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Mama's cornbread
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Ronda Rich

The other day I made cornbread and as I did, I spent time with Mama. She was there by my side as clearly as the times that, as a child, I watched her make it.

Whenever I sew, make biscuits, cornbread or scrap a bowl clean down to the last speck, I remember Mama and all she taught me. I was three when I started climbing up on the stool on which she sat as she sewed. I stood behind her, my hands on her shoulders, peeping over and watching every stitch she made.

Now whenever I sew on a button or hem a skirt, she is there with me. Even when I thread a needle that requires me to cut the thread at an angle, hold it up to a light and precariously labor to dart it into the eye, I can see her doing the same thing so many times so many years ago.

My aunt was sick so I was making Mama’s chicken soup and a batch of cornbread muffins. Aunt Kath is from the mountains, too, so I figured she would appreciate the taste of the cornbread made Mama’s way.

This requires bacon grease. Mama loved bacon grease. Most of the time, her house hung heavy with the smell and often when Dixie Dew, my dachshund, stayed with her, she smelled like bacon grease when she came home.

Mama used so much bacon grease that she never had to refrigerate it. She kept it in a container on the stove. She fried eggs in it, seasoned greens with it and poured it into biscuits and cornbread. She was 80 before the abundant use of bacon grease forced her into a stint and 85 before she had bypass surgery. After the stint, though, she cut back on the grease and grudgingly followed the doctor’s order of vegetable or canola oil.

Sometimes she would make a face when she ate something where she had used oil as a substitute. “This ain’t nearly as good without bacon grease.”

“That bacon grease is what got you into this situation in the first place,” I’d reply.

“Hush. I don’t want to hear it,” she’d reply with an ugly frown.

I have always used hard Crisco in my biscuits and either butter — a trick I learned from my friend, Karen — or vegetable oil in my cornbread. Since I don’t use as much bacon grease, I refrigerate mine, mainly used for making wilted salad. This, of course, I learned from Mama and now it is a trendy favorite of five-star restaurants.

It’s simple: tear up a soft, leafy lettuce, cut up onion then pour hot bacon grease over it to wilt it. Trust me, if there was anything to be done with bacon grease, Mama figured it out.

While I was making cornbread, I remembered something else. Mama would pour buttermilk in the cornbread or biscuit batter then add water. I have always made mine completely with buttermilk and don’t dilute it with water. Suddenly, something came to me. Funny how memory or knowledge is stirred up by the stirring of a spoon.

It was, I realized, Mama’s mountain thriftiness that had led her to using half water and half buttermilk. In times that were hard and where one milk cow had to quench the thirst of 10 people, they watched every drop.

She had never stopped to explain. Not once as she taught me to make biscuits or cornbread did she say, “Now, save your milk because water works just as good.” Although, she did stress the importance of getting every speck of batter out of the bowl because “I used to see my friend, Margaret, waste money by not scrapping the bowl.”

I stopped for a moment and remembered the poor people from which I come. Then, I took the bowl of cornbread batter over to the sink and added water. 

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Let Me Tell You Something. Visit to sign up for her free weekly newsletter