Monday, September 3, 2007

Cornbread Chronicles

Part I: Cornbread, Contraband and Keeping Good Culinary Company

As many of you already know, I'm in the midst of a writing assignment that involves cornbread. Lots and lots of cornbread. Let's just say that for the last four days out of five, I've had cornbread for breakfast. Twice for lunch.

I'm preparing a review of a new cookbook by one of my culinary heroes, Crescent Dragonwagon. Answer to obligatory question: No, that isn't her given name, but the story of how it came about is entertaining. Dragonwagon penned “Passionate Vegetarian”, a doorstop of a tome filled with recipes, stories, tips and menus. The darned thing is just about as big as my beagle, but I've nonetheless been through it several times, leaving a trail of sauce-splashed pages and margin notes in my wake. It's the “Joy of Cooking” for vegetarians. Answer to next obligatory question: No, I'm not a vegetarian...but I live to cook, and anything that presents the very essence of a cuisine, be it vegetarian, Moroccan or Coastal South Carolinian, is of great interest to people like me who love playing with their food.

So, cornbread. Not something I would have considered myself knowledgeable or curious about in the least – until I picked up the book. It set a place for me at the communal table shared by Native Americans, African slaves, Portuguese fishermen and a dozen or more other cultures who have embraced this humble foodstuff through the ages. Now I'm hooked.

As I mention this to friends, acquaintances and passers-by, it's a treat to witness their impassioned reactions. No one is neutral on cornbread. Everyone has something to share – family recipes, new twists and recent kitchen experiments. A checker at Whole Foods, eyes wide with interest, leaned in close when I mentioned the project. It was as though I had produced the proper handshake and could now be let in on the secret: “Amaranth,” he whispered, barely audible in the bustling market on a Sunday afternoon. “Amaranth is the key...”

I raced home, grocery bags swinging to and fro, to ask my husband if he knew of this mystery ingredient. “Amaranth? I think that's illegal here in the States.” Actually, it's a nutrient-dense grain (or herb, depending on who you ask) that was a favorite of the Mayans and Incas. I believe Jeremy was thinking of “Absinthe”; those of you who know him will not be surprised.

Now, I ask all of you (we have lots of readers now! Yay!), do you have cornbread tales to tell? Did your mom use something special – jack cheese? sweet cream? - that made hers the best? Leave a comment or shoot me an email. I'd love to hear all about it!


HottRoddHairGodd said...

Ah CornBread, how I love my CornBread. I double the batch add 2 extra eggs than what is called for and I don't use butter in the recipe. I also add garlic and dill to the mixture. It rises high and thick. I honestly hate flat CornBread.

Mine is served hot from the oven with warm milk. You crumble the CornBread into the milk and spoon eat it. How Southern can one get? Perfect night time snack meal ya know???

Brenda said...

I love the simple recipe on the corn meal box. I have to have it with honey or strawberry preserves.

But I feel like I'm getting a real treat when I arrive at a pot-luck and someone has prepared cornbread with a slight chili or jalapeno bite to it and uses some real corn. I see there is a recipe like that on