After living in the South for several years, a thought occurs to me: How is it that I love hominy? How is it that I first tasted this Southern ambrosia while I lived in Indiana?
I think I know the answer. I will begin with some family history. I’ll get to the hominy later.
My grandfather, Frank J. Haight, was in the right profession at the right time. He was an actuary in the time after the First World War and through the Second World War. He used demographic information about people, like their age, their profession, their location and so forth, to make a projection about their future. Specifically, how long they would live. Life insurance companies bought that information from him and used it to set rates for their clients.
Actuarial science is vital to the life insurance industry — then and today. My grandfather formed his own actuarial company, Haight, Davis & Haight, with offices in Omaha and Indianapolis. His company is legendary among actuaries, which isn’t saying all that much.
In the early 20th century, life insurance was a relatively novel item, but two world wars did a lot to focus peoples’ attention on their future and their families. So life insurance companies sold sufficient policies between 1914 and 1950 to make my grandfather a somewhat wealthy man. He wasn’t rich as Croesus, but he was more than comfortable.
He bought a house in a fashionable area of Indianapolis. He — and his family — were listed in Dau’s Blue Book. He hired a maid and a chauffeur. He had a Pierce-Arrow. They ate from fine china plates with sterling flatware. His son and daughters went to private schools. And then to expensive colleges and he footed the bill. He had the means.
After the Second World War, his fortunes, and his health, declined. I was born in 1948 and he died in 1950. I cannot remember him.
However, I recall the maid, and I have a dim vision of the chauffeur. They must have been discharged around 1952, or soon thereafter, when family finances tightened. The maid had come to Indiana from the South during the Great Migration. And from her, I believe my grandmother got recipes that were purely “Southern.”
The two that have come down to me are green beans with fatback, garlic and onion, and hominy. My grandmother spoke about “hog ‘n’ hominy.” Pork goes well with hominy. It was a simple dish: Saute the chops and when they are about done, add hominy to the pan.
My grandmother — Nana — grew up on a farm in Augusta, Michigan, not too far from Kalamazoo. For her to know how to cook hominy would have been questionable, as well as green beans with fatback, garlic and onion. Nonetheless, from her daughter — my mother — that’s how I learned to cook those items. And I came along after the maid. And when I was young, breakfast was sometime grits.
Now where would a Northern gal, like my grandmother — or her daughter — learn to cook grits? Or green beans with fatback? Or hominy?
From their maid.
So much for the family history. I believe my grandmother — and I — learned to cook southern style from a black woman who came north around 1930 to look for a better life.
I hope she found it.
And here’s my updated recipe for Tex-Mex hominy. Omit the cumin and cayenne for a more authentic Southern style.
1 can hominy, either white or yellow
1 tablespoon butter
¼–½ teaspoon cayenne powder, to taste
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
¼ cup chicken broth
Salt & pepper
Shredded cheese (optional)
Green onions (optional)
Drain water from can of hominy.
Treat skillet with non-stick spray and set over medium heat. Add butter. Before butter foams, add hominy to pan and stir to distribute.
Sprinkle the hominy with cumin, cayenne, onion powder. Add salt & pepper to taste. Stir to distribute.
When it seems that everything will dry out, reduce heat to very low and add chicken broth, a little at a time. Stir to spread broth. When evaporated, or absorbed, add the remaining chicken broth.
Serve with shredded cheese or green onions, if desired.
The Rev. Jeff Briere is minister of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.