A craving struck me recently.
Wintry days make me hungry for soup, chili, brunswick stew and such and nothing better accompanies such delectables, in my mind, than a hot slice of golden cornbread, moist on the inside, and crispy on the edges.
Like so many wonderful Southern dishes, cornbread is an authentic “soul food.” Indians were cooking ground corn here for centuries but cornbread wasn’t perfected in America until the 1950’s when my mama started making it.
Mama mixed hers up in an aluminum pie plate and it was moist — greasy actually — golden brown on the outside and crispy on the curved edges. Many a time I’ve eaten a whole pan of it, each slice cleaved neatly and soaked with a generous dollop of butter. As the country comics say, eatin’ something that good will make your tongue almost beat your brains out.
Alas, my mother’s cornbread recipe has been lost to the fog of old age. Part of the reason is that there never really was a “recipe.”
Mama never referred to anything written while creating any of the delicious meals she prepared.
“Oh, I don’t know...” she’d say, “You just put in a pinch or two of this and about this much (gesturing) of that and....”
Her voice would always trail off and the actual methodology of her creations were never revealed.
Mama’s nearing 93 now, but when she was around mid-80s, it dawned on me that we better learn how to make her cornbread before the “secret” was lost to the mists of passing time.
We’re lucky to have two daughters-in-law who are excellent cooks and one took it on as a challenge, asking mama to stand next to her as she attempted to coax the memory of cornbread-making out of the fog. Several pans of passable cornbread later, it was decided that the family treasure, cornbread as moist, but crispy, like my mother’s, simply wasn’t going to be found again.
I nearly cried.
It seems good cornbread is getting harder and harder to find. Few restaurants serve it and, when they do, it’s nearly always disappointingly dry. Dry cornbread is an abomination.
There’s many varieties of cornbread, including some very good ones that are sweet, almost to the point of being cake-like. Those can be tasty but real cornbread isn’t sweet, it’s salty. Real cornbread doesn’t have peppers in it, nor, for heaven’s sake — broccoli?? If cornbread ever has to have a real bit of vegetable showing up, common sense should tell there’s only one that’s appropriate: corn! If you just have to add something else, well everyone knows a bit of pork makes everything better. Cracklin’ cornbread? You betcha!
Cracker Barrel’s muffins may be the closest found to mama’s cornbread — on a good day at the restaurant. They’re overbaked, too, sometime.
Thankfully, my craving has been temporarily relieved after an evening of good fellowship with friends. Delicious chili had the perfect complement last week. The black-skillet cornbread was a different strain altogether than mama’s, but, like the friend who baked it, several slices offered good looks, great taste and warm comfort aplenty.
Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham native who publishes weekly newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, Folkston, McRae and Forsyth. Email him at email@example.com.