Granma cautioned in a kitchen off Century and Hoover,
“Never throw your hair away. Burn it.” Till yellow
Cornbread bakes and greens release pot liquor
Her garnet polished fingers unraveled each cornrow.
“Halcyon Kitchen: A Pantoum for Granma,” First Stanza
If I close my eyes tightly, wait a few seconds, and then allow myself to slip back into my childhood and sit myself in Granma’s kitchen, a number of memories will begin to wind around me. Like the morning glory vines that encircle my house and creep in through my front door when I am not careful or looking, Granma memories will wrap themselves around me, too. If I am still enough, I will feel her arms hug me. If I am quiet enough, I will hear her voice mingled amongst my cousin and brother and Uncle Romel, and Aunt Patty, and my Mama appearing at the end of a long workday as a bank teller, and perhaps, even Robert Earl, my uncle now departed, will appear. But Granma’s voice will echo through my bones if I am quiet enough. And, if I squeeze my eyes tight and long enough, I will see Papa with his Bible studying and praying to decipher words bigger than his nonexistent early education. He will sit at the kitchen table and watch The Three Stooges, Tom & Jerry, The Monsters, and even, in the evenings, The Dating Game—whatever us kids, Granma, or Mama, Patty, or Romel click the dial too. Yes, the TV will be black and white, small and adorned with coat hangers, but Papa and us all will laugh at the screen.
Now, if I wait long enough, through the stillness, the quietness, the eye squeezing, I will begin to taste what love is like on an ordinary day—a pan of cornbread on top of the stove, cooling, waiting to be eaten with dinner. Granma made cornbread in cast iron skillets she bought at flea markets and yard sales, and though I know only nostalgia tells me this, it seems like there was a pan with every evening meal. When I was a young mother and wife still learning to feed my family, she’d remind me over and over that I needed a good skillet for cooking.
“Let Mama tell you what to do,” she’d start off. “Go on down to an old flea market or yard sale and get you a good, sturdy cast iron skillet.”
“Um-hmm,” I said, letting her know I was paying attention.
“Don’t matter how old and rusty it looks, Mama’ll tell you how to bring it back.”
“Okay,” I’d switch the baby boy from one hip to the other, “But I ain’t seen none; I’ve been looking since the last time you told me.”
“Tell you what,” she said once, “Mama’ll go and find you one and get it seasoned and ready for you next time you come down.”
Truth is, she had gotten too sick to go flea marketing and yard sale hopping to find me a skillet. But it didn’t stop her from reminding me that it was necessary. When I complained about feeling tired and run down she’d say, “Get your pan, the cast iron one, and boil some water in it. When the water get to boiling get a fork and bang the edges. That’ll release the iron into the water. Drink that water and it’ll build your blood up.
I listened intently, but in my mid twenties I didn’t quite know what to make of Granma’s iron building advice. WebMD suggested iron-rich foods and supplements and made no mention of fork banging cast iron skillets with boiling water—and drinking the water.
“That’s what Big Mama and my grandmama use to do for us.” She told me, adding that those were the old ways back home.
Granma’s cornbread tasted like love. Don’t get me wrong, all her food did, but the cornbread, baked in a cast iron skillet till golden and crunchy on the outside, the cornbread felt like all of her was concentrated into a slice of crumbly yellow. She didn’t make it sweet, no, no. Granma’s cornbread was southern from the skillet to the slice. Salty with a slight hint of sweetness, crunchy around the edges and delicately crumbed in the middle. The broken top was always covered with a thin film of butter, melted on soon as the pan emerged from the oven.
I didn’t like meat much then, we’d have liver and onions, fried chicken, fried pork chops, duck, Cornish game hens, or ribs on holidays. In fact, I hated the meat. With every bite my brother would remind me I was eating the leg, side, or rib of an animal causing me to stare at it and then pass it to him when Granma, Mama, or Aunt Patty wasn’t looking.
A pan of cornbread on top the stove, cooling in a cast iron skillet waiting to be eaten with dinner—this is what love tastes like on an ordinary day in my kitchen. It has been handed down from Big Mama to Granma to Me, and like me, my kids get slices they never feel is big enough with dinner.
I can’t stop making cornbread. Ever. It is a part of our Family Food Fingerprint, a food E and the kids know and have come to expect. But beyond that, I taste generations of womenfolk, my women kinfolk in cornbread. Granma was raised on cornbread like my Mama, me, and now my daughter. We are women who eat cornbread and feed our family cornbread full of iron absorbed through cast iron skillets. Our blood is strong, thick and rich.
Below is my recipe for a southern, skillet corn bread recipe that is vegan and also sweetened. Please try it and share it with those you love!
Vegan Sweet Southern Cornbread
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. all purpose flour
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbl. baking soda
1 c. vegan milk (sweetened is fine)
1/3 c. canola oil
1 Ener-g “egg”
1-2 Tbl. orange blossom honey
2-3 Tbl. of Earth Balance, plus more for buttering the top
- Preheat oven and cast iron skillet to 400 degrees. When pan is hot, add butter to melt, than place back into the oven.
- While butter is melting prepare batter. First, mix “egg” and set aside to thicken while you mix the other ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together corn meal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Set aside. In a separate smaller bowl, combine milk, oil, honey, and egg. Mix to incorporate all ingredients.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the wet ingredients into the well. Stir until just combined, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. This is a fairly thin batter so it should not need a lot of mixing. Once all ingredients are fully incorporated stop mixing.
- In this next step you are going to work quickly to get the batter into the hot skillet and then back into the hot oven making sure to minimize heat loss in the pan and oven. Carefully take the hot pan out of the oven and quickly pour the batter into the pan. It should sizzle and a crust should begin to form around the edges immediately. Quickly return the pan to the hot oven.
- Cook for 20-23 minutes. When a toothpick comes out clean in the center, take the cornbread out of the oven and immediately put 2-3 small ‘pats’ of the Earth Balance on the top to melt. Serve and Enjoy.
The key to authentic southern cornbread (minus the debate of sweet or not) is in the crust. To get the crunchy crust and soft inner crumb, the key is to use a cast iron skillet that has been properly seasoned and is well heated. The oven and the pan must be very hot. You want the batter to start cooking as soon as it hits the skillet, and you want to get it back into a hot oven as soon as possible.
Over the years of making this, I have learned how to best achieve the crust:
- Preheat the oven and pan well in advance. I often will turn my oven on and place the skillet in the oven about an hour or so before I start to mix my batter. When I know I am making cornbread to accompany a meal, I start preheating soon as I walk into the kitchen if I know my recipe prep is only an hour or so.
- Do not mix the batter too far in advance. Whenever I have a recipe that is leavened solely by baking soda (make sure it is fresh!), I do not mix too far in advance. The exception to that is pancakes, but that is another post. I mix this batter only when I know my pan and oven is hot and ready.
- Do not let the heat out. Open the oven and take the pan out of the oven as little as possible. Once my pan goes in, it stays in till I am ready to pour the batter into it.
- Do not open the oven more than you need to. Again, back to letting the heat escape. When you take the pan out of the oven to pour the batter in, close the oven up. The hot oven and pan is what produces the crunchy crust.
- Get it in and leave it alone. Once you get the cornbread in the oven, set your timer and forget about it. Let it cook, undisturbed until the 20 minutes is up. You will most likely be able to smell it when it is ready.
We eat cornbread with everything. Stews, soups, casseroles, spaghetti, you name it. This is also the recipe I use for corn muffins, cornbread stuffing for Thanksgiving, and any other fancy cornbread recipe I might decide to use.
The bread sweetened, makes for a great mid day or morning snack, and can be eaten with warm cereal, eggs, rice for lunch, or just as a snack alone.
I keep this in a tightly covered plastic container on the counter, but if you like your cornbread cold you can store it in the fridge. It keeps well either way, and is usually gone in my house before a day or two is up.
This recipe can be double, though I would not double the sugar. I think 1 c to 1 1/3 c would be fine for a double batch, but hey, if you want to add 1 1/2 c of sugar I won’t stop you, I might even join you.
My version is sweet and homey. The corn flavor is well balanced and does not over power, yet it does taste decidedly like cornbread. The addition of honey gives it a sweetness, sometimes a stickiness that we tend to like. The more honey you add, the more sticky the top crust and crumb. Overall, although this version is sweet, it isn’t overly so. It compliments savory dishes well and gives a nice balance to a meal. I make this often when we have family over and they can never stop grabbing slices.
Now, you’ll notice that my corn bread recipe is no different, but also full of differences from the box recipe. Granma’s cornbread was not sweet, but Mama’s was. The recipe on the box, when carried out correctly is the southern way, the way my Granma made it, but it isn’t very sweet. I have veganized and sweetened it, so that it is suitable for my family. But make no mistake, you can still taste Granma in the crumb. Taste like love on an ordinary day.
Peace and love.