Cornbread and Buttermilk

It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man on the face of the earth has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.

Notes on Sawmill Gravy

The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War, when vast areas of the South were still covered with a forest through which one observer claimed that a squirrel could travel from Virginia to Texas without ever touching the ground. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it was to the South that it turned for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms all over the hills and mountains of the South. The Southern woodlands kept its people in food and clothing during the aftermath of the calamity.

It wasn’t long after the Civil War that the Great Plains became home to those vast fields of wheat that fed the rapidly-expanding country. Up until the final quarter of the 19th century most of the South, indeed much of the country, depended on corn (maize) as its principal grain, and meal made from corn was the rule rather than the exception in rural households where wheat flour was an expensive commodity. Still, flour was obtainable, and American kitchens of every strata of society produced a wide variety of wheat-based breads and other foods. But in the South, largely because of its isolation and overwhelming poverty, wheat flour was for the most part alien to kitchens unless they were in urban enclaves or upper-income homes. Such kitchens were rarely found in the backwoods lumbering camps of the upper South, meaning those parts of the region where primeval woods still stretched over mountains and hills, for there growing wheat on any ample scale was impossible, but corn was grown abundantly as a meal grain, food for stock and a starch vegetable, most notably for hominy and of course grits, which I still hear some people call “hominy grits”.

To English-speaking peoples, gravy is a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat. The word is rooted in the Latin granum (grain), which in the Old World meant for the most part wheat, but in the South, corn was the staple grain until the late19th century. What the old folks called “thick’nin’ gavy” (as opposed to red-eye) in frontier lumber camps was made from corn meal, in which case it must have resembled not so much gravy as polenta and had the consistency of grits, albeit creamy grits, since milk became a steadfast ingredient in sawmill gravy as it’s known now. I have seen people put grits on a biscuit, yes I have. I’ve also seen people put ketchup on scrambled eggs, and I once saw a beautiful woman with a dreadful Midwestern accent dressed in a smart business suit douse a slice of good Kentucky ham with Worcestershire sauce (when she asked me what I was staring at, I told her I was admiring her decollete). If you want to brave a venture into what Garden& Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook calls “True Sawmill Gravy” (p. 79), you go right ahead, but I’ll not be responsible for the consequences. It might be wise to have a back-up version made with good Martha White flour readily available in case someone spits it out, looks down their nose at you and asks for another biscuit.

In a former life, I worked in a restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi, where they hold a furniture market every February. It’s a huge event, attracting manufacturers from all over the Mid-South. One year, our restaurant had a breakfast for the truck drivers, who had driven to town the day before delivering the tons of couches, tables, chairs and other accoutrements for display. This breakfast was sponsored by the market management, and we had about fifty or sixty drivers there to chew the fat and gulp down a buffet of scrambled eggs, ham, sausage and bacon, biscuits, grits and gravy. The cook in charge of the occasion left soon afterwards, right before I came in to prep for the night (it was a heavy week). It wasn’t ten minutes later that the owner came in with a steam table pan full of his gravy, which looked like melted vanilla milk shakes, plopped it down on the counter in front of me and said, “They hate this. Fix it. NOW!” and then walked out.” (She was, and still is from what I understand, a real pill; my paychecks bounced on more than one occasion.) So I made my version of sawmill gravy. She took it up and it got a solid round of approval from the drivers upstairs. Later she came in and said, “Well, I guess you’re my go-to guy for breakfast from now on.” I just glared at her and said, “I hate the hell out of that.”

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly. Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat, and season to taste with salt and I like plenty of black pepper in mine.

Twelve Dishes Every Southerner Should Know How to Cook

If you ever want to stir up a lot of fuss (something I’d generally advise against), ask a group of people about food. I submitted a preliminary list of twelve kitchen essentials for a Southerner to my friends, among them many talented cooks, and it was like throwing a June bug down into a flock of ducks. The pot roast was devastated by a barrage of detractors who claimed that it’s just got Yankee written all over it, the red velvet cake was gunned down as a Waldorf recipe and the pecan pie was mined by a sweet potato. So I substituted a pound cake and sweet potato pie for the red velvet and pecan, stewed greens, which almost lost out to butter beans, for the roast, and achieved some degree of consensus. This list deserves a Purple Heart at least.

Buttermilk biscuits
Cornbread
Pimento cheese
Fried chicken
Barbecued ribs
Pound cake
Fruit cobbler
Cornbread dressing
Chicken and dumplings
Sweet potato pie
Banana pudding
Stewed greens

Luncheon Dishing

Women in any given society will assemble to sip, nibble and talk about anything they want and anyone who isn’t there. Speaking as an ardent fan of my opposite sex, I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place due to distaff parliaments. Civilization itself depends on feminine attentions if not to say machinations, and it’s usually in these gaggles that the most uninhibited deliberations between our sisters take place. Men should understand and appreciate this phenomenon, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works; you may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a fair bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife does. And God help you if you’ve been shtupping her as well.

The food served at more formal klatches of this type is delicate, often to the point of fussy. This is no place for pork chops: small servings of carefully prepared, light offerings are the rule. You’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, pasta or seasonal vegetables alongside the obligatory crustless geometric sandwiches. Sweets, with the exception of a killer cake, are dainty and plentiful as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to swear that food is primarily intended to buffer the effects of a Bloody Mary luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached. In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake (lemon or poppy seed particularly) at a ladies’ luncheon seem mandatory now, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding one without serving tomato aspic would imperil your membership in the 20th Century Club.

Because of recoil from the foods of the Sixties, congealed salads (like fondue) have become not only passé but proscribed. This reaction is somewhat justified; on any given month between say 1960 and 1975 in any magazine devoted to food, you’ll find tons of recipes for gelatin involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen, more often than not canned fruit, citrus Jell-O and mini marshmallows. But we shouldn’t abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and this is a great dish: light, savory, easily prepared and attractive. Let’s hope tomato aspic is going through a trial period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much a novel legacy but a standard for our tables.

Tomato Aspic

3 cups tomato juice
2 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons finely minced white onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to taste

Warm tomato juice, add gelatin and dissolve. Stir in lemon juice, black pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce (I like Crystal), add vegetables and chill until partially set, spoon or pour into individual (5 oz.) lightly oiled molds and chill until set. Unmold and serve with cold sides such as boiled eggs and vegetables, particularly pickled green beans or steamed asparagus.

 

Our Mountain Hearth

First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods. The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting the many diverse aspects of Appalachian culture, but Appalachian Cookery stands out as an archetype of many that followed as well as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Those of us with family from north Mississippi should from time to time find your way back to your roots, which extend up and east; most of northeast Mississippi (including Calhoun and Panola but oddly not Lafayette) are within Appalachia, and in Appalachian Cookery you’ll find a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Cornbread

Cornbread is as much a Southern icon as Greek revival architecture, great writing or SEC football, and it’s by far the oldest. My Choctaw ancestors were making bread from maize long before my other ancestors were run out of the British Isles for mocking the local gentry and supporting whatever pretender happened to be in vogue. The Choctaws made what is called shuck bread, or “bunaha”, by mixing water and cornmeal into a stiff paste, forming the paste into balls, wrapping them in cooked corn shucks and boiling them for about an hour. They stored well and were reheated by boiling before serving. The early settlers made a simple type of cornbread by mixing meal, water, salt and lard into a batter and cooking it on a flat metal surface like a pancake. These are called hoecakes or dogbread. Much later came what we know as cornbread. Or at least what I know it as.

When it comes to cornbread, I labored long under the impression that I was a confirmed orthodox. Yellow corn meal? A quarter cup of sugar? Nuh-uh, no way. That’s not cornbread, that’s corncake. A recipe using yellow meal, sugar and even (horror of horrors) butter just has Yankee written all over it. A Michigan-born hostess once served me such bread, and I’m sorry to say I was so rude as to point out what a culinary abomination it was. She set me in my place by being quite gracious about my gaffe, which made her a lady, and after dinner her husband offered to punch me in the nose, which made him a gentleman. (We still exchange Christmas cards.) I once ran up on a California recipe for cornbread using vanilla flavoring that confirmed a whole slew of suspicions I’d long harbored about the frivolity if not to say instability of the West Coast mentality. I’ve also come across recipes with dill, cheddar cheese, yogurt, skim milk, blue corn meal, creamed corn, and even (I swear to God) tofu. What passes under the name of Mexican cornbread is subject to all manner of atrocities, the most bizarre of which I’ve found includes beef jerky and cactus flowers.

As a confirmed orthodox, I thought I was sitting on the front pew with my recipe, which has only white meal, just a little flour, eggs, buttermilk, salt and baking powders. But I found out that there are those who would cry, “Backslider!” at the thought of using bleached meal or even eggs. I just had never considered making cornbread without eggs, then I found that among the recipes you see printed on most meal packages you see this is called “egg bread,” and my faith began to falter. These no-egg purists, I began to believe, were true cornbread devotees who enjoyed a more chaste form of elemental Southern sustenance. I felt horribly decadent, which was not such a new sensation for me, but a cornbread recipe certainly was a novel indicator of my moral turpitude (more official records exist). I got over it. After all, I had learned how to make cornbread at my mother’s knee, and she was a queen among cooks: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, you heathen peasants.

To make cornbread, first put about an eighth of an inch of oil, corn or vegetable, in the bottom of your skillet, and stick it in the oven at about 450. Then take one and a half cups of white self-rising corn meal and about half a cup self-rising flour, mix in a bowl with a scant teaspoon baking soda and a dash or so of salt. Add about 1/3 cup of corn or vegetable oil and mix with dry ingredients until about the consistency of rice. Add one large beaten egg, mix well, and then add enough buttermilk to make a thick batter. Add just a couple of tablespoons of water to this to thin slightly; this enables the meal to swell and makes for lighter bread. Take your skillet out of the oven, tilt to coat the sides with oil, and test the oil with a drop of batter. It should sizzle a bit; if not, heat some more. When oil is sufficiently hot, pour in the batter and put back in oven. Bake until golden brown. Remove by inverting skillet. If your skillet is properly seasoned and your oil was hot enough, the cornbread should just pop out of the skillet with a fine brown crust. Eat a piece with butter immediately, and thank God you’re alive.

Standing up for Pecan Pie

Let’s not quibble and just admit in our hearts that pecan pie is made up of every ingredient condemned by food Nazis as downright deadly: eggs, sugar, flour and lard or butter. It’s a sure bet that not a few of those Aryans have petty issues with vanilla flavoring, and some left-wing faction probably thinks pecans will wreck your colon. But you know what? We shouldn’t care; pecan pie is the most iconic dish of the season. Trust me, use the Karo recipe with light syrup and wrap loosely in foil while baking to prevent scorching.

Holidays in Old Calhoun

My mother Monette Morgan Young was born in 1915 on a small farm east of the village of Reid in the northeast part of Calhoun County on the old road to Houlka. She was the daughter of Hosea Morgan and Eula Murphree Morgan, and was an only child. The lack of siblings and nearby neighbor children made her childhood lonelier than most. Her mother was a teacher for many of Monette’s early years, moving around from one one-room community school to another and lodging with someone in that community during the short school term each year. She took Monette with her while Hosea stayed home to take care of the farm. When schools were not in session, all three worked hard to raise enough food and “bring in” a small cotton crop to sell for their cash needs.

Monette was a reader and a writer; she loved poetry and history. In her later years, Monette began to write of her growing-up days and her life on that farm. Like many people as they grow older, she became interested in family history and began a decades-long period of formal research and the gathering of family stories from surviving aunts, cousins and others who had lived in Reid. Her cousin Clarence Morgan was a great source of family and community information; and she and he made many trips, some with grandkids along, to old cemeteries and old communities barely recognizable by then with the changes of time.

 In the early 1980s she began sending me long letters—some she typed but most were handwritten in a hurried scrawl—letters with information she had gathered about not only our family but also about other families who lived in that area and her memories of them and her life there. As I saved her letters, I began to realize that if the material was organized, edited a bit, fleshed out with a map or two, and if I took the various bits of information about, for example, the Clark family or the community social life, and put those together and did likewise with other topics, this might make an interesting memoir as well as a useful genealogical and historical resource. I did that. It took months in those pre-computer days, but it began to come together. I finished typing it and decided I’d have a few copies made for me and my children and would give her a few copies on her 75th birthday. I called it “The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi”. She was delighted, but said several times, “If I had known you were going to do this, I’d have written this or that, or would have not said that, or would have added the story about….” I told her to consider it a draft and to add or subtract whatever she wanted, and I’d revise the book accordingly. She did, and I did. After Mother died in 2000, I created a second edition of the book, adding the additional material and cleaning up some typos and some errors that had been pointed out. Over 100 copies of that second edition were subsequently made and a digital version is available on the internet for free download.

Holidays
(an excerpt from The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi, by Monette Morgan Young

We did not do lavish Christmas cooking, not in our circle of acquaintances and kin, nor did we do lavish Thanksgiving cooking. We usually had fresh pork both times and often our meat would be a huge pot of backbones. If the hog killing had been in the last day or two before the holiday, we had the most prized meat of all, the loin strip. Our men did not make pork chops of any cut of hog. That long lean strip was taken out without bone and how I looked forward to it. I hated any boiled meat. Mother and all her acquaintances and kin only boiled or fried meat. One reason for that is that they did not know of roasting procedures and second that it would have required oven cooking and use of much stovewood. They could boil a piece or pieces of meat in the black iron cooking pot on the coals on the hearth by the fire which was already going for warmth. Mother would make good dressing with that water and we always had small Bermuda onions growing in the garden all winter. These grew in clusters and did not decay as the large ones did and were not hot. Mother did not have to buy sage. She grew it, dried it in a slow oven and so we had sage and onions for dressing and since I always contended for fried meat, she fried something for me. We sometimes did have a hen boiled but since I wouldn’t eat boiled meat, she had to do the frying for me and I ate dressing with that.

Usually Thanksgiving Day was just another day. Daddy was sometimes up to his ears in corn gathering and we cooked a little better dinner. Some meat as I have described, maybe a molasses cake with the dried apple filling and frosting, one or two or three of the many vegetables in storage, canned or dried, the usual dish of pickles, preserves, canned berries, or peaches, on the table. Christmas would be the same with the exception of a coconut cake. Mother always cooked a large luscious coconut cake. She used only her simple two-egg recipe for the batter (2 eggs, ¾ cup milk, 1-1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup fat, 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt), but we always got a fresh coconut and she filled and covered the cake lavishly with frosting and coconut. Then she always had Daddy to buy the cone-shaped frosted jellied candies, assorted colors. She topped the cake with those and it looked like tiny frost-covered shapes of color in a snow bank. That was her specialty. I never saw or read of a fruit cake. With all our folks, just ordinary cakes were made. A little more lavish perhaps, was a Christmas cake, or was called so.

We often saw no one but ourselves on Christmas Day. The weather would have been too bad to venture forth. My parents had bought a little fruit and a few nuts. Oranges still always smell like Christmas. We had them no other time unless someone was really sick. Those little home-grown apples smelling like all the aromas of Araby would still be crisp and we would allow ourselves a few more of those unwrapping them from the Sears Roebuck catalog pages that were used to protect them and out of their cardboard boxes from under the bed in the front room. We got a few raisins, the seeded ones still on stems, I never taste such now.

If we did not go to Mama Murphree’s on pretty Christmas days we would walk to Grandaddy Morgan’s. My parents occasionally bought a box of lemon stick candy. At Grandfather’s he would bring out his goodies. He may have sent to town for a bushel of shipped in apples, which then I preferred to our small homegrown ones, and he had oranges and several boxes of candy. He always bagged up a large paper bag for us to carry home. Uncle Alsie’s children made their home at Grandaddy’s and Grandmother’s. These were Euras, Theda, Roy and Lois. Lois was near my age, the youngest. So I would get to see the cousins there.

One favorite toy at Christmas time for parents and teachers to give children was a harmonica. At that time, all children were given gifts by teachers. A harmonica, which we called a French Harp, cost all of a nickel or a dime. A good sized professional one might cost a quarter. I invariably wanted one. Of course, I had not a musical bone in my body. I made noise on it, and that was all. Another gift that teachers most often gave was a “bought” toothbrush. Our toothbrushes were off the black gum bush or the black gum tree. They made a large tree, but the woods were full of the small ones and we got a good sized twig about as large as a small cedar pencil, peeled the bark down about an inch and a half and the whole thing was about six inches long. We chewed the peeled end into a mop shaped thing and brushed our teeth with that. We used ashes or baking soda. I recall that Daddy used ashes.

I had bountiful Christmases. I always got one special large gift and one or two small ones. Also there were the oranges and raisins which we did not get at other times, not often. There was candy too, then, but seldom at other times. My victory over my nice pretty things was a little hollow, with no one to show them to or to play with them with me. Some other children of the area did not get anything but the candy, nuts, and fruits. Christmas was a very quiet celebration then. The weather was usually bad and the roads almost impossible to travel on, so family get-togethers were never planned. We almost always got to both my grandparents during the Christmas week. At “Mama” Murphree’s sometimes we got to see other cousins, sometimes not. At the Morgan grandparents, my four cousins who made their home there were always at home and I enjoyed them. Friends and relatives did not exchange gifts. We had no church programs. We didn’t try to plan for such due to not knowing what the weather might do. Mother tried to see that I had a good Christmas. When she was a child, they had had usually nothing except a little candy and one time nothing at all. One Christmas there was a bisque doll with curls for me and one time there was a big sleeping doll and a cloth body–perhaps a paper mache head with painted-on reddish blonde hair. That day it rained all day. We never got outside.

When I was about four, Tellie Murff and Winnie Davis gave me some lovely Christmas gifts. I think Tellie gave me a beautiful ball and some of the best of candy. Winnie gave me a box of blocks, some of which were painted to form the facade of an antebellum house. They were still in the house when all of the things had to be sold and/or given away when Daddy got sick. Some winter Sundays we couldn’t go to church. We’d have Sunday school at home. My Father was well read in the Bible. He was on speaking terms with the old Bible Patriarchs. We three would read and discuss the lesson while pork backbones simmered in the kitchen, they for our Sunday dinner, and while sweet potatoes baked and while perhaps dried peas or butterbeans cooked.

Monette Morgan Young
Monette Morgan Young