My Mimi told me something quite hysterically funny and dramatically morbid a few years ago…"If I die before your grandfather, he will have to eat something. I've taught him how to make cornbread. That should sustain him in between the three months I die and he remarries."
Tears immediately streamed down my face at the humor and sadness that thought evoked. That is, however, a bit of my family's humor in a nutshell… delightful and somewhat macabre running hand in hand. What has happened though is a rivalry between Mimi and Granddaddy as to who makes the better batch of cornbread? They both used the exact same ingredients, same iron skillet, and same kitchen and oven for baking, but there are slight differences I would like to address: first the title.
Since Granddaddy makes it himself, it is dubbed "Granddaddy's World Famous Cornbread." Mimi's boasts simply as "Mimi's Cornbread," which I guess is the passive aggressive way of saying hers is best. Since everything she makes is wonderful, permitting Granddaddy to title his dish as such is totally apropos. Plus, that is Granddaddy's personality – everything he or his children do, but especially anything his grandchildren take on, mind you, is the best, exceptional, or "world famous." The feeling is completely mutual and reciprocating. I'm proud of my grandparents and there's never been a doubt they are of me or the rest of the brood. I think their only flaw is that they gave me deep roots and short wings, considering I live two doors down. The cycle continues. I digress.
Back to the task at hand of denoting the difference between the cornbreads - I had to have a joint session discussion with them to decipher the real difference between their versions of this Southern staple. They both use a two to one ratio of cornmeal and self rising flour, but Granddaddy's is slightly more quantity than Mimi's. Granddaddy also uses an additional pinch of salt that Mimi doesn't use. Finally, baking soda amounts differ between the two recipes. Wham! Bam! Hot Dog! I got it!
It hit me like a bolt of lightning – baking is pure chemistry. The slightest change in the chemistry, the very makeup, can produce a different product. The catalysts for change here are salt and baking soda. Amazing, simply amazing, how the slightest difference, addition, or subtraction of the simplest ingredient can altar an entire result. I barely even passed chemistry in high school and mired my way through it at Auburn, but plant or culinary chemistry I totally understand. If only my professor would have taught us in a kitchen, I would have aced that course!
"His batter is thicker than my batter." Mimi denotes. "I use a little more buttermilk than he." Mimi doesn't measure, mind you. Also, there is another difference that is more so psychological than chemical… because Mimi said "it was better to bake the cornbread at 400 for about twenty minutes," Granddaddy said he "would bake his at 390 for exactly 28 minutes." The result of a baked skillet full of cornbread is the same. Granddaddy's HAD to be different in order to win the title of "Granddaddy's World Famous Cornbread."
Granddaddy's cornbread is fluffier and milder in taste. Mimi's is slightly lighter, and the flavor of the buttermilk is more palpable on the palette. Salt and soda would make that difference for sure! With buttermilk in the equation, our kitchens are just a wallpapered chemistry lab! Since self rising cornmeal is so, self rising, because it contains salt and soda, the additional salt and soda from Granddaddy's pinch makes a billowing pan of cornbread. Mimi, in her infinite culinary wisdom, knew this fact and left out the additional salt and soda. Honestly, I think this was an act of her humble love language, for Granddaddy's is noticeably fluffier and makes a larger batch, which, is something he would want to have bragging rights on – "Granddaddy's World Famous Fluffy and Billowing Cornbread." Mimi just makes her pan of cornbread, watches us devour it, and hides her contentment in her heart; but that wink from her, as we swath a pat of butter over a "butterfly" piece of hot cornbread, gives me reassurance that she knows her cornbread is divine. Not necessarily better than his, but slightly different… all a matter of taste.
So here they are - the two recipes. Bake at your own risk my friends, for chemistry is at hand. I know that it is chemistry working its brand of magic, ya'll, but I would rather believe in the mystery of food, the divinity of mixing ingredients, and the simple joy of feeding one's friends and family. From this Farmer's Mimi and Granddaddy's kitchen to yours, enjoy yourself some cornbread!
1 cup of white self rising cornmeal (Martha White or White Lily… we are in Dixie after all.)
½ cup of self rising flour (Martha or Lily)
2/3 cup of buttermilk plus a bit more to thin the batter if need be.
1 tablespoon of oil plus oil for the pan…another tablespoon
Mix above ingredients into a batter and bake in a hot iron skillet at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve hot with butter!
Granddaddy's World Famous Cornbread
1 ½ cups of white self rising corn meal
¾ cup of self rising flour
2/3 cup of buttermilk
1 tablespoon of oil
Pinch of salt
Pinch of baking soda