in bakery goodies, candies, ice creams, a few meats and vegetables, and a household remedy or two, to “reduce the high cost of living.” Sorghum molasses or syrup is a postassium-rich sweetener produced when sorghum cane is crushed and its juice is cooked down into a thick, dark syrup.
A statement inside the 26-page collection tells us the only thing we know about the cook selected by Farmer Jones to endorse the company’s brand of kitchen wisdom:
“The picture on the front cover is reproduced from life. ‘Mary’ is employed in the family of the Manager of the Fort Scott Sorghum Syrup Co., at Fort Scott, Kansas.”
I wondered what on earth women like Mary thought when they were told to cook unfamiliar foods and the stuff master didn’t want. (Not that the grass-fed, free-range Texas Yak I purchased was cheap like chittlin’s or something fisherman threw away, like catfish. It’s just that consuming Yak meat outside of Tibet is, well, rare; like eating camel.)
After a few rounds of inquiries on Facebook (thanks Leni) and a careful review of game cookery from some early American cookbooks, I did what I figured my ancestors would. I opted for a familiar treatment with trusted results: chicken-fried yak.
I know what you’re thinking. This approach seemed counter-intuitive to me, too. At first.
Yak is after all being promoted as a lean, sweet, delicately-flavored meat that is lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than beef, bison, elk, or even skinless chicken breast. It is so lean, it must be cooked at low temperature, according to Alicia Landin of Texas Yaks.
But I came home with cutlets (think: cube steaks), not filet. This is where industrious creativity kicked in. My family takes most of its meat off the grill. Roasting or pan-frying meats then smothering in a creamy gravy or serving fricassee might have been classic during Mary’s time, but the style is not so familiar in my household.
Surprisingly, the dish turned out to be a perfect choice for an old-fashioned Sunday supper. It came together quickly and easily, and only needed brown rice and a cool crisp salad to be complete. Preparation was quick — just 30 minutes from start to finish. That left enough time for me to whip up Mary’s gingerbread for dessert, accented with sorghum from the Texas Hill Country.
My original locavore ambition was accomplished. Maybe I have some skills after all.
Mary’s Sorghum Gingerbread
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
- 1 egg
- 1 cup sorghum syrup
- 1 cup lowfat buttermilk
- In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, soda, salt, ginger, and cinnamon. Set aside. Cream together butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beating until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until thoroughly mixed. With mixer running, pour in the sorghum and mix well, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Do not overmix. Pour into a nonstick 8×5-inch loaf pan, sprayed with nonstick vegetable spray. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven 45 to 50 minutes, or until a wood pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let rest in pan 10 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.
Number of servings: 12