Appalachia: Jethro Dreams of Cornbread

JEFF FITZGERALD (this article was first published on January 17, 2013)

Salmon sashimi. Photo by Kent Wang, via Wikimedia Commons.

On a recent evening, I finally got around to watching the highly lauded documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I had avoided watching it until now because I wanted to wait for all the hype to die down. I try to avoid things that are trendy or the recipient of too much buzz, which is why I haven’t eaten a cupcake since 2008. But I had been wanting to see this film since it came out, being a fan of both Japanese culture and movies about fish.

On the surface, it would seem that the tale of an aging sushi master would have very little in common with Appalachian cookery. Though some measure of sophistication has crept into the mountains, we are still not that far removed from a time when a plate of sushi presented to a hillbilly would result in a demand for the fish to be rolled in cornmeal and fried, and the rice to be replaced with cole slaw. But the tale of the 85 year-old Jiro, whose obsession with perfection within a very narrow realm resonated with me and my Appalachian culinary ideal.

Nowhere in my culinary ideals does that aesthetic manifest itself more than with cornbread. Cornbread, to me, is an elemental part of the Southern being. It is a thing unto itself, not merely a conduit for something else or obligatory afterthought. The recipe my father taught me when I was a teenager is a model of Appalachian simplicity –  containing only cornmeal, eggs, buttermilk and oil. Dad was a competent cook, but not an enthusiastic one. He could put a meal on the table; providing it included meat and potatoes, both fried. He wasn’t one for trying new recipes, or tweaking existing ones. Still, it was from a dedication to an ideal cornbread that kept his recipe simple but never workmanlike. Dad had no problem opening a can of peas for the dinner table, but he’d never use margarine in his cornbread. No low-fat buttermilk, no fake eggs even back in the seventies when doctors were assuring us that eggs were deadly cholesterol bombs sent here to kill us all. And no off-brand cornmeal – White Lily, or nothing.

Skillet cornbread. Photo by Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dad’s cornbread was first made with real country buttermilk, from raw milk and hand-churned. He also used fresh eggs from his grandmother’s henhouse. Certain compromises had to be made over time, as those ingredients became less available even in our corner of the Commonwealth. Sometime in the mid-eighties, it became easier to find moonshine than to find country buttermilk. About the same time, the local purveyors of fresh eggs packed it in. The one thing that remained unchanged was the blackened cast iron skillet that had passed through the ages to get to us, and no one who’d had it before could remember quite how long they’d had the perfect vessel for a pone of cornbread.

When Dad was in the last days of his battle with cancer, the last pone I made for him he guarded jealously against the influx of visitors. He ate the last piece crumbled in a glass of Valley Bell buttermilk; not farm buttermilk, but the brand popular in his hometown of Beckley, West Virginia. After he passed, cornbread was not so much an obsession for me as ritual. It was a direct connection to him. But it was also a legacy given to me, to be protected and carried forward. To that end, I gradually sought to restore the purity of the cornbread that Dad grew up with. As fortune would have it, the dawning of the Slow Food movement brought the return of fresh eggs. Homestead Creamery, in nearby Franklin County, began producing a buttermilk that was closer to farm buttermilk than any store brand. My own search for more “Southern” ingredients lead me to House Autry cornmeal, made in North Carolina, that produced a clearly better pone than White Lily which is now owned by Yankees.

Photo from House Autry

Of course, the cornbread that lives in my dreams is but one expression of the Southern staple. For some, the blue-and-white box of Jiffy mix is “Mom’s homemade.” Hot water cornbread, born of even greater privation than even my own spartan Appalachian version, is the stuff of some people’s dreams. Some add all sorts of extras, from cheese to jalapeños, which is certainly their prerogative. And some prefer their cornbread sweet, which is a crime against Southern food which should be punished by nothing less than a fine and a maximum of two years for repeat offenders at hard labor behind the counter of a dive-y little meat-and-three where everyone’s name is either “Buddy” or “Sweetie.” You’ll either learn to make cornbread properly, or suffer a fate worse than death: exile to Newark, NJ.

Cornbread does not belong exclusively to the South, but it could only have come into its own here. Ours is a long history of embracing the underrated, the overlooked and the discarded. We weren’t the first to use cornmeal when wheat was unavailable or too expensive, but we were the first to mix it with what others considered spoiled milk (or at least, the useless leftover from the butter making process) and cook it in a skillet. What others would have considered a concession to poverty, the early equivalent of cheap Americanized Ramen noodles, we turned into an essential part of our culture. We took useless weeds and made delicious greens from them; we took the tough parts of the pig and made succulent barbecue with it; we took simple macaroni and cheese and turned it into a vegetable. And then we put them all together on a plate and sold them to modern foodies for two prices.

As time has passed, my obsession with the Absolutely Perfect Pone of Cornbread has grown. The missing component now is raw milk farm buttermilk, which is still harder to come by than real moonshine. Once that is found, the next component of perfect, cultured country butter to be slathered on a hot slice of the finished product, will be close behind. And even then, the pursuit will never end. It will become a matter of execution, preparing the perfect pone time and time again. For Jiro, the ancient master, it wasn’t enough just to make the perfect piece of sushi; his true obsession was in making the perfect piece of sushi 100 times a night, every night.

The cornbread that lives in my dreams does not exist as a singular ideal, or even the repetition of a singular ideal. Man can not live by bread alone, as the saying goes. The cornbread that lives in my dreams, elemental though it may be, longs for another pure element. At Sukiyabashi Jiro, the old master’s restaurant in Tokyo, Jiro works within a narrow discipline but with more than just one option at his disposal. It’s not all just a single perfect piece of fish on a bed of perfect rice. Each creation leads naturally to the next, guided by the master and composed of a few flawless elements at his infinitely skilled fingertips. So it is with cornbread. Perfect in itself, it leads naturally, almost inevitably, to the perfect pot of pinto beans. Which is, of course, another column unto itself.

Till next month, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of OKRA.


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