My father claims that it took my mother, Joy, two years to perfect her cornbread. Many of her initial cooking efforts were, um, unsuccessful. I've heard tales of burnt pot roast, fallen cakes, and undercooked vegetables, though those last dishes would be considered overcooked by many today — think green beans stewed for hours with bacon. To be fair, Joy had just turned 20 when they married, and she didn't have much cooking experience. She went from her parents' house to a dorm room to sharing a trailer with her new spouse in Jackson, Mississippi.
When I stop to think about it, my father was probably just looking for his mother's cornbread. Don't most men want food like Mom used to make? Maybe this post should be named after my paternal grandmother.
I compare all other cornbread to this one, the one my mother made daily when I was growing up. When I left home it was the one recipe of hers I had to have, the one thing I knew I'd want to recreate wherever I lived, so I set out to record the process exactly. But Joy doesn't measure ingredients when she makes this particular dish. The cups and scoops come out for just about everything else, but cornbread she creates by eye, by feel. We came to a consensus after a few tries, and I'm happy to report that the following recipe will very accurately reproduce Joy's version.
This isn't for everyone. I expect that anyone accustomed to what my father calls "Yankee cornbread" will be appalled by the crisp exterior, lack of sugar, and somewhat dry crumb, but these are things I like best about it. I love the crunch, the fact that this cornbread is perfect for scooping up the juices that surround slow-cooked Southern summer vegetables like pink-eyed peas and butter beans.
Compared to Miss Effie's cornbread, described by my friend Kitty in her guest post back in August, my mother's cornbread is loaded with "extras" like flour and baking soda. Joy used to cook this with bacon grease — she kept it in an old orange juice concentrate container in the fridge — but she's lightened up and uses vegetable oil now. An iron skillet is mandatory. Don't even think about baking this in another type of pan. Leftovers can be frozen — they're great for stuffing.
1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, lard or butter for the skillet
1/3 cup cornmeal (yellow or white)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet — the bottom coated with a tablespoon of bacon grease, vegetable oil, or butter — in the oven as it heats. The hot oil creates that crispy exterior you're aiming for.
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl with a fork or whisk. In another bowl, whisk the egg into the buttermilk, then pour this mixture into the dry ingredients. Pour the batter (it will be pretty thick) into the preheated skillet, spreading it to the sides with a spatula. Bake for 20 minutes. Warm slices are best slathered with butter.