Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Corn Bread Nation

RAFT map fig. a:  What?  Chestnuts?

I've thought a lot about this map since the first time we posted it way back when.

I've thought about its telling aspects, like the Great Plains and (the absence of) bison.  But I've also thought about some of its more mysterious elements--like the fact that "Corn Bread & BBQ" somehow excludes the entire state of North Carolina, and that most of Tar Heel State is said to be defined by "Chestnut" instead.

Of course both corn bread and barbecue are hotly divisive issues across much of America, but regardless how you feel about North Carolina corn bread and/or North Carolina barbecue, North Carolina's certainly got a pretty strong claim on both.  After all, this is a state that people regularly claim has the strongest connection to the American barbecue tradition.*  This is a state that when people talk about "the family tree of barbecue," and how it has spread all over the country--and, believe me, plenty of people do--many of them claim that "its deepest tap root" is right there, in North Carolina.**

This is also a state that's serious about its cornmeal and its corn bread.  In fact, the North Carolina tradition is to serve barbecue with two principal accompaniments:  cole slaw and some variation on corn bread, be it actual corn bread, cornpone, cornsticks, or, most commonly, hush puppies.

These people eat a lot of pork, much of it in the form of barbecue.  They also consume great quantities of cornmeal, often with barbecue.  If North Carolina isn't a part of Corn Bread & BBQ Nation, something's truly gone amiss.

Anyway, the point is that when I started to plan a short BBQ Odyssey a couple of weeks ago (more on this later), I got so excited I did two things.  I fired up the smoker and made my first batch of 2013 season barbecue.  And I broke out the cornmeal and made some real skillet corn bread.

I spent a good chunk of my life south of the Mason-Dixon line, but only just south of it, and our family was essentially a family of Northern Virginia carpetbaggers.  I didn't grow up in a true Southern household.  I don't have particularly deep ancestral ties to corn bread.  (I've got maple syrup in my veins, not cornmeal.)  But I do have deep personal ties to corn bread.  Corn bread was just about the first thing that I started cooking when I was a kid.  It was certainly the thing I was most excited to make for years.

The kind of corn bread I made for a long time was typical carpetbagger fare.  It was the kind of corn bread that came all gussied up with too many eggs and too much sugar.  The kind of corn bread I make these days is much more minimal.  It's not sweet at all, and it's really all about the cornmeal.  Which can be a difficult thing to find here in Maple Syrup Nation.  I mean, it's not particularly difficult to find cornmeal, but it's exceedingly difficult to find the kind of cornmeal you need to make a true Southern-style corn bread.  You need to keep your eyes open for real old-school, stone-ground cornmeal, especially when you're in the States, like the Old Wye Mill "Golden Run Yellow Cornmeal" you see below, or some brand of white "Old Virginia Style" cornmeal, depending on which side of the fence you're on.

corn meal fig. b:  true cornmeal

It pays to be picky, because, again, with a true Southern corn bread, it's the cornmeal that's the star attraction, and a mediocre cornmeal results in an insipid corn bread.

I also used to bake my corn bread in a 9" x 9" baking dish, but I've long since preferred to bake it in a cast-iron skillet.  There's something about the ritual of it.  But for that you need a nicely seasoned skillet.

Otherwise, making a true Southern-style corn bread couldn't be easier.  And once you've assembled necessary ingredients, the process is very fast, and very satisfying.

skillet corn bread 1 fig. c:  true skillet corn bread

Skillet Corn Bread 
4 oz. stone-ground cornmeal (this works out to about 1 cup, but I highly recommend weighing your cornmeal)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 large egg
3/4 cup buttermilk (preferably whole buttermilk)
1 tbsp peanut oil, bacon fat, or lard 
special equipment:  an 8-inch well-seasoned skillet 
Preheat your oven to 425º.  Measure the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisk them thoroughly to break up any lumps.  Break the egg into a separate bowl and whisk it lightly.  Add the buttermilk to the egg and whisk to blend. 
Five minutes before you are read to bake your corn bread, add the fat to skillet and place it in the hot oven. 
When four minutes have elapsed, add the egg and buttermilk blend to the dry ingredients, whisking just to blend (in other words, do not blend too much!).  One minute later--at the 5-minute mark--take the skillet from the oven (remember, it will be HOT) and carefully swirl the fat around the bottom of the skillet and along the sides so that the skillet is evenly coated.  Immediately pour the batter into the skillet, using a circular motion for even distribution.  You'll notice that the batter sizzles and climbs up the sides of the skillet slightly.  That's a good sign.  
Return the skillet to the oven and bake the corn bread for about 20-25 minutes, until it is nicely set and golden brown on top.  Remove from the oven and quickly, but confidently flip it out onto a cutting board.  Cut into wedges and serve. 
Makes one 8-inch corn bread. 
[recipe from John "I know a thing or two about Corn Bread Nation" Thorne's Serious Pig [I've tried a lot of different recipes, but this is the one I go back to the most)]
Highly acceptable variation:  w/ real smoked bacon bits (preferably from the strip/s you used to produce the necessary bacon fat).
Now, this is an ideal corn bread to serve with all kinds of Southern fare, including barbecue, and I also like to serve it Southwestern fare, such as chili, but one of my favourite treats involves taking this thoroughly unsweet skillet corn bread straight out of the oven and piping hot and giving it a friendly shove in the sweet direction:

Cut a wedge.  Slice the wedge in half to form a wedge-shaped sandwich.  Pour some sorghum molasses inside.  Close the sandwich.  Pour a bit more sorghum molasses on top.  Devour.***

It's kind of like a Southern-style treacle tart.

skillet corn bread 2 fig. d:  skillet corn bread snack

It would be great with vanilla ice cream, too.

Hmm, might be time to bake another batch of corn bread...


* Jane and Michael Stern, for instance.

** Jim Auchmutey, of The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook fame, has claimed this very thing.

*** If you don't have any sorghum molasses on hand, or don't care for the stuff, a quality honey makes for another delicious option.


An Ontarian said...

Please don't reject your membership in the wild rice nation. It hurts me to think of it. That fancy bottle of eau d'érable can hardly be called blood in your veins!

The recipe looks good--similar to one I make from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Anonymous said...

huh, I've just run across your blog and I think it's very special to find someone in Montreal who also lived in NC for many years and loves food. Your corn bread and bbq odyssey has my tummy rumbling, wish you needed some tasters!!