Stand in your kitchen, and think of your ancestors. Remember women who went hungry to feed their children. Remember women who kept chickens when it wasn’t cute and had no qualms wringing their necks. Remember women who would have been equally mystified and fascinated by the life you live.
Put a stick of butter on the stove to melt. You have a special pot just for that, which your great-grandmother would have thought was the strangest thing she’d ever heard.
Put your iron skillet on the other eye, over a low flame. It doesn’t have to be the one that your aunts fought over last time someone in the family died. Recently store-bought is okay. Add some oil. A round cake pan is fine, I guess, but skip this step.
Preheat the oven to 375. Or 350. or 425. Something.
Good cornbread is a luxury invention, you know. You can make it with just cornmeal and water, like hungry people do. Everything else is inessential.
My mother learned to make cornbread from a boilermaker whose name was only initials, but I’ve forgotten them. His recipe called for that late 80s product, butter in a squeeze bottle like chocolate syrup. She said “your grandmother didn’t have squeeze butter.” He said “She would have used it if she did.” Fair enough; our grandmothers were pragmatists.
Find cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, buttermilk, and an egg.
Every woman I grew up with bought cornmeal mix, flour and cornmeal already blended. If I blend them myself, is that more authentic, or less?
Get the speckled ceramic bowl from the top shelf of your cabinet. The one your mama bought for $0.25 at a garage sale when you moved out, and then wished she had kept for herself.
You didn’t brown the butter, did you? Pay attention. If it’s melted, set it aside to cool.
I have never seen a woman make cornbread with a measuring cup. My mother and my grandmother used a jelly jar. Add two parts of cornmeal to one part of flour. Let’s call one part 3/4 of a cup, remembering our jelly jar.
My other grandmother didn’t make cornbread, she made biscuits, and she didn’t measure a damned thing.
Add a teaspoon and a half of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt. Everyone used self-rising flour. I had to find the conversion table. It may be all wrong, but it works out fine in the end.
Add a little more salt, unless you used salted butter.
Mix your dry ingredients. Remember your meditation on authenticity.
Add the egg and the butter. Stir them in the best you can; this will be quite thick.
I called my mother from graduate school and made her give me this recipe over the phone. It was a difficult semester. She forgot to tell me about the egg, until years later. One day I mentioned that my cornbread was too crumbly, and she said, “Are you forgetting the egg?” and I said “what egg?”
Add buttermilk until it looks right. You either know, or you don’t. I’m sorry. Cornmeal is tricky and not every batch absorbs the same. When you put it in the pan it should spread smoothly to the edges without you having to help it. Not enough, and your bread will be dry and crumbly. Too much, and it will stay heavy and doughy.
Your iron skillet will be hot–don’t touch it while you pour the batter in. You want a nice quiet sizzle.
Bake for a while, until it’s done. My mama liked to flip hers out onto a plate, then slide it back into the skillet to brown on the top. Unless you have strong wrists and 100% confidence in your moisture content and the non-stick nature of well-seasoned iron, don’t try it.
Thank your ancestors for your cast iron and your cornmeal, your oven and your wrists.