When my mind and spirit are in distress—a familiar condition in this time of pandemic and deadly police violence that steadily robs Black lives—I tick off some ingredients in my head. Listing each one calms me, reminds me that I am anchored in a tradition of love so deep that it transcends emotion. To me, love looks like a pan of hot cornbread.
Salt. Cornmeal. A little flour.
Cornbread is the first food I learned to cook. Girls in the South tend to learn the ways of the kitchen early; at age 11, I was overdue. I was tired of being the string bean snapper, relegated to the back porch with a big pan and a bag of beans while my older cousins chopped, seasoned, and fried their way toward womanhood. They looked so grown, tending a stove full of boiling pots, teasing each other and whispering secrets. I envied them. That summer, my mama's mama, Alabama-born Grandma Lacey, declared me ready to cook cornbread and was thereafter my teacher, clucking softly at my heavy handedness with flour.
Left to right: Samantha, her mom in the middle, and Grandma Lacey. Photo courtesy of the author.
"You don't want it to be like a cake, now," she used to murmur sometimes.
Sometimes she didn't say anything at all. Grandma Lacey was contemplative and quiet, a woman who gave me the sense that she never spoke all she was thinking. Born in 1926 into the churning cauldron of Deep South racism, she was a tall, ebony-skinned woman with an easy smile that belied all her heartaches: poverty; domestic abuse; the children who chose difficult life paths; and other trials of which she never spoke. She was sweet as a peach, strong as steel; Grandma showed us how to keep our heads up.
An egg. Butter. Buttermilk.
"Why does it have to be buttermilk and not regular milk?" I asked her.
"Because my mama told me buttermilk gives cornbread the best flavor, and I listened at what she tol' me," she answered, if she answered.
When the batter was ready, we'd pour it in one of her many cast iron skillets. Never skip preheating the oven, Grandma advised. It isn't ready until the box gets so hot "it scares you a little." Slide the skillet in quick; 25 minutes later, retrieve your steaming hot cornbread. It should be golden brown, Grandma said, and maybe cracked on top. "Don't pay it any mind," she told me one time. "If you're hungry, you'll eat the bread, no matter how it looks."
Many times as a college student I ate cornbread burned black on the bottom, scorched too long in the oven while I studied in my tiny apartment. As a starry-eyed young bride, I added too much cornmeal to the cornbread I made for my new husband in our second week of marriage. It looked mighty dry when I served it up; but as broke as we were, we just slathered slices of it with butter to make it go down easy.
A few years before she died in a North Carolina hospital, hundreds of miles away from the home in Virginia where she and her husband of 59 years raised eight children, Grandma Lacey gave me one of her skillets. The pan is luminous obsidian, pitted slightly around the bottom edge, and well seasoned. It is at least 50 years old, and as heavy as history; it takes strength to heft this skillet. Every time I use it to bake cornbread or fry chicken for my family, I think of Grandma Lacey doing the same, and I smile. I remember her quiet fortitude, channeled through her constant cooking, and am encouraged. Grandma's pans are an extension and reflection of her everlasting love, a reminder that I know how to press ahead through anything, just as she did.
Grandma Lacey's Cornbread
1 ¾ cup of yellow cornmeal
¼ cup flour
1 ½ sticks of butter, melted
A big dash of salt (probably around 1 tsp.)
1 cup buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk, you can make some in a pinch by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar to whole milk)
A dollop or two of bacon grease, if you have it.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add butter to a seasoned cast iron skillet and put in the oven to melt.
- In a large bowl, mix together cornmeal, flour, and salt.
- In a small bowl, beat egg, and then add to cornmeal mixture.
- Add buttermilk to cornmeal mixture, and then bacon grease, if using. Mix until all ingredients are combined, but do not over mix or the bread will be stiff.
- Remove skillet from oven (carefully), and pour cornmeal mixture in, on top of melted butter.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove the cornbread, let it rest for a few minutes, and then cut, eat and enjoy.