This Southern Delicacy Leaves Much to Chew On

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In the early 1950s, Lucinda Moore founded a church ministry from her home in Blount’s Creek, N.C. The property anchored the charity work she became known for: nursing sick people back to health in her house, giving needy people the clothes that hung in her closet, leading religious ceremonies in the church she helped build in the backyard and cooking dozens of meals every Sunday with staples like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and a favorite of the congregation, chew bread.



Some of that community service stopped when she died in 2004 at 106 years old. But in 2019, Mrs. Moore’s granddaughter Hazel Moore took up her grandmother’s work and began to cook every Sunday again at St. Cindy’s Holiness Church, chew bread included.

“It goes like wildfire,” said Terrani Moore, Mrs. Moore’s great-granddaughter.

Mrs. Moore did not read or write, Terrani Moore said, so her family kept track of her cooking cues and measurements to write down the recipe for a household cookbook called “Through Thy Blessings.”

Chew bread is a treat similar to a dense blondie that can be found in Black Southern households and at church functions. Though its roots are murky, chew bread may have stemmed from sharecroppers, like Lucinda Moore, who learned to make a dessert with the leftover ingredients the landowners gave her to cook for her seven siblings. Many people added pecans that fell from nearby trees.

The dessert goes by other names, too, like cornbread cake, or chewies in South Carolina. (The treat has no relation to the candy Charleston Chew.) Chewies were made frequently by the Gullah Geechee people for birthday parties, Christmas and other celebrations, said Kardea Brown, the host of “Delicious Miss Brown” on the Food Network and the author of the cookbook “The Way Home: A Celebration of Sea Islands Food and Family With Over 100 Recipes.”

She said the Gullah Geechee, descendants of West Africans in America’s southeastern coast, created the dessert with bare-bones pantry staples because their isolation made it challenging to access some ingredients.

Ms. Brown, of Charleston, S.C., grew up on her great-aunt’s version of chewies.

“She made them with nuts and lots and lots of butter,” Ms. Brown said. “It was so sweet and buttery that it kind of stuck to the roof of your mouth.”

David S. Shields, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and an author of “Taste of the State: South Carolina’s Signature Foods, Recipes, & Their Stories,” said chew bread was first mentioned in the Greensboro Daily News in 1962. He believes that people likely were making candy, like a pecan praline, and added flour to make it more nutritious and easier to handle.

Tracey Whitlock remembers her mother, Pattie King, buying tin canisters from the dollar store in Wilson, N.C., to fill with squares of chew bread for visiting family members. Mrs. King discovered the dish in a community cookbook purchased at a church fund-raiser.

“We hadn’t heard of chew bread,” said Ms. Whitlock, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla. But her mother tried the recipe and made it her own by adding ingredients like raisins or coconut to it. “It became a family tradition.”

In the mid-1980s, Doretha Mitchell served chew bread among other desserts, cakes and pies at the neighborhood supermarket along Interstate 95 she owned with her husband.

Her chew bread was popular with tourists driving between New York and Florida, but it was also an everything bread for her family at home. There, she served the semisweet and dense chew bread to her son Ed Mitchell and grandson Ryan Mitchell as an after-school treat as well as to sop up the gravy from savory dishes like smothered turkey wings. And, naturally, she brought it to church functions at the Suggs Christian Temple Church in Wilson, N.C.

For a fancier Sunday dinner, Ms. Mitchell would mix a homemade caramel sauce into her chew bread batter. She made the caramel with the Sugar Daddy candies that were aging on her store’s shelves. It was her grandson Ryan’s favorite candy. The Mitchells added the recipe to their cookbook, “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.”

That Sunday version, Ryan Mitchell said, “would be like heaven to me.”

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