My Mother made AWFUL cornbread. THERE. I’ve said it. Somehow, Southern folks are supposed to revere every crumb and teaspoon and mouthful of food which came from those esteemed, lovingly-remembered kitchens.
But SOME things---everybody has to have an Achilles’ heel---right? Our Mothers and Grandmothers just MUST have messed up something---maybe when they were first married, though in those days, a girl could go into marriage with less than half-a dozen pillowslips and two quilts in her Hope Chest, but she better be able to turn out biscuits, gravy, piecrust, and at least a passable fried chicken.
But Mother had been lured aside by Aunt Lou, whose instructions on making said gravy and cornbread and other kitchen items were colored by her own lifetime OUT of the kitchen. She was one of the few women in the family who WORKED. Of course, ALL of them worked. They made big gardens and kept house and flower beds and did all the laundry---no maids in our tree except for the faithful Mattie who “did for” Aunt Lou and Uncle Jake, “redding up” the house a bit every morning, though I doubt there was much to do for those two austere, spare folk who lived their waking lives in the store, besides emptying those over-run ashtrays and picking up last night’s Memphis Press Scimitar from beside Uncle’s big ole flocky-velvet platform rocker.
Mattie DID do a little procedure of “fannin’ out” the house every morning, Winter and Summer---she apparently could not function well in the hanging haze of smoke left by that pack-apiece of Chesterfields they smoked between supper and bedtime every night. She’d open both doors and a couple of windows, and stand in the living room doorway, swinging that big wooden door back and forth, from quarter-pie-wedge to within an inch of slamming on her thumb, with all the force of that big right arm, sucking in the fresh air, forcing out the stale.
Thus satisfied with the atmosphere, she’d get to her few little chores before starting their noon dinner. And they sent their laundry to the LAUNDRY. Mattie actually bundled up the sheets on their beds around all the clothing and towels, and set it out on the big white metal glider on the “house porch” ---a little screened-in affair just beside the wide planks of the store-porch---on Tuesdays to be picked up by Mr. Tolliver in the big black panel-van. It came back on Fridays, laundered and starched and folded, with all Aunt Lou’s dresses and Uncle’s pants and shirts cocooned beneath whisper-thin plastic on those funny hangers---they were not complete, but formed in a perfect hanger-shape, except for the bottom straight piece. That was made of a thin cardboard cylinder into which the two curved ends of the wire was stuck, and the roll was supposed to prevent creases in a gentleman’s trousers.
But the cornbread---a lifetime-til-I-could-cook was spent nibbling daintily on an edge of a wedge, not daring to NOT take a piece, for what was THERE was supper, and that was it. My Mother was a Kitchen-Proud woman, and would not countenance refusal of at least a small serving of everything on her table, no matter how much you “thought” you didn’t like it, or the fact that "you just don't know what's GOOD." (Of course, one time of my throwing-up-if-I-LOOKED-at-brains-and-eggs was sufficient to excuse me for life).
Aunt Lou’s positive abhorrence of Self-Rising ANYTHING imprinted on Mother for all her days, and the attempts to make that cornbread rise with a different combination of Clabber Girl Bakin’ Powder, Arm & Hammer Bakin’ Soda and salt accounted for a definite lack somedays, when she fell short on the leavening, and, as Mammaw said, “It squatted to rise and baked in the squat,” turning out a thin pone of hard, tasteless, all-crust crunch one day, and a really pretty, puffy, golden-brown pan the next, with one drawback---it tasted of too much salt or the teeth-gritting tang of way too much soda. I cannot remember many happy mediums.
The sacks plainly said PLAIN flour and meal, as opposed to the coveted Self-Rising. Oh, how I wished we could try the one in the jingle on the radio “Martha White Self-Rising Meal/Flour, with HOT RIZE PLUS!”
And every pan was turned out onto a dinner-plate, with one side lifted like tucking a sheet under a mattress, and a dinner knife (called a “case” knife by almost anyone in the family, though my thoughts of a case knife was a pocket-knife, folded in a case) inserted beneath the layer for that little bit of ventilation of the bottom, “so it won’t sweat and ruin.”
I think my own rather bland cornbread stems from swaying too far from the bitter/sour tang of those endless black-skillets-to-be-endured. I experimented in Mother’s kitchen (though I dared not bring in sacks of Martha White Self-Rising anything). I tried making it with milk instead of buttermilk, adding a little sugar, adding an extra egg, making it half flour and half meal---I just couldn’t get it quite right, either.
And I never measure---I’m just as likely to put half flour (self-rising, of course---my only all-purpose is just for recipes which SAY ‘all-purpose”) and half MW Cornmeal Mix, measured just by whatever scoops are in the big pantry jugs, with a dash of sugar, enough milk to make it the right soupy, two or three eggs, and a stick of butter, melted in the very-hot-oven-black-skillet, with about a quarter left behind in the skillet to make a good crisp crust.
Enough time---not measured either---to get it just brown enough, and there it is. If we’re in the mood for jalapeno, I’ll mince in a couple of de-seeded pickled ones or fresh, perhaps a can of Mexicorn, a big handful of sharp cheese, maybe a flurry of sliced green onions---any of the above.
And once in a GREAT while---very great---I’ll do Grandmother Cornbread, like my children’s great-grandmother, with four or five strips of bacon fried in the bottom of the skillet before the batter goes in. It comes out fragrant and bacon-y all through, and pretty on top where you’ve turned it out bacon-side up.
I remember Mother used to really like my cornbread, but she never asked about the difference between hers and mine. And I would never have offered what passed for my recipe---it just wouldn’t have been RIGHT somehow. I'd have just as soon said she'd look better with MY hairdo.