Jim Coleman | What's in a pone? Sweet potatoes & more

Posted: May 03, 2007

Q. Hi Jim,

I got a recipe for Sweet Potato Pone with Grand Marnier Cream and Blackberries from your "Flavors of America" (TV show) Web site and I would like to make it.

But . . . what's a pone? A pie filling? Thanks and keep up the good work.

- Ashley S.

A. Ashley, I'll have to be honest with you. Before I came up with this recipe I didn't know what a "pone" was either.

When I was younger I used to think I knew quite a lot about food and its history. Now that I'm a little older . . . OK, OK, now that I'm close to middle age . . . OK, OK, now that middle age is popping up in my rear view mirror (the truth hurts), one thing has become clear. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don't know. But I take a lot of pleasure in finding out about food and sharing that information with people who want to know more about it. That's a long way of saying, I'm glad you asked, Ashley.

When I developed this recipe, I had heard of the term pone and it intrigued me. Being young and hip (as I have already established), I did what all MTVers do - I went to the dictionary. Well, actually someone young and hip would use an online dictionary; I dragged out the old reliable one, the 37-pound, "I could squash an army of armadillos if I dropped this from the top of a ladder" dictionary.

I was delighted to discover that I have definitely been a pone and hope to be one again someday soon.

Let me explain. According to the first definition, a pone is the card player on the dealer's right who cuts the cards.

Then the dictionary listed Pone as a place in Texas, which I should have guessed because just about every recorded word is also the name of a place in Texas. Go ahead - pick a word. I guarantee it's on the Texas map somewhere.

The last definition was what I was looking for, and one that I did a lot more research on.

Pone began as a type of cornbread cooked in hot ashes by Native Americans and became a staple of the early European colonies all the way from north of New England to south of Virginia. The newcomers used griddles to prepare this dish, which in the north became known as johnnycake (in the South the term pone, or cornpone stuck). As America developed more distinct regions, other names like ashcake, batterbread, battercake, and hoecake evolved.

When the unfortunate business of the slave trade began bringing Africans to North America, the Africans started cooking and experimenting out of necessity with the food items and techniques they found here.

A new cuisine developed as they reinvented many of their traditional preparations. In their homeland, Africans enjoyed a dish called fufu, which is a type of griddlecake made from boiling water, flour (or other starches) and other ingredients.

Yams were also a popular food on that continent. When African slaves were brought to America, they discovered a similar food native to this hemisphere: the sweet potato. Eventually they created a new style of pone or griddlecake by substituting yams for corn, and the sweet potato pone was born.

I think you'll like the "Flavors of America" recipe, and I've also included a simpler, baked version of sweet potato pone that you might enjoy trying.

Both preparations are more like a spoonbread or pudding than a cornbread. I named the second one after you so you can astound all your guests with your knowledge about this dish and its history. *

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