(or "Stage Planks")

A while back I got an email from a lady named Kitty, with an unusual request. When she was a little girl, her Creole grandmother and great-grandmother made a stiff, dense gingerbread which they called "estomac mulâtre"; unfortunately, neither she nor her mother had learned how to make it. When she wrote, she was 5 months pregnant and seriously craving the estomac mulâtre of her childhood. Did I know of a recipe?

"Mulatto's stomach"? What a weird name for gingerbread. I'd never heard of it, and a Google search only turned up a single reference on the entire web, a passing reference on the Crescent City Farmer's Market site. No recipe, nothing.

I was going to ask my grandmother if she'd heard of it (which, if it was a black Creole dish, might not have been likely), when I got an idea. I might just have the answer right there on my bookshelf.

The Picayune Creole Cookbook to the rescue! This is a reprint of a 1901 cookbook of Louisiana French cooking (now in the public domain) that had been published by the New Orleans Picayune, precursor to today's Times-Picayune. It's huge, with hundreds and hundreds of old recipes, although not terribly well indexed. I started doing a little digging ... and lo and behond, Estomac Mulâtre was in the Cakes section (go figure), listed in English as "Ginger Bread Without Butter and Eggs".

It also gave the alternate non-Creole name for the dish, which was "stage planks". Wow! Now it all clicked! I remember getting dark, molasses-y ginger cookies at my grandparents' grocery store down in the Bywater, presumably a local brand (although I don't remember what it was), that were called "Stage Planks".

I emailed the recipe to Kitty, and she was thrilled; a nice little bit of old Creole tradition now continues in her family. Let's continue the tradition here.

I've converted some of the amounts to more modern measurements, and rewrote the recipe as best as I could (century-old recipes tend to be vague on technique sometimes). The wording of the 1901 recipe was, ah ... rather politically incorrect by 2001 standards, but I've left the wording intact.

This bread makes the famous "stage planks" or ginger cakes, sold by the old darkies around New Orleans, in the old Creole days, to those of their own race and to little white children. The ancient Creoles, fond of giving nicknames, gave to this stiff ginger cake the name of "Estomac Mulâtre", or "The Mulatto's Stomach", meaning that it was only fit for the stomach of a mulatto to digest.

1 Cup of Molasses
1 Cup of Sour Milk (buttermilk?)
1 Tablespoonful of Ground Ginger
1 Gill of Lard (1 gill = 1/2 cup, or 4 ounces)
3 Cups of Flour
1 Teaspoonful of Baking Soda
Melt the molasses, lard and ginger together and blend well. When thoroughly melted and warmed, beat for about ten minutes. Then dissolves the soda in a tablespoonful of boiling water and add to the molasses; mix it thoroughly, and then add the flour, using good judgment and adding just enough of the three cups of sifted flour to make a still batter; beat thoroughly and vigorously. Have ready several greased, shallow pans; pour the mixture into them and bake for ten minutes in a quick oven.
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Chuck Taggart   email chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com