Written by David Shields
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
The mid-19th century was the heyday of the fritter. A traditional dish of southern Europe and West Africa, the fritter was any ingredient incorporated into a batter of wheat, rice, or buckwheat flour, or corn meal, shaped into a roundish mass, and fried in lard or vegetable oil. A fritter could be savory or sweet, depending upon the chief ingredient incorporated into the batter. In Louisiana they were called beignets, in the Midwest, dodgers, in the south fritters. They were often dipped into a sauce, or melted butter, or gravy, or drizzled with syrup or molasses. Savory fritters were side dishes, sweet fritters, desserts. Both the cymling (pattipan squash) fritter and the okra fritter were standard dishes of the early southern table.
Squashes came to the southern table from the native nations of the Southeast. Of the various indigenous varieties of C. pepo grown in the eastern half of the continent, northerners gravitated to the crookneck ‘winter’ squashes, southerners to the scalloped summer squashes which they called cymlings. The exterior shell of the cymling hardens as it matures.
A Virginian of the Reconstruction Era advised, “In selecting cymlings take none that the thumb-nail cannot easily penetrate, and the white ones are preferable. Cut them into pieces, and boil in just enough water to cover them for about three-quarters of an hour, or until soft enough to mash.”
Cymlings were invariably boiled or fried as the first step in any dish. One of the great debates of the latter 19th-century about cooking squashes concerned whether to add bacon to the pot. Some thought it too greasy, others a necessary flavor additive. Since it does not appear in any surviving cymling fritter recipe, we sidestep the controversy.
After boiling and running through a colander, mix with an egg, season with salt, pepper, and butter, make into cakes and fry a light brown.
Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louis- ville: John P. Morton, 1879), p. 241.
Cut the okra in very thin slices, almost as thin as a wafer, make a batter of flour, egg, and water, or a little milk; put the okra in with a little salt, and fry them in hot lard.
Mrs. Sarah A. Elliott, Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1870), p. 106
Strain a quart already boiled, mash it smooth, and season with salt and pepper; beat in one or two eggs and add flour enough to thicken into a paste; fried as fritters, and served upon a napkin hot, as fried.
Sarah Annie Frost, Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (Philadelphia: Evans, Stod- dard Co., 1870), p. 184.