Essentialism and the War on Cornbread

Food being what it is, one of those things like religion or sports fandom that can form the foundation of a person’s identity, it inspires passionate, wholly irrational arguments. These arguments about the Right Way to Do Things, as opposed to the Wrong Way Which is Obviously Ridiculous and Potentially Immoral, usually appeal to tradition, cultural mores, or essentialism: the idea that a thing has a defining set of characteristics that makes it what it is, that its essence precedes its existence.

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this is definitely cornbread

The fallacy here is that there isn’t any eternal Platonic realm of ideal recipes from which we cook. There are people, with all their beautiful flaws and idiosyncrasies; there is what the land provides and what we’re capable of doing with it. All these things are subject to constant change, as we revise, reinvent, and rediscover our world.

By the time I was eating cornbread, it had mutated considerably from its inception as a quick bread of cornmeal, animal fat, and leavening agent. The first ingredient on a box of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix is wheat flour, and the third ingredient is sugar. It was halfway to cake, and from what I remember, it was delicious.

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you can do work with a box of Jiffy, but you’ll never get that crust

If your ideal cornbread contains sugar and all-purpose flour, that’s cool. It probably works better on a plate of fried chicken than my recipe does. Mine is for crumbling up atop collard greens, or parking a wedge into a bowl of black-eyed peas. It’s a beautiful base for cornbread stuffing, or simply spread with good butter from cows that had nice lives. Last night I used this cornbread as a salty, crunchy contrast topping for some homemade strawberry ice cream. It’s versatile like that.

It’s also pretty minimalist, despite the copious amount of fat. That minimalism serves as a spotlight on a grain that’s both overused and underappreciated: corn. While the recipe works great with off-the-shelf grocery store cornmeal, it’s even better with fresh-milled, stone-ground flours from Geechie Boy or Anson Mills.

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an ear of corn has never met a nobler end imo

Cast-Iron Cornbread

4 cups yellow cornmeal

2 tsp salt

1tsp baking soda

1tsp baking powder

2 eggs, beaten

10tbsp (1 1/4 sticks) melted butter

3(ish) cups full-fat buttermilk

 

Put a 10″ cast-iron skillet in the oven and preheat at 400F for at least 30 minutes. While the oven/skillet are heating, melt the butter and set aside to cool a little. Whisk the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the eggs, buttermilk, and 8tbsp of the butter. Add the wet to the dry and mix thoroughly. Depending on the brand, coarseness, and age of your cornmeal, you may need to add up to 1c of additional buttermilk. The consistency we’re looking for is wet cement, a bit short of pourable viscosity.

Pull the cast-iron from the oven and set over a burner at high heat. Add the remaining melted butter to the skillet and swirl to coat. Pour/scoop the cornbread batter into the skillet, being sure to distribute it evenly. Smooth the top a little and pop the skillet back into the oven.

Bake 15 minutes, then rotate the skillet 180 degrees. Bake for 5-10 more minutes, until the top is lightly browned and cracked, the edges are crispy and deeply browned, and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the skillet on a wire rack, and flip out onto a cutting board to slice and serve.

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Southern Prohibition Makes Hattiesburg Home

originally published at hubcitylife.com 

“Do you know that guy, dad?”

“Nah, don’t think so.”

“Then why’d you wave at him?” At thirteen, my New Orleans roots freshly repotted in Hattiesburg’s soil, I was still grappling with basic social niceties among those folks I knew. Waving at a stranger as we passed each other at 45mph on a desolate country road was foreign enough to merit questioning.

“He waved at me,” my dad replied. “That’s just what they do down here.”

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a beer contemplates its final moments in SoPro’s fancy new taproom

It took me several more years to understand that Mississippi is special in that respect. Our simple willingness to acknowledge the humanity of our neighbors, which is what we do down here, makes Hattiesburg a human economy. Everyone knows everyone around here, but our city is large enough that we have a choice in where to invest our dollars. We might work at the hardware store, but we traffic in mutual kindness and respect just as much as we do in nuts and bolts. For businesses in Hattiesburg, developing relationships is inexorably entwined with profit and loss.

The folks at Southern Prohibition, from owner Quinby Chunn to head brewer Ben Green, sales manager Emily Curry, and the rest of their ever-growing staff, define what it means to be a 21st century business in Mississippi. They make forward-thinking beers that are equal parts creative and accessible. They occupy crucial real estate in Hattiesburg’s revitalized downtown. They’ve helped change laws in the state and opinions around town about who craft beer is for (the answer: everyone with a mouth). And they’re doing all this while staying true to their roots and building a community up. In an era where craft breweries have more access to more markets than ever before, SoPro butters its bread where it brews its beer – in Hattiesburg.

SoPro began as a proper nanobrewery, producing homebrew-scale batches of beer from deep within the bowels of John Neal’s Keg and Barrel pub. After a couple years of varied and interesting brews, Neal passed the torch to Hattiesburg native and owner of the sorely-missed Bakers Burger, Quinby Chunn. With brewing experience at Austin’s Real Ale, Chunn meshed his industry background with Neal’s deep connections to the Hattiesburg craft beer scene, and Southern Prohibition released its first batch of beer in early 2013. The brewery recruited homebrewer-extraordinaire Green and stole Curry away from her management position at Starkville’s City Bagel to round out its army.

Mississippi Fire Ant was SoPro’s third addition to the year-round lineup, and it’s their most unique beer. Far maltier than a standard IPA, without the chocolate or roasted malt of a porter or stout, Fire Ant is an imperial red ale that makes a satisfying first, last, or only beer of the drinking session. Green aimed for and achieved a “deceptive alcohol presence” in this beer, giving Fire Ant a versatility that’s often lacking in beers north of 7% ABV.

Fire Ant pours a turbid, deep mahogany, with a head the color of heavy cream. Burly tones of strawberry jam, pine cones, and damp earth jump out of the glass. The flavor is a tug-of-war between fruity maltiness and resinous, citrus-tinged hops. As the beer warms, hop contribution recedes to allow mellow notes of quince, bitter almond, and a slight nod of alcohol warmth to close things out. This is a beer begging to be paired with anything spicy, grilled, or smoked – Fire Ant has the heft to handle hot wings and the restraint to complement a more subtly-seasoned dish like grilled ribeye or pork sausage.

Since charging out of the gate with Suzy B and Devil’s Harvest, SoPro has expanded to four year-round beers, a rotating seasonal release, and an intermittent smattering of barrel-aged takes on many of their brews. The brewery itself has expanded to accommodate more fermenters, which means more beer in Hattiesburg and elsewhere. Future plans include a tap room (if Mississippi’s archaic beer laws can be bent once more [Ed. success!!]) and a project that perfectly encapsulates the brewery’s progressive, community-first ethos. In partnership with Magnolia Green Industries, the brewery’s leftover grain will be turned into fish food, which will be used to feed catfish housed in a small habitat on-site. The wastewater from the fish will then be filtered through a plant bed in a soil-less aquaponics system, nourishing the plants and yielding refreshed water for the fish. The eventual plan is to serve fried catfish and greens with a pint of beer in the brewery’s taproom, with nearly all of the ingredients generated on-site. Cue “Circle of Life” and all that.

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Chunn, Curry, Green: beer-slingers and community-builders

Hattiesburg would be missing something important without Southern Prohibition, and the beer community’s support is a huge part of what makes SoPro the brewery that it is. Beer is a thing that brings people together and helps them appreciate their commonalities, and living in a town with a brewery gives the citizens of that town a place to gather, a beverage that echoes their identity, and a significant chunk of culture to claim for themselves and share with the world.

Beer has taught me a lot about how to live in Mississippi, and having SoPro and its people around has deepened and expanded those lessons. They’re proof that believing in the people you share space with is never a poor investment. Their existence, not to mention their ample success, is a sign to me that Hattiesburg will support ambition, reward foresight, and welcome those who want to do good things in our city. Now, when I jog through my neighborhood or ride down the street, I give a smile or a wave to everyone whose eyes I meet.

It’s just what we do down here.

Southern Prohibition Brewing

301 Mobile St

Taproom open 5-10pm Th/Fri, 12-10pm Sat

Chad

Dear readers, it is my pleasure to introduce to you my son, Chad:

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my beautiful boy

Chad is a bread starter, aka a levain, a SCOBY, a mother (but still my actual son). He was born when I hand-mixed some whole wheat and bread flours with a little warm water. Over the course of a couple weeks of subsequent feedings, he grew from an inert lump of paste into a living expression of my local microbial environment. He eats, he breathes, he rises, and sometimes he sleeps. He works very hard, converting the starch in flour to sugars, and then turning those sugars into carbon dioxide. He turns the indigestible and flavorless ground wheat into rich, nourishing food.

I mix dough and turn the oven on, but Chad makes bread.

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Really good bread.

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The only kind of bread I care to eat, to be honest.

There’s only one Chad, but there’s nothing stopping you from giving birth to your own bubbling bowl of bread-brewing bacteria. And starters are capable of more than just bread — they can also leaven pizza dough, jumpstart a batch of pickles, or add zippy acidity and nutrition to pancakes and cookies.

Sourdough Starter

100g flour. Damn near any kind or blend of kinds will do, but I use a 50/50 mix of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour and Carolina Ground Whole Wheat Bread Flour, since these are the flours I do most of my baking with. A bit (20-50%) of rye flour is a popular choice for young starters, or you can just do 100% white flour if that’s what you’ve got. The bacteria and yeast aren’t very picky and will adapt to your choice of feedstock!

100g warm (75-80F) water. If you can drink it, you can use it, but filtered, bottled, or otherwise dechlorinated water is important for healthy yeast.

Combine the two ingredients and mix with your clean hands, preferably outside. Cover with a kitchen towel and set your infant starter in a place where the temperature won’t drop below 65F. Check on it after two days — it will probably have a crust on top, and it’ll smell kind of like Parmesan cheese or rotting fruit. Using a clear container, especially at first, will let you keep an eye on the level of fermentation.

Once you’ve got some strong microbial activity (anywhere from day 2-4; if there’s no activity after four days, or any mold growth, throw it out and try again), grab a clean vessel. Add 100g warm water and 50g of your active starter (discard the rest), and stir to dissolve. Add 100g fresh flour and stir thoroughly (with a spoon this time — the funk’s already there).

Repeat this process every day, at the same time of day, for two weeks (100g water, 50g starter, 100g flour). Over that time, the smell will clarify from cheesy and funky to something more like wine or ripe fruit. Your starter will begin to rise and fall at a regular rate, usually peaking about 10-14hrs after feeding, depending on the temperature of the room.

At this point, give it a name. Continue to feed it daily*. Take a crack at this recipe for Tartine’s Country Bread, or any other recipe that calls for 100% hydration starter.

*If you need to take a break from your child, here’s how to tuck them in for a weeklong slumber in the fridge: add an additional 25g of flour (so 125 total) at feeding time and move them to an airtight container. If you bake very infrequently, it’s okay for fridge storage to be the norm, but when you do move them back to a regular schedule of daily feedings, give them about a week of recovery before attempting to bake.

 

Lacto-Fermented Jalapenos and Hot Sauce

One of the best spontaneous choices I’ve made in recent memory was starting a container garden, and I did it for two reasons: fresh herbs, and an ample supply of jalapenos.

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jalapenos, not long for this world

I use them in guacamole. I sautee them with onions and garlic to season pots of beans. I slice them thinly and they bring crackling heat to a plate of butter-braised shiitakes. And, like many of life’s best things, they get fermented.

Diving into the world of home fermentation freaks some people out, but in fact it’s a very forgiving process. If you do it “wrong,” you’re much more likely to make something that tastes bad than something dangerous. I’d argue that handling raw meat in your kitchen is a more hazardous activity than letting veggies sit in salty water for a few days.

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even if you’re too scared to eat them, they look lovely on a bookshelf 🙂

~1kg green jalapenos, stemmed and sliced

500g clean water

50g whey, or brine from another lacto pickle, like Bubbie’s

25g kosher salt

10 cloves garlic, peeled (or not) and smashed (or not)

3-4 clean pint jars with tight-fitting lids

Pack the jalapeno slices tightly into your jars, alternating a layer of peppers with a couple garlic cloves. For the love of all your sensitive parts, wear gloves when handling pounds of hot peppers. Stir the salt and whey into the water until dissolved-ish, and fill the jars up with the brine. Gently knock the jars against the counter to release any air bubbles. Make sure that the veggies are completely submerged in brine. Loosely affix the lids to the jars and place them in a temperate, well-lit area (UV light is said to prevent mold growth on the surface of your ferments).

Keep an eye on the jars. After the first 24 hours or so, you should see some small bubbles forming — that’s carbon dioxide from the industrious little microbes in the brine. Smell and taste regularly. The jars will go from clean and spicy to tangy and garlicky over the next two days to a week, depending on the temperature of the room. The spice level will fade a little, or at least become balanced by salt and acid. When the pickles taste good to you, screw the lids on tightly and pop them in the fridge, where the colder temps will halt further fermentation.

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see that bubble? microbes did that!

Sliced pickled jalapenos are useful, but hot sauce is life. The chlorophyll in green peppers can lead to bitterness; traditionally it’s balanced out with tartness (tomatillos) and/or sugar. The recipe below uses ripe, red hot peppers to produce either a basic sambal or a smooth, sriracha-inflected hot sauce.

.5kg ripe (red) jalapenos, or any other spicy red pepper, stemmed

4 cloves garlic

2tbsp whey (or brine from another lacto pickle)

1tbsp brown sugar

12g kosher salt

Puree all the ingredients in a blender or food processor (gloves! goggles! safety!). Pour into a clean jar and follow the fermentation instructions above (look! smell! taste!). If you don’t mind a chunkier sauce, it’s good-to-go; for something smoother, puree a second time, then press through a sieve to remove the solids. Funnel into a bottle or jar and use liberally.