“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”—Thomas Keller
As the temperatures drop (That is going to happen, right? Summer is going to end? Eventually?), my thoughts turn to comfort food. Something to keep my belly warm and satisfied. Many dishes from my childhood fall under the umbrella of “comfort food,” but one I keep returning to is my grandmother’s cornbread.
There was almost always a pan of cornbread to be found at Grandmother’s house. If it wasn’t just out of the oven and sitting on the stove to cool, it was already sliced and stored in individual, foldover sandwich bags on the counter ready for someone to grab and add to their meal, or have as a snack. To this day, it is not unusual for me to find myself sitting at the wooden table that is situated in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen, eating a slice of cornbread as she pads around the small space, offering up every foodstuff she has at her disposal.
“You hungry? Let me warm up some of these beans for you. How about some vegetable soup? Can I slice up a tomato for you? They’re real good with some salt. Just right. Mary brought me a cake yesterday, let’s have us a little bite of it. It’ll be good with some coffee. I’ll put a pot on. I bet those girls will want a Little Debbie. Let me get ‘em down for you.”
Y’all, my grandmother has a whole cabinet of just Little Debbies. My memories and thoughts about that cabinet could be a story all on its own. Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling it. For now, suffice it to say that my grandmother, at 90 years old, has a heart of gold and a focused, solitary purpose to feed her people, through their bellies and their souls.
“Sit down!” I say. “I’m really not even hungry, I just want to visit for a minute.”
The kids basically have their entire upper bodies in the Little Debbie cabinet, and I’m hoping they’re going to choose something that I’ll want a teeny bite of and can later pretend I didn’t actually ingest. I’m still not hungry, but we all know that hunger is not a prerequisite for what is arguably America’s best snack cake.
All the family members and friends that pass through this small, wooden box of a kitchen get the same special treatment. We also get the same cornbread, even though each person enjoys it a little differently. One of my uncles prefers it crumbled in a bowl of cold milk. My cousin wants it drizzled with honey. My mom likes to find the crunchy pieces along the edges of the pan. My personal favorite is to have it when it’s hot out of the oven. I want it cut in a triangular piece, like pie, then sliced lengthwise, so that the middle can be smothered in butter that melts down into the bread and drips out of the sides.
So maybe it’s not the healthiest choice I could make, but it sure is delicious.
The cornbread might be consumed in many different ways, but it is always, always served up in a cast iron skillet. Grandmother had several of these pans, in various sizes, shapes, and ages. She recently started thinning out her collection and gave a few of her pans away. My sister and I are both recent recipients of one of Grandmother’s cast iron skillets.
When she first gave it to me, I admittedly didn’t know what to do with it. It looked like a clunky relic stacked in my cabinet among the many smooth and shiny non-stick pots and pans. Since all I’d ever seen cast iron used for was cornbread, I sort of had the idea that maybe that was all anyone ever made in it! I’m not much of a cook, and I consume carbs sparingly, so whipping up a pan of cornbread wasn’t really a priority. But when my sister brought a pan of heavenly skillet brownies to a family get-together (totally worth the carb count, by the way), it opened my eyes to the idea that the cast iron skillet might be capable of more, much more.
The benefits of cast-iron cooking are pretty considerable. In an era when many of us are trying to eat clean and return to a more natural way of preparing food, cast iron is right in line with this movement. Cast iron is a naturally non-stick material and needs minimal cleaning. The material is basically indestructible and will last for generations, never needing to be replaced. But if you did need to replace it, it’s an incredibly low-cost choice. A well-made 10” cast iron skillet should only set you back about $30.
As long as you give it enough time to heat up, cast iron cooks very evenly, and can go from stovetop to oven and back again. Just be sure to use a hot pad to transfer it, because nothing puts a damper on a loving family meal quite like 3rd-degree burns. A cast iron skillet can even improve your health because it actually adds safe amounts of iron to your food. Many of us have iron deficiencies, but last time I checked, no one is suffering from lack of Teflon in their diet!
Another benefit of the cast-iron skillet, and I haven’t tested this out just yet, is that this thing would be an excellent weapon, should you ever find yourself in a situation that you need to knock someone out, or defend yourself against a rabid animal that has wandered into your kitchen. The pan I have is heavy as all get-out, which is about the only negative I can find when it comes to cast iron cookware. When I think of skillets, I have a vision of a pioneer woman with a skillet held overhead, chasing a man around a campfire to teach him a lesson about something offensive he’s done. All I have to say is that pioneer woman is way more woman than I am because I don’t think I could make it one trip around that campfire before my arms turned to jelly and I dropped the darn pan on my own head. Seriously, they should add a cast iron skillet to the Workout of the Day at CrossFit.
When my grandmother gave me her skillet, she handed it over and said, “I’ve already seasoned it for you,” a comment that scared me a little bit. “Great,” I thought. “Something else for me to do.” It is true that cast iron needs to be regularly seasoned to retain its non-stick properties. But the seasoning process doesn’t have to be evocative of Martha Stewart with a jar of naturally derived animal fat, massaging a skillet and then placing it on a spit she constructed over a fire in her backyard. Really, all you have to do is wipe the skillet out when you’re finished cooking, then, using a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil, wipe it down once more and put it away. Done. You’re seasoned and ready to go for the next use.
With my initial reservations of cooking with cast iron a thing of the past, I was ready to create my own cornbread tradition with my family. I asked my grandmother if she would mind sharing her cornbread recipe with me. She looked at me, and then set her gaze on a point in the distance. I wondered for a minute if she maybe didn’t want to share the recipe with me, but that’s not really her style. She would give me the slippers off her feet if I complimented them, so I knew she wouldn’t be a hold out on a recipe. While she paused, I asked, “Is it one of those things that you’ve been making for so long you don’t really have a recipe? Do you just sort of eyeball everything you put in there and maybe don’t know exactly how much of what goes in?” Remember, I’m no cook, but I’ve heard that there are people who can do this. They just know what ingredients to use, and how much to mix in, and how long it needs to cook. It all seems like magic to me, a person who needs a recipe to boil noodles.
“Well, no… It’s not that,” her words trail off a bit. “I just get the recipe off the back of the bag of the cornmeal.”
Well, how do you like that? A constant element of some of my most special moments with my grandmother is just out there for the taking for anyone who picks up a bag of White Lily cornmeal. Who knew?
But don’t you think for one minute that I believe that cornbread is created solely from a rote recipe found on any grocery store shelf. The recipe on that package is missing some key ingredients. The smooth wooden table. The sound of the furnace rumbling in the hallway as it tries to keep up with the high temperature set on the thermostat. The window above the sink that looks out onto the sloping backyard and my grandfather’s barn. My grandmother’s hands, opening cabinets and rooting around in the refrigerator (which she calls “the icebox”) so she can feed us more. The phone that she lets ring because she doesn’t want to interrupt even one minute of our visit.
A little of this, and a little of that. It all adds up to something I’ll never be able to recreate, but I’ll also never forget.
If you’re interested, I did actually come up with a cornbread recipe that seemed to please my crowd of picky eaters. After they each found their own personal tweak, of course.