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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