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A Proper Pan of Cornbread
John Tullock

Although we modern folk are in many respects divorced from the constraints imposed by Mother Nature upon our food sources, it was not so with our ancestors. Climate shaped culture, food in particular. In the American South, for example, the weather is too warm and humid for raising the hard winter wheat used for yeast bread and pasta. Instead, soft summer wheat is milled into fine, fluffy flour for “short” baked goods, such as piecrust, dumplings and biscuits.

Corn, on the other hand, thrives in heat. In fact, time to maturity in corn has to do not so much with the number of days the plant spendsgrowing, but rather the number of days when the temperature rises above a certain point early and remains there for most of the day. As a result, we eat a lot of cornbread down here. Besides the relative cheapness and abundance of corn (the same type of corn that’s made into cornmeal is used for animal feed) in comparison to wheat flour, a proper pan of cornbread can be whipped up in less than an hour while a loaf of bread, of course, takes much longer. Since, in days gone by, the term “housewife” included such duties as splitting firewood and milking in addition to cooking, time was of the essence. (How little that part has changed!)

No doubt there are as many cornbread recipes as there are grandmothers in Tennessee, and endless discussion about the ratio of cornmeal to wheat flour, stone ground versus machine ground, and so forth. These same grandmothers will then excuse themselves, insist on being left alone in the kitchen, and secretly use their favorite brand of cornbread mix off the grocery shelf. Only in this way can one be certain of a consistent result. If you cannot find a Southern-style cornbread mix in your area, try shopping when you travel. The mix will keep several months and may be frozen.

I have access to two local brands, and usually choose “Three Rivers,” so named because the Holston and French Broad Rivers come together to form the Tennessee just east of our town.


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set a heavy 10 - 12 inch cast iron skillet, well seasoned if possible, on a stove eye. Dribble about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in the skillet, turning to coat the bottom evenly. In a large mixing bowl, place one pound cornbread mix. In another bowl, combine 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and 3/4 cup milk, mixing well. When the oven is ready, turn on the heat under the skillet, or place it in the oven. The secret to a brown, crunchy crust on the cornbread is a hot, well-oiled skillet. While the skillet heats, make a well in the center of the cornbread mix, dump in the liquids, and stir with a wire whisk or fork until just combined. If the batter is not pourable, add milk by dribbles until it is. When the oil in the skillet is almost smoking, pour in the batter in a steady stream, scraping out the bowl well. Carefully return the skillet to the oven and bake the cornbread until the top is golden, about 20 - 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool before cutting into pie wedges.

Cornbread needs nothing more than butter to make a delightful meal with a glass of milk. The traditional way to enjoy cornbread in Tennesse is with a pot of beans or greens. It also goes well with barbecue and seafoods.

For hush puppies, the batter is left dry enough to hold its shape in a spoon, and is deep fried in vegetable oil at 350 degrees until golden.

A leftover cornbread wedge can be sliced in half to form two triangles, and then browned in butter on the cut side to create a delicious crouton. Topped with, say, crawfish hash and a poached egg, you have a hearty lunch. Leftovers can also be frozen for use in making cornbread dressing to accompany roast pork or poultry.

One more thing: I know your grandmother did not make cornbread this way. Neither did mine, or so she said.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns "Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants and fine food products.

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