Cornbread is responsible for four of the seven pounds I’ve gained in the last 100 days. The market I slink around carries tiny loaves in packages of six and 12. I buy the 12 pack. Three and a half days later, they’re all gone. The cornbread is sweet and on the gooey side of moist and a tawny crisp web develops on top when toasted. Butter melts instantly and pools on the saucer. I carry it along with my cup of tea to a sheltering corner of the living room and, for the next ten minutes or so, the world outside pauses.
There’s a mix from Costco that produces the same type of sweet cornbread. I always buy two boxes because it’s not often available. Each package makes lasagna pan-size portions so I generally hold off until our Christmas party (last December marked the 40th). Every year I have to hide it until I’m ready to serve because the wife of one guest who has to be invited sneaks into my small narrow kitchen and stands in the way nibbling the bread straight from the pan.
“Just one more,” she laughs, inevitably reducing the pan to a half or even 3/4 of what it was.
I really try to understand and forgive her–that’s how delicious this cornbread mix is–but each year rips away another layer of good will.
My steadfast ardor for cornbread–enough to not mind four pounds of extra heft–is relatively new. The first time I tasted it was in Atlanta, Georgia at a luncheon for business women where my boss was attempting to help me network. It was a doomed effort–she didn’t understand yet how totally incompetent I would turn out to be as her assistant, nor the depth of my apathy to improve. But her effort was kindly and I tried to behave in a manner that showed enthusiasm, at least for the food–a tiny salad with a cherry tomato I sent bouncing across the table and chicken hidden under brown gravy with a piece of cornbread beached to the side. I remember it as a solid dry block that even butter could not improve. I hoped she didn’t see me hide it under my napkin.
For the year I lived in Atlanta, cornbread would show up at most places I ate–fast food outlets, country restaurants, community pot-luck fundraisers. I got to like it when soaked in gravy, but would never consider it weight-gain worthy.
It turns out that many people have firm beliefs about what cornbread is and should taste like, the different opinions breaking pretty neatly along the Mason-Dixon line. Lately, I’ve been thinking I should revisit my feelings because taste changes as you grow older and I was so very young and lost in Atlanta. Instead of hashing out all the recipes found online, I looked to Edna Lewis, one of my most cherished cooking idols, and took down her book, The Taste of Country Cooking. It is correct to say that she is the abiding spirit of black cooking. In this book she tells stories of growing up in Freetown, a small farming community in Virginia that was settled by former slaves, her grandfather among them.
The book is organized around the seasons with their varying farming rituals of planting and cultivating, harvesting and preserving. Her cornbread is in the autumn section, included in the menu for “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast.” A detailed description of that event is followed by recipes for sunny-side up eggs, black raspberries and cream, fried sweetbreads, country-fried apples, wild strawberry preserves and cornbread for sopping everything up or piling high with jellies and preserves.
Lewis’s recipe underscores the flavor of corn and deepens it by using lard in the batter. She also recommends adding another tablespoon to melt in the hot baking dish before pouring in the batter. This gives the bread an envious crispy edge that, as she writes, would cause “quite a bit of competition for these pieces when it was placed on the table.”
Edna Lewis’s Corn Bread
2 cups sifted white cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder *
3 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon lard
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups sour milk, or buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift cornmeal, salt, soda, and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Stir in the beaten eggs. At this point set the baking pan in the oven with the lard and butter added. Pour the sour milk into the cornmeal batter and stir well. Now remove the pan from the oven and tilt it all around to oil the whole surface of the pan. Pour off into the batter what fat remains. Mix well and pour the batter into the hot pan. Cornmeal batter must be poured into a sizzling hot pan, otherwise it will stick. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove and cut into squares. Serve hot.
Note: Sometimes we would add a tablespoon of lard to the baking pan and return it to the oven to heat. Then we would pour the batter in, forcing the extra fat into the corners of the pan. (When cooked, the corner pieces of bread would have a lacy, crispy edge and there would be quite a bit of competition for those pieces when it was placed on the table.)
A word about Royal Baking Powder: Lewis admitted that, even though she called for the brand to be used in her recipes, the brand was no longer available. She liked it because it contained cream of tartar and the company had found it too expensive to use. She didn’t approve of double-acting powder because, to her, it added a chemical taste. She suggested mixing 2 parts cream of tartar with 1 part baking soda beforehand then scoop out the same amount as the recipe called for.