A Recipe of Twos
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Are there any fried foods that are not best fresh and hot? Not coming up with anything. Nobody wants a cold French fry. Just when you think you can’t eat another bite after a dinner of chile rellenos that you started by eating too many chips with salsa, the hot sopapillas and honey show up. Everybody is stuffed, everybody eats a sopapilla anyway, nobody takes the leftover sopapillas home.
The French fry of the southern cuisine of my youth might be the hush puppy, but I was never a fan. Cracklin’ cornbread, however, yes please. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans (with bacon), fried okra, cornbread. Pecan pie for dessert. Now THAT is a dinner. You always leave a little on your plate; if you clean your plate that insults your host, implies you didn’t get enough to eat. Other cultures are different, which almost goes without saying.
Up in the little cabinet above the stove in my kitchen there is an old cast iron skillet that belonged to my grandmother Howell. Cast iron's only predators are wear and rust, and a seasoned skillet in use doesn't rust or wear, so this skillet might have been generations old when she got it, but at some point it became my father’s, and then mine. It has always been The Cornbread Skillet.
People call different things cornbread. For instance, the sweet, square yellow stuff you get at restaurants, or the ear-of-corn-shaped muffins. Sorry, those are cake. If it comes in a sheet, or out of a tin, it won’t have the crust. What my grandmother made was a southern staple known as cracklin’ cornbread.
Cracklin’ cornbread is the perfect synthesis of fried and baked. It has the volume and fluffiness of baking, and the crunch of frying. For cracklin’ cornbread there are two requirements. First, you need a perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet. Cast iron because no other cookware holds enough heat, and perfectly seasoned or else the cornbread will stick. If you use the same skillet for cornbread over and over for, say, a century, that seems to work pretty well. My dad said that when he was growing up they would build a big wood fire once a year and throw all the skillets in it to burn off the accumulated grease and then re-season them. The Cornbread Skillet probably received that treatment. When I was setting up my first apartment and bought a new Lodge cast iron skillet and seasoned it, my cornbread stuck. And stuck, and stuck. The Cornbread Skillet just works.
The second requirement is a good two or three tablespoons of bacon cracklings (grease) in the skillet which is preheated in the oven at full temperature before you pour in the batter. I know, I know, pigs are the Einsteins of the barnyard, and there were years when I made vegetarian cornbread with 100% vegetable oil in deference to my mostly vegetarian wife, but if pigs were that smart they’d figure out how not to be so tasty. Bacon cracklings turn the batter into ambrosia.
Now, the batter.
It’s very simple. My dad used to make cornbread and my mom and I would devour it. We’d say, “Munch, munch . . . we have to write this recipe down.” My dad would say, “It is a recipe of twos: one cup of flour plus one cup of cornmeal makes two; two teaspoons of baking soda . . .”
And my mom and I would agree that it was such a simple recipe that anybody could remember it and there was no need to write it down.
Then my dad died.
And, having always left it to dad and never having made it ourselves, we couldn’t remember the recipe. Well, we sort of remembered it, but confirmation came in the form of my grandmother’s cookbook. It was published before the turn of the century, and the cornbread recipe is in a handwritten note on the flyleaf:
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. oil
425 oven, hot skillet
That’s it. No mention of the cracklings, that went without saying. It takes 15-17 minutes to cook to a light brown on top. And it was understood that you knew to mix the dry ingredients together, and the wet ingredients together, then combine the two, and immediately pour into the hot skillet. When it’s done you tip it out of the skillet onto a plate and cut it like a pie. That last part is important; every piece needs some of the heavy perimeter crust.
Like I said, you can make it with vegetable oil instead of bacon grease, but whatever you use, there must be a sufficient layer of 425-degree oil to fry the batter into a crust. That crust, hot out of the skillet, is one of the most delicious things ever. The moist inside isn’t far behind, but the crust is the star of the show, and hot and fresh it is the best it will ever be.
I’m not an expert on southern cuisine, I just know what I know from my upbringing. Cornbread was a frequent dinner side dish to sop up the gravy and the juices from the meat and the green beans and blackeyed peas. If there was a leftover piece the next day you dipped it in a glass of sweet milk (as opposed to buttermilk) for a snack.
My dad was considerably the youngest of four boys, and grew up essentially as an only child while his brothers were off fighting WWII. Not that there’s any connection, but my grandmother, maybe realizing that no girls were coming along, taught him to cook. My uncle J.C., the second-eldest, went to college, sort of — he lost his tuition money in a poker game before school started. Rather than go home and face my grandfather, he joined the Marines and wound up with experiences he chose not to talk about. Before my dad went to college some years later my grandfather taught him to play poker, now THERE’S a connection. From what I hear, my dad was a very good poker player. He was certainly an excellent cook.
So, am I suggesting that you make this?
Well, sure. It’s no kale and spirulina smoothie, but if you’re on that kind of diet you probably didn’t make it past “fried foods” in the first sentence. It’s great simply slathered in butter, although the alchemy of corn and bacon and buttermilk makes it taste buttery to begin with. It is an excellent foundation for chili and melted cheese (sour cream in the photo, I was being good . . . ish). Or top it with macaroni and cheese and pulled pork. Ok, I’m going to hell for that last one, just those words clogged your arteries. Again, you can use straight vegetable oil instead of bacon grease, and if you're not used to the flavor you won't miss it. Southern cuisine may not be heart healthy, and I suppose there are healthiER things than cracklin’ cornbread, but I'll take it over French fries any day.