Yesterday was my Grandma’s birthday. Minnie Velma Backus was born on March 2, 1898. If Heaven is the type of place from where our dear, departed loved ones look down and check out what we’re doing here on Earth, I hope she can see that I am doing my best to fulfill the promise I made to her. I promised her I would keep our family history alive. And in the process, I am writing a book.
Grandma was a sweet, sentimental woman and a saver of keepsakes. She kept little mementoes tucked away in envelopes in shoe boxes, in plastic cases in her chest of drawers, even in her sewing box. She saved letters from her son who served overseas during World War II. She saved every card a grandchild ever sent her, and even kept five pennies that my little cousin gave her as a present. She put them in an envelope and wrote “From Jennifer” on it in pencil.
A Keeper—In More Ways Than One
Most importantly to me, Grandma kept a letter that serves as the most important clue to our 19th Century family history. She carefully saved a letter written to my great-great-grandmother Caroline Grose in 1854 Virginia by a man who professed his love for her. The letter lasted through the Civil War—two battles of which were fought within 10 miles of Caroline’s family farm—and it even traveled without leaving home, surrounded by the freshly drawn border of the new state of West Virginia in 1863. It survived Caroline’s marriage to another man, my great-great-grandfather Frank, and was safely passed to her son Adam, his daughter Minnie and finally to me.
And now my historical novel “Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story” is in the works, taking shape every day at my desk as I type and look out at a perpetually snowy back yard. I could not realize my writing dream if it were not for Minnie Backus’ care and preservation of a true treasure. And so I celebrate her 116th birthday (she lived to be 95). In keeping with my promise to pass on our Backus family history, I will also share her corn pone recipe with you. Grandma was a great cook and her many specialties included this corn pone, a type of corn bread, which she oven baked in an iron skillet.
My cousin Kitty deserves full credit for saving what she calls “Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone” recipe. She is an outstanding keeper of family traditions. Before you begin to bake this, here’s an important note. It calls for “natural not degerminated” corn meal. So don’t buy the regular corn meal with the Quaker Oats guy smiling at you from the box. Natural corn meal, I have found out, is corn meal in which the heart or “germ” of the corn is ground into the meal rather than removed. I found this brand at my local super-duper-market.
Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone
- 4 cups corn meal (natural, not degerminated)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
Mix the above with hot water (not boiling) to a stiff mixture. Pat down with a spoon and leave on the stove near a pilot or warm place all night. In the morning, if it cracks when it’s stirred, it’s okay.
When ready to bake, add:
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup white flour
- 1 teaspoon (scant) soda
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 tablespoons sorghum molasses
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
Mix and bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. When you take it out of the oven, pour 1/2 cup water over the pone and cover it. The water over it while hot with the lid on makes it moist (a must).