Posts Tagged With: cornbread

County Corn Expert

[The 20th Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is coming soon.  To prepare for that auspicious weekend, I’m sharing my throwback recollections from last year’s Symposium, the theme of which was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  Before I got into the details of the meeting, I was compelled to establish my authority…]

I am now my county’s foremost expert on corn. I know what you may be thinking: “I thought he was a Pharmacist, not a Farm…Assist.” Perhaps if you are in my immediate family or a close friend, you are recalling something I said that might have been “corny”- but hilarious nonetheless. (See play on words in previous sentence.) Perhaps you are a county extension agent whose specialty is corn, and you might be wondering if I have a degree in Zea Mays farming methods that I’ve never mentioned before. As it happens, I do not have such a degree, but I have recently been in four days of meetings about corn, and in between discussions have eaten ten corn-based meals. I think that ought to do it, don’t you? You do realize how many people on the world-wide interweb claim to be experts with much less experience than that? They are legion.
But before I ruminate aloud on all that new knowledge, I’m going to offer a prelude, with some of my favorite corn memories that have prepared me for this season of life.
My most vivid memory is the summer that I worked in the research cornfields of Mississippi State University’s North Farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked as hard as I did that summer. And I’m certain I was in the best physical shape of my life by the time it was over. We hoed corn. We sprayed stuff on corn. We hoed corn again. We cross-pollinated corn. And … that’s where my corn career ended. Apparently I was allergic to corn pollen. And when you start shaking the stalks to facilitate the separation of the pollen from the thingamawhich that produces the pollen (remember I wasn’t an expert then), it will rain down on your head and turn someone like me into a giant, sneezing, itchy, red minefield of whelps. But it was fun while it lasted, and I had a rockin’ tan.
Growing up, Mama made two kinds of cornbread: regular and Kentucky. Both were baked in a cast iron skillet, as the good Lord intended, but the recipes were different. Regular cornbread was pretty much made of corn meal, and I preferred that version for the times I slathered it with butter prior to covering it with Blackburn’s syrup for dessert. Kentucky cornbread had a can of actual corn mixed in it, and it was my favorite for eating alongside beans and greens and such. In college I moved into an apartment and found a new recipe for Kentucky cornbread left in a drawer by a former resident. This one had chopped onions and sour cream added to it, and was kind of an antithesis to “regular cornbread” – in other words, it was very moist. It’s still my favorite one to make, so shout-out to that mystery former apartment dweller.

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How can I bake thee, cornbread? Let me count the ways.

A thesis on corn in my family wouldn’t be complete without another shout-out to Dawn, Hair Stylist to the Stars, who introduced us to her Corn Casserole. You might call it corn pudding, the staple dish of church potlucks, and that’s okay – they are at least close cousins. Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, butter, sour cream, whole kernel corn and cream corn. Mix and bake. It’s easy, and it’s delicious. I have tried add-ons like cheese and Tony Chachere’s, but they don’t improve it. I’m not even sure bacon would make it better, and that’s near blasphemy.
Corn salad, the picnic dish made properly with white shoepeg corn, is also a family favorite, though I was probably a grown-up before I really began to crave it. We don’t have an heirloom recipe for this one, however – we just get it from The Little Dooey. Why mess up a good thing?
Here’s another question. Why don’t we see more corn in Mexican restaurants? That is, besides the ground up version that morphs into tortillas, tamales, or baskets of chips. I seriously dig what is often simply described as Mexican street corn. I don’t know how authentic the term is, as the only Mexican street I’ve ever walked down was in Cozumel on a cruise excursion, and I don’t think that counts. But I know it’s awesome. Grilled corn, slathered in a mix of mayo and sour cream, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime. Delicioso. Let’s encourage our local restaurateur amigos to andale and arriba that onto their menus, okay? (My apologies to actual Spanish speakers. I’m a corn expert, not a linguist. My Spanish tutor was Speedy Gonzales.)
Long time readers may remember the corn-centric birthday I had a few years ago. I decided to make my own birthday cake and ice cream, and both were corn-flavored. The cake was sweet, but had a high percentage of corn meal in the recipe, giving it a texture somewhere between cornbread and standard cake. What made this particular cake even more unique was it’s color. I had a little bit of blue cornmeal in the pantry at the time, which I mixed in with the yellow cornmeal the recipe called for. You know what blue and yellow make, right? Yes, they make a green cake. Mold green, to be precise. Tasted great. Looked spoiled. Lesson learned. And the corn ice cream – well, it was certainly successful in the sense that it tasted like corn ice cream. I worked hard making that custard, and it was a smooth, rich result. But a couple of bowls and my curiosity was satisfied.

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Can I get you another bowl of corn?

A man corn cob walks into a hipster coffee shop, sits next to a lady corn cob and says, “Come ear often?”
Yep, I’m an expert.

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What’s in your lunchbox?

One of the many cultural tidbits we picked up in our years overseas was the significance of lunch.  With a few exceptions, Americans tend to steer towards light lunches and big dinners.  But in the Middle East it is flipped.  Weddings are celebrated with big lunches.  Agreements are sealed with big lunches.  Lunches are the big deal.  That has very little to do with the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium except for this: lunches are a big deal there, too.

Truth be told, all the meals at an SFA function are a big deal.  Not only that, there are themes that are pretty consistent year to year.  The first lunch, for example, is usually in a box.  This year was no exception, save the fact that the box looked like a suitcase.  A suitcase full of food – now that’s my kind of trip.

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During dinner the night before, we sat across from Chef Mashama Bailey and her colleague, Max, from The Grey in Savannah, Georgia,. Chef Mashama was responsible for packing the suitcase, called the Carry On/Throw Away Lunch.  She doesn’t like to throw food away, we learned, and this lunch was all about finding taste in the parts that many of us may toss in the trash or the compost bin.

We started with a collard green stem salad with ham hock vinaigrette.  Stems do get soft and tasty if you cook them long enough.  Alongside the salad was a Harris Neck Oyster hand pie – I’m not even a big oyster guy and I ate every crumb.  I don’t know the whole story, but I read enough to know that we were lucky to have any oysters from the Georgia coast; sounds like they are coming back.  Middlin’s, also known as rice grits, are the little bits leftover from the rice milling process.  Mashama transformed them into red rice, a Savannah standard.  To wash everything down, it was just tea – but the sweetener was a bottle of simple syrup infused with herb stems.  We may or may not have brought a bottle of that home with us.  For dessert, we enjoyed one of the silkiest vanilla custards ever to coat my tongue, topped with another throwaway: watermelon rind brittle.  Wish I had a suitcase full of that.

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The next day was the Tabasco Appalachian Groaning Table Luncheon, prepared by James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock – and his mama.  There were, oh, about 20 courses to this one, so I’ll hit the highlights.  Awaiting us on the table were mixed pickles, pone bread, sour corn (a first), cucumber slices, banana peppers, green onions, pickled ramps, and kraut balls.  I had only read of ramps before this day, and they turned out to be one of my favorite plates – very strong flavor, no doubt, but the pickling balanced everything, especially with a little piece of pone bread.  I’m not certain what all was in the kraut balls, either, but I ate my fair share of those, for sure.

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The next course was killed lettuce and onions, fried apples, dandelion-cornmeal fritters, soup beans and diced onion with Tabasco, and fried potatoes.  My favorites in this group were probably the fritters, chock full of dandelion greens and topped with some sort of pickled relish.   And those beans – not the least bit fancy, but crazy creamy.

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The second round was a skillet of good cornbread, creamed corn, and a plateful of fried bluegill with tomato gravy.  I recently learned that bluegill and bream were the same fish, and I grew up catching and eating bream – but no doubt this was the first time I’ve ever had tomato gravy on fish.  It was a very pretty plate.  Next up were greasy beans (called that because of their non-fuzzy coat, not necessarily because they are cooked in bacon grease), chicken and dumplings (self-explanatory), and leather britches (green beans preserved by drying, rather than canning.)  I got a real bean education at this table.  Finally, we got a box of desserts: paw-paw and banana pudding, hillbilly fudge (made with Velveeta, but you’d never know) and My Sister’s Chocolate Eclair Cake, which was a great way to end the meal.  And after all I ate, the table wasn’t the only thing groaning at the end.

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The final lunch, at the close of the Symposium, was something of a departure from the norm.  They called it a Pappy Meal.  It was served in a box with a handle, much like the other take-out meals that go by another name that rhymes with Pappy.  But this one was for adults, supplied with a little bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Strategic Reserve.  I don’t partake, but I heard William Faulkner was a fan, so I gave most of mine to him.

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As for the eating, at least seven different chefs contributed to the bounty.  Fried Chicken Green Tabasco Potato Salad Pushups from Oxford’s John Currence.  Remember the orange ice cream pushups from childhood?  Same vehicle, same method, except we were pushing up a very unique potato salad.  The Wife named this her favorite. Roasted Sweet Potato and Smashed Cucumber Salad from Chef Rob Newton (a Southern chef in Brooklyn).  More people should make potato salad from sweet potatoes.  Spicy Pickled Vegetable Slaw from Justin Devillier (New Orleans).  Interesting tweak on slaw, and a serious kick.  Pickled and Jarred Okra by Katie Button (One of Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2015).  I don’t always eat pickled okra, but when I do, I want more of hers.  Fried Pork Chop with Greens, Onions and Comeback from Drew Robinson (Birmingham) and Friends, served on a Benne Seed roll from Lisa Donovan (Nashville).  No one could call this “just a sandwich.”  The sweet finish was a big but not big enough piece of Spiced Pecan and Peanut Brittle from Dwayne Ingraham (recent winner of Cutthroat Kitchen).

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Are you wondering how we managed to eat dinner after all these?  Moderation, determination, and the fact that they removed the serving dishes between courses.

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, the Final Chapter: Comfort Food

If there’s one thing I like about attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every year, it’s the nine meals we get to eat between meetings. Oh – and the snacks. Don’t get me wrong; the between-meal lectures are off the charts. The combo factor is what keeps me coming back. But if it were just these nine meals (and the snacks) I’d probably keep coming.
We began our first full day of the 2014 Symposium with Royal Cup coffee and a brown bag breakfast prepared by Cheryl and Griffith Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. The bag was heavy with apple spice crumb cake and a sweet potato and sausage hand pie, a nice complement of sweet and savory. The hand pie made me sorry I don’t get to Savannah more often, but glad that we live near Vardaman – the sweet potato capital of the world. The apple cake was the kind of good that makes you want just one more bite, then just one more bite, and so on till you’re miserable or it’s gone or both. I ate all mine and a little bit of The Wife’s, since she listens when her tummy tells her it’s full, and I … well, I listen less.

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

The noon meal that day was called the Nashville Steam Table Lunch in Black and White. For reasons I’m not sure can be fully explained, Nashville has become famous for meat-and-three style lunch spots, or as those of use who indulge in that sort of thing like to call it: comfort food. Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Sophia Vaughn of Silver Sands Soul Food were our guest comforters that day. Kahlil brought squash casserole, corn-crowned green beans, collard greens and banana pudding. The squash had a little bit of sweetness in it that I could really appreciate. The banana pudding had a lotta bit of sweetness that I also really appreciated. Sophia started us off as we waited in line with little discs of hot-water cornbread, then we got helpings of bitty baby lima beans, macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas. So it wasn’t really meat-and-three I guess, but I was plenty delighted with my pudding-and-six, with a side of cornbread, thank you very much.

Comfort food can be a little messy - but don't worry, I cleaned the plate.

Comfort food can be a little messy – but don’t worry, I cleaned the plate.

The Friday night dinner at the symposium is the traditional catfish feed at Taylor Grocery, featuring Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish. The meal itself changes very little from year to year, and for that we are thankful. What varies are the small plates served in front of the restaurant that whet our appetites. In previous years we have had all manner of things at these outposts, but this year it was all about Delecata. The Delecata cut is what Simmons calls a “prime cut” of catfish: skinless, boneless, hand-filleted and deep-skinned. Others have called it “the filet mignon of the pond.” Charles Phan of The Slanted Door (and more) in San Francisco gave us a riff on a catfish spring roll – Mississippi catfish with a California spin. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner (and more) in Raleigh, NC, took that prime cut, brined it, seared it, glazed it somehow with smoked ham hock, put it over creamed turnip greens, topped it with roasted tomato relish, and garnished it with cornbread crumbs. This is not your Aunt Ruth’s filet mignon.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

On Saturday night it was the Lodge Cast Iron Beans, Greens and Cornbread feed. We like our cornbread at the SFA, can you tell? “Make Cornbread, Not War” – that’s what the hat says. Beans and greens may sound simple, but I’ll let you decide. Our cardboard trays were loaded with four variations on the theme, all from Georgians. From Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol (Atlanta): Charros, Turnip Greens and Green Chile Cornbread. Duane Nutter of One Flew South (also Atlanta) gave us Gulf Drum and White Bean Stew with Shrimp Acaraje’ (a black-eyed pea fritter.) Whitney Otawka (the one Athens representative) of Cinco y Diez, featured the Brazilian side of things with Carne Seca (a dried beef), Linguica (a sausage) and Lengua (yep – it’s tongue) with Feijoada (Brazilian stew) Sauce. Kevin Gillespie, chef at Atlanta’s Gunshow (the restaurant, not the firearms sale), had Heirloom Bean and Fatback Soup with Puffy Cornbread, probably my favorite cornbread of the night. We puffy people like puffy food, I guess.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness' sake.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness’ sake.

Dessert that night and a surprise afternoon snack came to us all the way from New York City. The Big Gay Ice Cream truck took a tour through a handful of Southern cities on it’s way to Oxford, where they passed out their special soft-serve, dipped in unique things like Nilla wafer crumbs and Wasabi pea dust. Our collective sweet teeth were satisfied in the evening with a choice of Coconut Ice Cream with Amarena Cherry Swirl or Dirty Banana with Crushed Nilla Wafers and Dulce de Leche. You know which one I got firsts and seconds of. “Just say no” to coconut. But yes, I dig homemade banana ice cream.

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Our final brunch was preceded by the usually unusual blend of the arts. While we ate Corbin Evan’s Bacon-Egg-Cheese Bread Pudding, we listened to Repast, an oratorio commissioned just for the symposium, focusing on Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s in Greenwood back in the 60’s. Following that, logically, we ate the Greenwood Steak and Shrimp Brunch, led by Stevens Flagg, David Crews and Taylor Bowen Ricketts, all of whom do food right in their own way in the Delta. If you’ve ever been to Lusco’s or Giardina’s, you might recognize the flavors: Gulf Shrimp in Butter Sauce, Drenched Salad, Fried Onion Rings, Spinach and Oyster Madeleine, Baked Potatoes, Roasted Black Pepper-Crusted Rib Eyes, and Lemon Pie. Both the oratorio and the meal were a fitting tribute to Mr. Wright and the menu he used to sing.
It’s over. Sigh. Time to start saving dollars and calories for next year.

Delta Dinner

Delta Dinner

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