Staff of Life (Part 1)

This is part of an essay-sort-of-thing I wrote for a book on cooking/life/memories in the South. It wasn’t used (*sniff*), so I thought I’d include it here. This is the first half; the second half appears in the next post.

 Staff of Life

Cornbread: often made without milk or eggs and baked or fried (southern)

 While I know they eat cornbread in other parts of the world—even in other parts of the South—they don’t eat my mama’s cornbread.  Hers is surely set apart; scratched into the dry cave walls of Anasazi legend and rained down as manna on the children of Israel wandering lost outside the Promised Land.

A pinch, a scoop, a sprinkle; a splash, a dollop, a dusting; heaped-up or just the least little bit.  About that much, but not much more than that—these are words for measuring cornbread.  No recipe needed; my mother can tell by the way it looks and feels how it will turn out—literally—of the pan:  will it slide or stick or crumble?

My mother prefers her corn meal coarse-ground, which gives more texture and allows the finished product to hold its own against the pressure of a knife smeared with cold butter.  Fine-ground meal equals cakey cornbread and cakey cornbread smacks of eggs and sugar; it is crumbling and delicate and no match for soup beans or stew.

With a practiced motion, my mother draws a black iron skillet (always wiped out, never washed) from the maw of the oven where it’s been heating. She leaves a potholder draped atop its handle as a “don’t touch!” warning to the household at large.

She edges the pale, grainy-gold batter toward the lip of the mixing bowl-that-used-to-be-green (permit a brief digression:  my mother is still using a set of vintage Pyrex mixing bowls—the ubiquitous yellow, green, red and blue set—that her sister gave their mother in 1950-something, and each one is still known by the name of the color it used to be), controlling its flow into the well-oiled, black iron hoop-sided skillet.  This is the moment of no return:  the bottom layer is instantly welded to its destiny; it will be crust.

Up next: Staff of Life, Part 2

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