DAPHNE MEDINA (this article was first published on August 16, 2012)
I never realized that a pot of pinto beans bubbling away on my stove in Spain could bring me to my knees, barely able to breathe, sobbing on my kitchen floor. I never realized that a loaf of buttermilk cornbread baked by my mother could rip my heart into pieces as I cradled it in my arms on an international flight. I never realized that two old mayonnaise jars filled with honey and smuggled into my luggage would worry me so; what if the jars broke? What if a TSA agent took them? My father had given me that honey and told me the story of how he got it. He told me a story about the “Bee Man” who collects it and sells it on the sly, far away from the prying eyes of ruinous government food regulators. I never realized how long and how far my family’s food and stories would follow me, and I had never given much thought to just how all of these things together–-the cooking, recipes, the memories of eating together, and the roller-coaster of emotions attached to all of it–-was a sticky tangled web full of sounds and tastes and textures and smells that continue to pull me into the bitter-sweetness that is my family.
It has been six months since I have tasted my mother’s cast-iron skillet cornbread. She has made it ever since I can remember and she uses the same heavy, round skillet that she has used for years. I think it must be a family relic by now. When my brother and I were kids, dinner often consisted of buttered slabs of hot cornbread alongside white beans doused with vinegar and sprinkled with chopped onions, and stewed potatoes that were so perfectly cooked and seasoned that even then I marveled at them. They melted in our mouths and try and I might, I have never been able to replicate them. During the summer, there was always a plate of thick-sliced, blood red tomatoes sprinkled with salt. Usually, next to the tomatoes there would be a bowl of chunky cucumber slices soaking in a vinegar bath. Sometimes white onion slices joined them. On those long hot days, sitting at the kitchen table, I could smell the lingering scents of fresh-turned garden earth and late-afternoon sun on the vegetables. I suppose, looking back, that one might think we were poor and that this was poor food. “Beans and Potatoes”, as my mother would sometimes say. But as kids, Rich and I did not know this, nor did we care. We cleaned our plates and went for second helpings. We usually ate thirds and fourths of that cornbread before we ran back outside to finish whatever kid-games occupied us that day.
Mom’s cornbread-making ritual is the same now as it was then; she places the heavy black pan in the oven with some oil in it until it begins to give off those wavy tinges of hot air, letting her know that it’s just this-side of too hot; “right before it starts to smoke”, she says. She never measures the ingredients. Instead, she throws seemingly random amounts of flour, cornmeal, and salt into another family relic; a large red Tupperware bowl. She adds a cup or so of buttermilk. When the skillet is screaming hot, she removes it from the oven and pours a little of the hot oil from the skillet into the cornbread batter. She has to stir it quickly because the mixture sizzles and pops in protest. Then she pours the batter into the skillet. This is the best part–because it is so hot, the batter along the edges of the pan cooks almost instantly–this gives an amazingly crunchy finish around the sides of the cooked loaf. The finished bread is moist, slightly tart from the buttermilk, crunchy, a little salty, and leaves just enough oily cornmeal crumbs on your hands to make you forget good manners and lick your fingers after you eat a piece. There is never any left over.
Six months ago, I left Spain and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to attend my brother’s funeral. My family was lost in the void that Rich unknowingly left behind. We were lost in disbelief, shock, anger, regret, and the sheer uselessness of it all. Friends’ well-meaning words of comfort fell on deaf ears. It seemed to me that prayer was futile and God was a no-show as I watched my mother’s body shake because her choking sobs were too great for it to do anything else. My father stayed unusually busy and was unsure of what he was supposed to do or say or feel around my mother and I. Instead, he took on the role of being the bearer of terrible news to those who did not yet know about my brother’s sudden passing, and he did this many times in only a few days. He took all of the phone calls and dealt with insurance company questions about death certificates and life insurance policies. His voice always teetered on the edge of a stifled wail, purposely clipped and flat. He was distant from us and did not shed many tears that we could see. But then I remembered that Dad was the last one, the only one, to see my brother at the hospital. The last one to hold his hand and say a final goodbye. I know the memory of that must be a heavy one to bear.
During those first dark days we were grasping for anything that seemed solid and familiar. Like many Southern families, much of what was solid and familiar was traditional Southern-fare that we grew up with; buttermilk cornbread, a pot of beans, vanilla pound cake, Chess pie, fried chicken, mounds of pulled-pork, and sweet iced tea. A neighbor brought over a coffee cake. It was not good and did not get eaten but no one was willing to throw it out because she meant well. Besides, it would have been disrespectful to do so. My mother made a giant sour-cream cheesecake that was wonderfully tart and surprisingly light. She made the graham-cracker crust herself, and added just enough cinnamon and salted butter to dance on your tongue. For some reason, on one of those days, she decided to cook us breakfast. She said that she had woke up early, but I knew it was because she hadn’t slept at all. I worried about her and thought that she shouldn’t be cooking for us, but I then I remembered that like most women in my family, cooking has always been a way to occupy the mind, to soothe a troubled soul, and to find the tiniest sliver of relief from a broken heart. That morning my husband and I awoke to a table laden with plates of fluffy buttermilk biscuits, jars of golden-orange colored honey, thick blackberry jam so dark that it was more “black” than “berry”, country sausages, crispy, fatty bacon, and giant sunny-side up eggs with Van Gogh-yellow centers. Mom sat at the breakfast table with us and held a cup of coffee in both hands. She barely touched the single buttered biscuit that lay on her plate. She made attempts at normal conversation. In that moment, sitting there in her bleached-white pajamas, looking more than a little lost, she seemed to disappear. She did not eat. Her biscuit turned cold and the butter hardened. She gave it to one of the dogs.
A week after the funeral, and the day before I had to leave my parents’ home to go back to Spain, I stood in my mother’s kitchen and watched her make cornbread. She measured the ingredients as she went so that I could write them down. She chided me and told me that she would expect me to make my own cornbread from now on, without having to call her for the recipe as I have done every year for the last dozen or so years. That day, however, as I watched and scrawled my notes onto a paper napkin, I understood that that moment was about more than simply the exchange of a recipe. It was a gift from a mother to a daughter. It was my mother passing something on to me that will live on in our family as long as there is someone to place cornmeal and flour and salt into a bowl. It was about keeping something alive and not losing it. We had already lost so much.
We made three batches that day and when they were finished baking we wrapped two of them in many layers of Saran wrap. I would carry those two back to Spain with me, cradled gently in my carry-on bag, checking every couple of hours to make sure they hadn’t been crushed. The third batch was devoured for dinner that night as we talked about my brother. We smiled as we remembered how much he had always loved my mom’s food, especially her cornbread, but soon enough we grew quiet at the sobering reminder of an empty chair at the table, and the thoughts of what difficulties were ahead for all of us. After dinner my dad gave me two old jars full of newly harvested honey from someone he called the “Bee Man”. Before I tasted that honey it wasn’t always clear to me what people meant when they said they could “taste the land” in something. Now I know what they mean. It was as if flowers and sunsets had been captured and put into those jars. It is the best honey I have ever tasted. I wrapped the jars in newspapers and clothes and placed them in my luggage. I prayed they would not break or be stolen during the journey. Those honey jars, the cornbread, and the napkin with the recipe written on it became precious cargo to me. They were part of a life that I was desperate to hang on to. A life that I had never fully cherished until a piece of it had been ripped away.
For me, some days Rich’s death feels just like a paper cut; it lies there, quiet until you slice into a fat lemon and its juices find their way into your severed flesh. Suddenly, from where there was no pain, every nerve is alive and you are screaming in agony. A cruel reminder that you are not whole. There is a piece of you that is cut in two. Sometimes it’s that pot of beans on the stove that is my “lemon”, and at other times it’s an old photo, or even a smell. Every holiday, every birthday, every visit home will be forever marked by my brother’s absence. It is my hope, however feeble, that over time those stories and those meals will help us to heal, if only a little. It is my hope that they will help us to smile when we think of my brother, instead of cry. And while it may seem to others like an odd thing, this carrying on about some old family recipe like cornbread, I like to think that it helps us to remember each other, to remember where we come from, and above all, to remember my brother.
- 1 1/4 cup Self-Rising Cornmeal Mix (she uses Martha White brand)
- 1/4 cup self-rising flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Buttermilk (about a 3/4 to 1 cup–but enough to get the batter to a pancake-like consistency).
- 4 Tbs. neutral oil such as canola
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour the oil into your skillet (should be cast-iron or another type that is oven safe!). Let the skillet heat in the oven until right before it starts to get smoky. You must watch for this stage carefully–you don’t want it to actually smoke-you will see heat waves coming off the pan.
While the pan is heating up, mix all remaining ingredients in a bowl. Add more buttermilk if necessary and stir until just combined. Don’t over stir it, or your cornbread will be tough.
When the pan is hot, remove it from the oven. Pour a little of the hot oil into your batter. It will sizzle a bit. STIR.
Pour batter into the hot pan. Do not be alarmed by the sizzling and popping. Place the pan back into the oven and bake for about 25 minutes or until the top of the cornbread is golden brown.
Let it sit for about 5 minutes before you cut it.
Serve with butter!