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Cornbread is a Southern thing

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Oct. 1, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian. He can be reached at robert@nsrg.com, or at 601-264-0672.
Cornbread is as Southern as grits, though not as exclusively Southern. Native Americans were eating variations of cornbread centuries before the Europeans arrived.
However, left in the hands of a semi-competent Southern cook, cornbread can be exclusive. Find a kitchen where bacon grease is stored in an old coffee can, a hot cast-iron skillet is pre-heating in the stove and a bag of stone-ground corn meal is canned in the pantry and this unadulterated staple of the Southern kitchen is soon to be in hand.
Cornbread is for every man. It is eaten with butter, sans butter, crumbled up in a glass of buttermilk, and used as an extra utensil for sopping up all manner of jus', gravies, potlikkers and sauces. It has many variations and many names corn pone, Johnny cakes, corn fritters and the like.
Cornbread is versatile. It is baked in the oven, flipped in a skillet over the stove top and dropped into hot grease as with hushpuppies. Cornbread is served in sticks, muffin tins, cast-iron molds and as the base for Thanksgiving dressing. Frank Stitt serves it with foie gras.
Lewis and Clark brought cornbread with them on their journey west. Thoreau spoke of cornbread in "Walden." Years ago, corn meal was cheaper and more available than flour.
Hence, cornbread was made more often than the yeast breads and quick breads we know today. Cornbread is in our genetic make up, chiseled into our DNA and implanted in our taste buds from years of familial consumption.
Cornbread is simple, but left to experts it can be above reproach. The cornbread at Jacques-Imo's restaurant in New Orleans is consistently pure and flawless.
It is the best I have tasted light, but not cake-like, substantial, but not dense, full of texture without being grainy and, finally, rich but not filling.
Creole soul-food maestro Austin Leslie could bake a batch in his sleep. It arrives to the table hot from the oven with a small amount of butter drizzled over the top. Once the bread is broken, steam rises from its center and the result is gone within seconds. On my last visit to Jacques-Imo's, I ate four muffins before the appetizers arrived.
With all of this righteous talk of cornbread, I must awkwardly admit one of my deepest, darkest, culinary guilty pleasures I am an in-the-closet Jiffy cornbread junkie. Yes, Jiffy, the just-add-egg-and-oil, made-in-Michigan, straight-out-of-a-box-and-into-your-oven cornbread. Yankee cornbread.
When I was growing up my mother never made homemade cornbread, she made Jiffy. It was cheap to buy and easy to make. Southern cooking purists scoff at the notion of using boxed cornbread. Lewis Grizzard would scold the Southern cook who served cornbread containing sugar.
I like it, so as far as I'm concerned, the purists can take a hike. Lewis Grizzard is long dead, so give me Yankee Cornbread cornbread with sugar from the box (or from scratch) any day.
Yankee Cornbread
1 cup flour, all-purpose, unbleached
1 cup cornmeal, self-rising
6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup half and half
1⁄3 cup butter, melted (or oil)
1 egg, large and slightly beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking pan or cast iron skillet with vegetable shortening, bacon grease or nonstick cooking spray. Sift flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Form a well in the mixture and add milk, butter and egg. Stir until just combined. Do not overwork batter. Bake to golden brown or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (approximately 12n15 minutes depending on oven). Yield: six to eight.
Basic Cornbread
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1⁄2 cup corn flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 tablespoon bacon grease (or Canola oil)
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk the wet ingredients. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Do not over mix. Pour batter into a greased cast-iron skillet or a buttered two-quart baking dish and bake for 20-25 minutes. Yield: eight servings.
Recipes from the upcoming book: "Deep South Staples or How to Survive in a Southern Kitchen Without A Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup."

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