Tracei Willis “Cornbread Musing and All Such As That”
Jiffy Mix is not cornbread. It is a lot of things, but cornbread it is not. It is a sweet treat, a snack for toddlers. It is not however, under any circumstances, meant to appear in a basket atop a linen napkin on a Sunday dinner table — not where I’m from anyway. Many a young housewife has been sent to Big Mama’s house for Cornbread Tutorial, and most were issued warnings from their husbands firmly stating, “Don’t come back here, til your cornbread taste like my mama’s.”
Don’t know who ever started the rumor that cornbread could be cooked in a casserole dish. A mess. They should just hang their heads in shame. Green Bean Casserole goes in a casserole dish, Macaroni and Cheese goes in a casserole dish, hell, you can cook Baked Beans in a casserole dish, just don’t cook your cornbread in a casserole dish. You know you was raised better than that! Cornbread can only be cooked properly in a cast iron skillet. Don’t argue with me about this, hush now, I know what I’m talking about. My mama said that her mama said, that Miss Aretha and them said, “The only way to get the right shade of brown on the bottom of your cornbread is in a cast iron skillet.” That’s it, that’s all. Now we all know you ain’t got one, not with that high yella bread you brought by here Sunday past. Gone on now, get you a cast iron skillet and come on back.
Cornbread Lesson #3:
I see you back, and you got yourself a 8-inch round cast iron skillet. I reckon that’ll due for now, but you’ll need a bigger one when you start fixing Sunday supper for the family. You ain’t got to worry none about that– it’ll be some time before anybody’s gone ask you to handle Sunday meals. Cornbread child, now focus. You’ll need two sticks of butter. Yes, two. Now one is going to go in the skillet, set that skillet in the oven, let that butter melt, let that skillet get warmed up. The other stick will go in the batter, yes the whole stick. Hush up all that talk about cholesterol, ain’t nobody asked you all that. Melt that butter and hush.
Cornbread Lesson #4:
The batter. Now, every housewife worth her salt has added a little something special to the basic cornbread batter to make it her own, to make her man remember that it might be somethings that he might expect her to do just like his mama, but in time he needs to understand that it’s somethings she has to do a little different than his mama so that he can learn to distinguish the difference in the two. Somethings mama just can’t do…
The basic batter contains, sweet milk (not 1%, not 2%, but 100% of the fat the cow put in it), butter (not margarine, oleo, or Believe It or Not), Sunflower self-rising cornmeal (don’t really matter if it’s yellow or white, but it does matter that it’s Sunflower), two brown eggs (yes, it matters), a pinch of salt, and a pinch of sugar, (just a pinch, this ain’t no damn Jiffy mix). Now most housewives got this batter part down to a science, no need in measuring stuff, just eyeball it. Mix it all up with a wooden spoon, in a plastic TupperWare bowl, it’s gone be the cornbread bowl, don’t go using it for nothing else. Now like I was sayin’, you gone need to make this batter your own, once you get to understanding what your husband got a taste for, and only you need to know that, don’t tell nobody else, else you want him to have a taste for they cornbread too.
My mama’s cornbread is known for its butteriness (because there is a whole stick of butter in the skillet and another whole stick of butter in the batter, just ain’t nothing like it, and cain’t nobody else make it the way she does it, nobody), my sister, Meme, thinks she’s got my mama’s cornbread down, but well, no… her cornbread is something, but mama’s it is not. My Auntie Baby Ruth, she puts a little spoon of Hellman’s mayo in her cornbread to make it moist, my Auntie Nig puts kernels of fresh sweet corn in hers to give it some substance, Auntie Shug, she puts a little taste of buttermilk in her cornbread for to give it a little twang. The farther south you go, seems like the more stuff folks put in their cornbread, like hot peppers and cheese, and the like– not bad, just not mama’s. Then there are the folks (usually them damn Yankees) who go and mess up stuff putting cinnamon in cornbread like it’s cake or something. Cornbread should not taste like cake. Cake should not taste like cornbread. Don’t get it twisted.
Cornbread can be served at any meal, and a really good cook knows it should be served at every meal.
Breakfast– Milk and Bread: crumble some leftover cornbread into a cereal bowl, cover with warm milk, or cut a slice of cornbread from a piping hot cast iron skillet, put it in a bowl and pour cold milk over it, either way, it is a creamy buttery treat enjoyed by everyone from just-now-crawling babies who are getting their first teeth to rocking-on-the-front porch grannies who haven’t put their teeth in for the day.
Dinner (also known as lunch to our Northern counterparts)–Cornbread and salt pork(also known as fatback) left over from cooking greens, always makes for a perfect midday snack. Slice up a tomato, a cucumber, or fry up a handful of okra, and call it a meal. Just enough to keep you until supper time.
Supper– Just make sure it’s on the table and make sure it’s hot. No, white bread won’t do, and neither will rolls, which are nice sometimes, but cornbread is a necessity, it’s not optional.
Cornbread is a versatile bread, it can be paired with any number of meats and essentially any vegetable, except maybe beets (beets don’t exactly lend themselves to being paired with much of anything). Cornbread and collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, most any greens, except maybe spinach, yeah, that’s a no-go every time. Cornbread and lima beans, green beans, cranberry beans, but without a doubt pinto beans… dry pinto beans, soaked overnight, and slow cooked all day in a crock pot, seasoned with a large yellow onion, a smoked turkey leg, two bullion cubes (chicken or beef), and a can of tomato paste (optional)–at the end the day, a big bowl with a cube of buttery cornbread at the bottom, covered with pinto beans and chunks of smoked turkey meat, with a fresh green onion pulled up out the garden on the way in the house sticking up out the side of the bowl, topped off with a coupla shots of Louisiana’s finest hot sauce–shut yo mouth! Somebody gone get made love to tonight. Hell yeah! Unless you mess around and don’t have some cornbread to go with them pinto beans, and then we liable to be hearing about the divorce of some pretty young thing who thought a roll or some white bread would be okay to serve with some pinto beans. Whoever heard of a roll in a bowl under some pinto beans? Be damned. She was raised by ungodly heathens, I’m telling you, that’s all it could be.
Bottom line up front:
Cornbread, it’s not just a side dish here in the South– it’s a necessity.