(by Ashley Rodwell)
"What are you making, Mommy?" my daughter asked.
"Something my whole family used to make out of love."
"Is it cake?"
"No, baby," I replied.
"Is it cupcakes?"
I chuckled. "Nooooo, it's cornbread, shug." (Or “conebraid,” as my grandma used to pronounce it.)
"What in the world is cornbread? Are you putting corn inside of bread?"
“Grab a chair. I will show you.”
I grew up living with my mother and two older sisters in a tiny North Carolina town. My sisters were twins, which made them special, but I was the one in the kitchen with my mom, who worked several jobs supervising the food service in schools and colleges. (She’s really good. I always thought she was underpaid.) Since I was the baby girl, my mom was much more worried and much stricter with me. Curfew? I didn’t have a curfew—I could barely leave the house. I’d wonder: What did I do wrong? But we bonded through cooking, through the hospitality and food traditions of the South.
Twice a month, I would spend a weekend with my father, stepmother, and brother. I was home, no matter which place I was at. But I never knew I had other sisters until I was around seven or eight years old. I felt like my mom kept me away from them because she couldn't stand the fact that my dad had more than one lady all the time. I fell in love with my second older sister, who was…just different. She died on my birthday when I turned 11 years old. The pain from it is worse the older I get.
On both sides of my family, there was soul food. I'm talking about well seasoned, crispy but juicy fried chicken. Tender pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Collard greens and turnip greens. Navy beans and shoepeg corn, sweet as sugar. (The name derives from the kernels that look like the wooden pegs used in shoemaking to attach the soles.)
I could go on and on because we were always eating something delicious. Even if supper was something I’d never heard of, or something I thought sounded disgusting, Grandma always said, "If you're hungry, you'll eat anything.” That's exactly what we did, and it was amazing every time. Except for raccoon, possum, or rabbit. Although it seems like everybody in the South hunts, I could never eat them. And once I learned what chitlins are—no way.)
Whatever we were eating, we always had cornbread to go with it. Traditionally for us, cornbread is made with egg, sugar, and a little bit of flour mixed in with yellow Cattail cornmeal, which is milled nearby in Selma, North Carolina. Once the batter is made, nice and thick, we’d take a spoon and drop dollops of it into an old-fashioned cast iron frying pan filled with piping hot grease until golden brown all over.
Let me tell you, honey, that was the best cornbread I've ever had.
Ashley Rodwell is an actress and singer who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. She can be found on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/doonki) and Backstage (https://www.backstage.com/u/ashley-rodwell).
Cornbread, Two Ways
Small-batch, old-school method:
1 c. yellow Cattail cornmeal
1/4 c. sugar
2 T. flour
1 egg, beaten
Crisco for frying
Mix cornmeal, sugar, flour, and egg. It should be the consistency of pancake batter.
Heat Crisco in a cast-iron pan.
Drop in spoonfuls of batter, and cook until golden brown on one side, then flip and brown the other side.
1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. milk
1 small can creamed corn
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Mix all ingredients and pour into a greased muffin tin or 8- or 9-in. pan.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, until golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.