Corn cakes and turkey gravy? Let me explain…
In my bride’s family birthdays are celebrated with endurance and fanfare. In fact, my bride’s late father preferred to think of birthdays as commemorative seasons, not days at all. Celebrating for anything less than a week was simply barbaric in his estimation.
So, over the last decade I’ve become accustomed to multiple birthday celebrations, abundant gift-giving and the family birthday dinner: game hens, artichokes and mashed potatoes or rice followed by birthday cake. For my vegetarian bride swordfish is substituted for a game hen, but few other exceptions are made.
Tradition is tradition. Comfort food is comfort food. These are the givens.
Most families enjoy revered meals steeped in nostalgia and embraced generation after generation. And yet my family’s most traditional comfort food, corn cakes and turkey gravy, provokes looks of bewilderment and lame excuses when I invite friends to experience meal.
Care to Try Corn Cakes and Turkey Gravy?
Conjured out of Thanksgiving and Christmas leftovers, neither holiday is complete without the lumpy griddle fried cakes and rich turkey gravy, thick with chunks of leftover turkey. Eaten for lunch or dinner, the meal is filling, tasty and a delightful flashback to the autumns and winters of my childhood.
Over the years I have introduced countless friends to this quirky combination of ingredients. And though most have been polite, few have devoured the meal or asked for the family recipe.
My bride’s recent phone call with her mother offers the typical response to my corn cake and turkey gravy invitations.
“Why don’t you join us for corn cakes and turkey gravy on Sunday,” Susan asked.
“Corn cakes and turkey gravy?”
“You’ve never had them? Oh, it’s a tradition in George’s family…” Susan went on to explain the dish.
“Hmmm, that sounds interesting, but…” It was clear to me that my mother-in-law’s interesting was akin to, “Are there any other options?”
So we ate steak with leftover mashed potatoes and green beans. Delicious.
Craving Corn Cakes…
But on Monday evening I fired up the griddle and prepared corn cakes and turkey gravy. Leftover mashed potatoes, green beans and Brussels sprouts rounded out the meal (as did a mind massaging Chardonnay from South Africa.)
I got carried away and prepared enough corn cakes and turkey gravy to eat all week! Now, who can I invite over for the leftover-leftovers so that they can politely demur when I offer then seconds?
I suspect there’s a forgotten history explaining my family’s post-Thanksgiving and post-Christmas culinary comfort food, but I’ve been unable to ferret it out. Yet.
Time to Interview Mom
I’m pretty certain that the tradition comes from my mother’s family, so I’ll pose a few questions to the world’s best (and my favorite) mom, Melissa Davis.
Me: Is it fair to say that I inherited my appetite for corn cakes and turkey gravy from your side of the family?
Mom: Yes, I don’t know anyone else who ate them other than the Duvalls, so from my side via my mother.
Me: Do you know anything about the origins of corn cakes and turkey gravy?
Mom: No, just that my grandmother Lela made them. Or I thought she did. I suppose my mom could have made them up!
Me: Did you eat corn cakes and turkey gravy as a child or did the tradition start later?
Mom: We always ate them the same way we Davises now do, following a turkey dinner (which for us Wellers was the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas meal). We would also have them if we had a random turkey meal at other times of the year. I’m trying to remember if my Aunt Margaret Liggett (my granny’s sister who lived near us in Colorado) also made them. I vaguely think so which would increase the chances that they came from that side of the family. They were daughters of a union of a Swedish American and an Irish American.
Me: Did you actually enjoy corn cakes and turkey gravy the first few times you ate it?
Mom: I can’t remember the first time I had them, but I loved the meal always. For a while when I was little, I preferred them to the first meal of the turkey. I loved the holidays because I knew the corn cakes and turkey gravy inevitably would follow!
Me: When you serve corn cakes and turkey gravy to people for the first time, how do they tend to react?
Mom: Politely but without enthusiasm! Our guests on Friday were complimentary, but only one person ate seconds. Do you remember when I fed them to your college Christmas visitors? They were all polite, but I don’t remember anyone gobbling them up. I can hardly think of anyone to whom we introduced this fabulous meal who genuinely liked them!
Me: What do you consider the best accompaniment for corn cakes and turkey gravy?
Mom: Browned leftover mashed potatoes or hash browns (so you can add the gravy to them) and a green salad. If you like cranberry, it’s a good place to get rid of the leftover cranberry sauce. I don’t especially!
Me: Can you offer any special tips on how to prepare corn cakes and turkey gravy?
Mom: I have always just used the basic Joy of Cooking pancake recipe, cut back on the sugar amount and added canned corn. I’ve doubled it without problem and added a second can of corn. I use any leftover gravy from the main meal and make new gravy from the first round of “stocktaking” off the turkey bones. I also add lots of leftover meat if it is for our family. I don’t always make it as meaty for guests since the meat seems to be off-putting to some.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Herman, admitted an enduring fondness for corn cakes and turkey gravy while confirming the maternal family link, and he offered a possible clue.
I wonder if they were a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe Mom discovered. ~ Herman Weller
Perhaps. Or Swedish-Irish. Or just a creative way to get kids to eat leftovers?
It worked. I still love them! What’s your family’s comfort food?