Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project Part 3: Grandma’s Cornbread

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As I explained in a previous post, I have embarked on a bread-baking project to honor two of my female ancestors and, by association, all the women whose DNA I carry and on whose shoulders I stand. My first recipe in the Bread of the Grandmothers Project was the biscuits my maternal grandmother made. This post details my adventure in cornbread-making, just the way my great-grandmother did it.

Grandma Crews my great-grandmother

Like her daughter-in-law and all the other women in their families, Grandma Crews was a farmer’s wife, which is a job in itself. She raised six boys, took care of the garden and the chickens, and cooked three meals a day, every day. She also gave me my very first lesson in folk magic.

On one of the many days I spent with Grandmother during my childhood, she and Granddaddy needed to go into town to take care of some business. They didn’t want a fidgety five-year-old tagging along with them so they dropped me off with Grandma Crews, who was more than happy to have me for company. She was doing laundry that day and I followed her out to the clothesline, pleased that she offered me the job of handing her the clothespins as she hung the garments out to dry.

When she had finished hanging the clothes she twisted her apron around and showed me the ties, commonly known in folk custom as ‘apron-strings.’ She had tied the apron around her waist with a big bow but the ends of the strips of fabric sported several overhand knots, loosely wrapped and spaced closely together.

She held one end out for me to see and explained, “If you want something to happen, you think about it real hard, then you put that thought into a knot.” She demonstrated by tying another knot in the apron-string. “You leave that knot there until you get what you want, but you better be sure to undo it as soon as your wish comes to pass or something bad’ll come to you. If it’s something big you want, it might take two or three knots to hold that thought.”

Like my grandmother, Grandma Crews married beneath her, at least according to her family’s values. Her husband’s family was not exactly white, as the locals put it, and visibly so. Though the shame many of my relatives feel at this heritage has made accurate genealogy difficult, it appears that Grandpa Crews’ family contained a sizeable dose of blood from the local Seminole population, which included a number of escaped or former slaves as well as Native Americans.

Though Grandpa was happy to dispense with his local/native heritage as far as society was concerned, he hung onto one tiny aspect: the cornbread. Grandma made cornbread the way he liked it, which was very much the way the local native people cooked it. This ‘corn cake’ contained just three ingredients: plain cornmeal (NOT self-rising cornmeal mix), water and salt. The equipment: a kettle, a bowl and a well-greased cast iron skillet. The result: the crispiest brown crust surrounding a moist, creamy center.

Like all the other farm folks in that time and place who grew Silver Queen and related strains of field corn, Grandma Crews always used white cornmeal. My local grocery doesn’t carry white cornmeal and I haven’t had the time to travel up to the Nora Mill to buy some of the real, stone-ground stuff, so I’m going with the plain yellow cornmeal I can get close to home. The next time I can get my hands on some stone-ground white cornmeal, I’ll make Grandma’s cornbread again.

Most cornbread recipes call for combining the dry ingredients with the room-temperature liquid ingredients to make the batter. Grandma’s cornbread was different. She used boiling water to ‘bloom’ the cornmeal, a standard Native American cooking technique familiar to many people from the method for making johnny cakes.

Like Grandmother with her biscuits, Grandma Crews never used a recipe or measured her ingredients. She knew how much cornmeal to put into her mixing bowl for each finished corn pone, and she ‘measured’ the boiling water by eye as she poured it from the kettle onto the cornmeal. Her batter tended to be a little thicker than most cornbread batter, so that’s my guide for this project.

Grandma’s first step in preparing cornbread was to grease her cast iron skillet. She used whatever she had on hand – bacon grease, oil, butter, rendered lard, tallow – and her choice affected the flavor of the finished bread. I’ve chosen corn oil because it has a high smoke point, an important quality given the temperature at which this bread cooks. In my memory Grandma always made several small pones rather than one great big one; I’m guessing the smaller ones cooked more evenly and were less likely to be too damp in the middle. So I’ve chosen my eight-inch cast iron skillet for this project.

Grandma Crews preheated her skillet in a very hot oven (I’m going with 500º F) while she mixed up the batter. Unlike Grandma in her log farmhouse (built by hand by her father-in-law from the trees on the property), I have a smoke detector to contend with, so I’m taking the battery out as a precaution. Don’t worry, I’ll put it back in as soon as I’m done with the cornbread. I remember how smoky Grandma’s kitchen got when she was cooking this stuff.

For this size pan, I’m going to use one cup of cornmeal with half a teaspoon of salt stirred into it. That should give a fairly thin pone like the ones Grandma turned out. I’ll mix the batter in a metal bowl that won’t be harmed by the heat of the boiling water as I pour it in. I’ll eyeball the water amount like Grandma did, stirring it in as I pour, until the batter reaches the right consistency.

So here are my steps:

Grease the pan with oil and put it in the preheated 500º F oven while I mix up the batter.

Put the kettle full of water on the stove to heat.

Measure the cornmeal and salt into a mixing bowl and stir them together well.

Pour the boiling water into the cornmeal in a slow stream, stirring all the time, until the cornmeal ‘blooms’ and the batter is a good bit thicker than conventional cornmeal batter. I eyeballed it, but I think I added about two and a half cups of boiling water.

Transfer the cornmeal to the preheated pan - it's thick so it takes a little spreading with a wooden spoon or spatula - and return it to the hot oven. I was in a hurry so I didn't smooth the top down as much as I should have (the rest of dinner was ready and we were only waiting on the cornbread).

Bake at 500º F until the top is evenly browned. I cooked this pone for about 15 minutes. I think next time I'll give it another 5 minutes to thicken the crust and brown it more, though it was pretty tasty this time. As you can see, I've flipped the pone over to serve it with the smooth, crusty-brown side up, the way Grandma Crews did.

The method of eating this cornbread varied from one family member to another, from the conventional slice-and-butter style to breaking off chunks and dipping them in whatever liquid the meal offered, pot likker being a favorite. And no, I did not misspell that word.

Personally, I’m fond of butter on cornbread, and the crust on this particular pone just begs for it, so that’s what I’m having with it. If there’s any left over, I may have it for dessert the same way Grandma and Grandpa did – topped with honey (I’m out of cane syrup).

Here’s to our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all the way back in time to the first woman. May we be worthy of them, and may we always grateful that it is their shoulders we stand upon.