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In Search of Short’nin’ Bread

Sep
9

Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’, Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.


My daughter took a fixation with this song a while back. You can’t get it out of your head now, either, hunh? Sorry…..

What is short’nin’ bread? She wanted to know. So we researched it and discovered there is really not a lot of clear documentation, at least not that anyone agrees on, but there are a lot of theories that you can find proposed around the internet. (Which is a sometimes good, sometimes iffy, source of information.) What can be ruled out, with most accord, is any relation to the Scottish shortening bread, or shortbread. On the family tree of world recipes, shortbread is on a different branch, despite the similarity of the monikers. The “short’nin’ bread” song, also with its own plethora of variations and unknown original authorship, is an old plantation song glorifying a dish that was popular in the pre- and immediate post-Civil War era in the slave (and subsequently former slave) population, and the most common concurrence is that it was a simple fried cornmeal-based treat.

Put on the skillet. Put on the lid. Mama’s gonna make a little short’nin’ bread. That ain’t all she’s gonna do. Mama’s gonna make a little coffee, too.

Sifting through the possibilities and historical perspective, I put together what I believe to be a suitably authentic reproduction recipe that marries both the ingredients that would have been available and the most basic understanding of the recipe’s concept–all with the notion of honoring the song and the population that created both the lyrics and the dish.

Three little babies lying in bed. Two was sick and the other ‘most dead. Sent for the doctor and the doctor said, “Give those babies some short’nin’ bread.”

Notice how simple the ingredients are–cornmeal, flour, salt, egg, baking powder, shortening, molasses, sugar, and water. Slaves would have used the least expensive grain available to them, which would most often be cornmeal, with the addition of some more refined flour in a smaller quantity if they had it. They either used baking soda or baking powder, but may have even made it at times without any leavening agent at all if it wasn’t available, sort of like a fried flatbread. The short’nin’ would have been lard, which they probably just called pig fat. They would have most ready access to some type of unrefined cane, such as molasses, for sweetener, but sugar isn’t entirely out of the question as an ingredient in times and places where it was available. Any sweetener at all is a debatable issue in this recipe as some quarters believe it to be a “poor man’s” cornbread, but the sense of the song tells another story–this was a treat. We’re thinking it was sweet! That, at least, is my theory, based on the song and its era and circumstances, and so is the direction I took when developing this recipe. Notice what the song is telling us. Children love it! SUGAR!! (Froot Loops, anyone?) It makes a man fall in love with a woman who knows how to make it. It’s worth going to jail over!

Slipped in the kitchen, slipped up the lid, slipped my pockets full of short’nin’ bread. Stole the skillet, stole the lid, stole the girl makin’ short’nin’ bread.

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How to make Short’nin’ Bread:

1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
2 tablespoons shortening (or go for it, use lard)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup molasses
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 cup refined white sugar, reserved*

Set water on to boil in a pot while you combine the rest of the ingredients except for the reserved sugar and start your oil heating in a skillet. (Use approximately one-half inch oil and set to medium heat. I used vegetable oil.) Add the boiling water. You want a consistency similar to pancake batter, so add a bit more (or less) water if needed for your mixture. (The point of the boiling water is to melt the shortening in the batter. You might want to go ahead and boil a full cup so you have extra if needed to get your batter to the right consistency. Three-fourths cup boiling water works reliably for me.) Test a small dab in the skillet to make sure you’ve got it hot enough to cook quickly, but not so quickly it will burn before it cooks through or before you can turn it. Adjust your heat as necessary and taste-test the the fried dab. Sweeten to taste–add the 1/4 cup sugar if it’s not sweet enough for you. Or, add half the 1/4 cup sugar and fry another dab to test; add more sugar (or molasses if you prefer to avoid refined sugar) until you’re satisfied.

Fry pancake-size rounds of batter, a few minutes on each side, to a golden brown. Drain on a plate on a paper towel.

Caught me with the skillet, caught me with the lid, caught me with the girl makin’ short’nin’ bread. Paid six dollars for the skillet, six dollars for the lid, stayed in jail six months eatin’ short’nin’ bread.


Serve immediately, warm, as a breakfast treat with a sprinkling of powdered sugar (similar to how you would serve funnel cake–the powdered sugar is entirely historically inaccurate and just for fun) and even additional syrup and fruit etc (as with pancakes). Or, serve as an easy dessert in a bowl with vanilla ice cream (again, not authentic, just a new way to serve an old-time taste). For the most authenticity, serve with no topping at all as a hand-held treat. It’s simply, fabulously delicious and surprisingly tender and almost cake-like (considering the lack of milk, the absence of which speaks to the frugality of the recipe). No wonder they made up songs about it! Though the whole going-to-jail thing over it might be overdone……..

Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’, Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.

See this recipe at Farm Bell Recipes and save it to your recipe box.

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on September 9, 2008  

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Comments

41 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 9-9
    4:44
    am

    I recently read something about molasses being used because it provides iron and minerals. I loved this post! That is one of my favorite silly songs, although I didn’t know all the lyrics. Thanks!

    :flying:

  2. 9-9
    5:41
    am

    Thanks for the recipe and the lyrics!! I sing the chorus to my little granddaughters all the time, now I can sing it when we make this recipe together. I love reading about life on your farm!

  3. 9-9
    7:09
    am

    What a great post! I learned something and now I’ve got a new recipe to try. (Although I think I’ll use butter instead of lard.)Thanks! And thanks to Princess for asking such an interesting question.

  4. 9-9
    7:44
    am

    Feed dem chillun on shawt nin bread!

  5. 9-9
    7:46
    am

    My Momma use to sing me that song when I was little. Now that it’s stuck in my head, I have a feeling I’ll be singing it to my little ones today.

    I think I’ll make this for our weekend “big breakfast”.

    Heidi

  6. 9-9
    7:47
    am

    well I’ll be.

    I just assumed it was shortening bread they were talking about in that song.
    But I honestly never put that much thought into it.
    weeeeeeird!

    The things you learn on the internet
    :typing:

  7. 9-9
    7:58
    am

    WHAT ABOUT CORN PONE ? ? ?
    I DON’T HAVE THE FOGGIEST AS TO HOW IT IS MADE – I THINK IT REQUIRED AN IRON SKILLET. I HAVE FOUR ALL DIFFERENT SIZES. “WOULDN’T TAKE A FARM IN GEORGIA FOR THEM.”

    YOU ARE THE GREATEST.

  8. 9-9
    8:01
    am

    Wow what amazing information. It looks very rich and yummy.

  9. 9-9
    8:16
    am

    To: MMHONEY
    I make cornpone all the time. It may not be the authentic recipe, but it sure is good with Pinto beans and juicy tomatoes.Actually, it’s good plain. Here’s all you do.
    recipe

    Self rising corn meal mix (no measurements)
    Buttermilk
    Heat a cast iron skillet with a small amount of grease in it over medium heat. Drop batter by spoonfull :hungry: s into the grease. Fry on one side till brown, turn, fry the other side.Serve hot.

  10. 9-9
    8:33
    am

    Wow – you really come up with some fascinating information. Princess, keep asking questions!!! You’ll be writing the blog next time I look. About the only thing I’m willing to make with cornmeal is Mexican cornbread, and only once in an era when I feel like taking the pots and pans out of my oven (isn’t that where you’re supposed to store them?). And even then, it comes in a packet from the store – just have to add egg, creamed corn, etc.!! But keep telling me about this stuff that you actually make yourself – I can dream!

  11. 9-9
    8:36
    am

    I’m a southerner. Never had any shortnin’ bread in my entire life – wouldn’t know it if it walked it in the room. But this looks delicious. It works for me! Good job on the research.

  12. 9-9
    9:34
    am

    Well-done Susanne! A recipe worthy of the song! I love your readiness to play! With goats and dogs- children – recipes- and of course, chickens! This is probably VERY close to the authentic bread- you have done your research well! BTW- I made the Burnt Sugar cake for my d-i-l’s birthday- it was a great hit! Thanks!

  13. 9-9
    9:42
    am

    Makes me want pancakes.

  14. 9-9
    9:59
    am

    That looks and sounds delicious, though once again something that will spike the blood sugar and close the arteries. You’re secretly trying to kill us all with these irresistible death recipes, aren’t you? Not everyone works off their breakfast by milking an ornery goat!

  15. 9-9
    9:59
    am

    I’ve never heard the song before, which is maybe good because now it can’t be stuck in my head.

    The post has history, cooking, and music. What’s not to love?

  16. 9-9
    10:23
    am

    Thanks for the recipe. It looks delicious.

  17. 9-9
    10:29
    am

    When the lyrics direct you to get out the skillet and the lid, some type of corn bread is the only thing I think of. I took a class on how to cook on an open fire and on the hearth. Cornbread in a skillet and chicken in a tin oven were on the menu.

    – Suzanne

  18. 9-9
    10:55
    am

    Molasses makes sense as it was often the sweetner of choice in the South and in the Carribean area where slavery took place primarily.

  19. 9-9
    10:57
    am

    RE: Overabundance of tomatoes – my grandmother made a preserve for breakfast use with tomatoes. It was yummy and sort of good for you too. If you find a recipe for sweet tomato preserves to put on homemade bisquits, let me know.

  20. 9-9
    11:17
    am

    I love your common sense reasoning and research. Until someone proves you wrong, I say this is the authentic recipe.

  21. 9-9
    12:23
    pm

    I’ve always liked that song–catchy tune. Never knew what Shortnin Bread was, though. It sounds a lot like Bannock, a bread made over an open fire in a pan. On our honeymoon (at Blackwater Falls, WV) DH made it over the fire in our cabin. Bannock is not sweet, but I guess with the addition of honey, molassas or sugar it could be. Goggle it and look at the recipes–very similar ingredients.

  22. 9-9
    12:26
    pm

    Your tomato harvest is SO wonderful! Are you going to can? Can’t wait to make Shortin’ Bread.

  23. 9-9
    1:04
    pm

    MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Researchers found advanced gum disease in 80 percent of adults studied for a major oral health study in Appalachia.

    The project by West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh tracked 445 families in both states.

    Richard Crout, associate dean for research at WVU’s School of Dentistry, said the study shows rampant periodontal disease in adults, with signs of bone loss in 85 percent of subjects.

    Left untreated, periodontitis can lead to bone destruction, tooth loss and even heart disease or stroke.

    West Virginia has the highest rate of tooth loss in the country, with a third of residents 35 or younger having lost at least six permanent teeth.

    Crout wants more resources for early dental treatment to instill good oral health habits.

    I think WV has a tooth monster in them thar woods.

  24. 9-9
    1:18
    pm

    Good heavens on that last post :shocked: I can’t remember the last time I heard a recipe call for lard. I remember finally throwing out my can of Crisco after hearing about it but it did make some cookies a lot better. I guess the stuff that’s not good for you always tastes better. And aren’t we all showing our age knowing that song roflmao.

  25. 9-9
    1:36
    pm

    Interesting! I am from Oakland CA and in the cornbread recipe variations, my O-town girls make “cold water cornbread”. Something I had never heard of. A bit like your recipe, but no eggs, and just a little sugar. Dropped by the spoonfull in fat and fried. Kinda like a pancake, kinda like a biscuit. Ask where the recipe came from… always the same answer, ohhhh guess my grannie made it. And ohhh are they good.

  26. 9-9
    2:10
    pm

    I sang that song in grade grade three choir (43 years ago ).We did it in the round.I drove my mother nuts by singing it over and over.She hated it.Then one day while she was doing the dishes I caught her singing it. Just shows what a catchy song it is .Thank you for the memory

  27. 9-9
    2:46
    pm

    So that’s what short’nin bread is. I was wondering. Now, do you have a recipe for tea biscuits? My mom used to make them when I was growing up and I loved them. She was from Tennessee and I have no idea where the recipe came from. I just remember they were round, flat, sweet and would get hard as a rock in a few days if you didn’t eat all of them. I used to stuff them in my pockets when she wasn’t looking.

  28. 9-9
    2:55
    pm

    Ack! I can’t think of anything but that song! *G* These sound alot like Johnny Cakes. Yum!

  29. 9-9
    3:22
    pm

    Grrr! I won’t get that song out of my head for days now!

    Great research and recipe, though. :thumbsup:

  30. 9-9
    3:58
    pm

    :mrgreen: Oh how I remember that song!
    It almost looks like “Hot Water cornbread”. I LOVE Hot Water cornbread, with white cornmeal. They use the boiling water/form it in pones, and fry…
    And it looks similar (except for the sweetner/frying) to Spoon Bread, in Maya’s cookbook…I was trying to see if she offered anything, being as she is from that history…and Spoon Bread was what she offered.
    You sure have alot of PATIENCE Suzanne…today, I almost decided to NEVER bake again, after I tried my Caramel Cake recipe..I’ll post about it on the Forum. LOL :mrgreen:

  31. 9-9
    4:12
    pm

    Sounds yummy!

  32. 9-9
    4:31
    pm

    How do you not weigh a million and two pounds??? You have the most delicious recipes.
    Also…the flower chore boots rocked. :shimmy: I’m just saying.
    And I wondered about the goat bondage. But I see your tag explained that.
    Everybody okay there with all the hurricane mess?
    Grins,
    Crystal*

  33. 9-9
    6:54
    pm

    :fryingpan: ok, I can’t get it out of my head, thanks very much, but at least now I have some more words to it. My mom still makes “hot water cornbread” every now and then, but I’ve never had shortnin bread. Thanks for the info. Can’t wait to tell mom.

  34. 9-9
    7:29
    pm

    We always just called regular cornbread a ‘pone’ when baked in cast iron skillet. Old Man bakes one just about every day.
    For a medium sized skillet… first set oven to 375 degrees and place the skillet with 3 tablespoons of oil inside oven to get oil hot. Now mix in a bowl 3cups self rising cornmeal, 2 eggs, enough milk to make a thick batter. We don’t use sugar. check skillet to make sure oil is hot enough to put a skald on the bread when the batter hits the hot oil. Oil is hot enough if you can flick a little(very little) water and the oil sizzles and pops. The scald is what gives the bottom of the bread a crisp crust. You bake it until the top gets a golden brown and toothpick comes out clean when stuck in middle. In our families cornbread and biscuits are the main homemade breads we do almost dailey.

    Jodie, I’ll post my Sweet Tomatoe Preserves recipe on the forum under “What are you canning”

  35. 9-9
    8:18
    pm

    ooops… as soon as you take skillet out of oven cover skillet with a plate that overlaps top and turn flip bread out much as you would a cake. This puts the crusty bottom on top. If left in the skillet the steam would soften the crust.

  36. 9-9
    9:57
    pm

    Hi,

    I just voted for your excellent blog for the Bloggers Choice Awards.

    Could you please return the favor at:

    http://www.bloggerschoiceawards.com/blogs/show/21620

    Thanks,

    SpEdLaw2 :hungry:

  37. 9-9
    10:45
    pm

    Suzanne,
    You are the wizard of the kitchen. You not only make the food, but you take such appetizing pictures that make me yearn to eat everything. Thank you, you rock girl! xxoo

  38. 9-10
    8:32
    am

    Hi Suzanne-I have a technical question. In your short’nin’ bread research, was there mention of using honey instead of molasses?

  39. 9-10
    8:48
    am

    Hi, Lisa! No, I didn’t find any references to honey connected to short’nin’ bread. However, it fits in the spirit of the dish, which was to use whatever was available to concoct a frugal but tasty treat. A cane sugar syrup was the most readily available sweetener. Honey would give a different taste than molasses, but I bet it would be great!

  40. 9-10
    10:26
    am

    I used to sing that song when I was little just for the fun of it. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time. And I never made or had any in my life. I think I will try it and surprise my husband. This is right down his alley! :hungry:

    Thanks for sharing!

  41. 10-13
    3:49
    am

    Hmmmmm, this stuff CAN’T be good for you!! Notice that everyone that ate shotnin’ bread during the Civil War era is DEAD? Huh, did you think of THAT?

    Huh, did ya’?

    Graveyards FULL of shotnin’ bread victims, I just knows it.

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