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Grandmother, Mama, cornbread, and sugar

Cornbread has a somewhat tangled history with my family.

When I was growing up, it was no secret that I preferred Grandmother Rogers’s cornbread to Mama’s. This was perhaps the least of the issues between Mama and Grandmother, but it had to nettle Mama some.

Not that hers was bad. And as a submersible in a glass of milk (my parents used buttermilk), it was perfectly serviceable.

But she made it in a baking pan, and in many respects it resembled the gingerbread that she made in the same pan. It stood just a tad too tall for cornbread. It lacked proper cornbread heft. Crust top and bottom was there, but minimal.

Grandmother’s, conversely, was done in a cast-iron skillet. It was relatively low-slung, and dense. The top crust provided just the right resistance, and the bottom …

Oh, the bottom was what sealed the deal. It was always just the perfect step short of burned. And almost, but not quite, chewy. If you scraped away the top part, that bottom could exist as its own separate foodstuff.

Long after I was no longer eating either woman’s cornbread, Mama told me Grandmother’s additional ingredient: She used bacon grease in the skillet.

And not just, I was given to understand, a coating, but a significant dollop.

Armed with that information, I encouraged my wife, Kayne, to go the bacon grease route. And, to her credit, she does.

Fast-forward to the other night. The menu was to be collard greens, corn, and black-eyed peas. If I was to have cornbread with it – and of course I had to have cornbread with it – I was going to have to make it myself, Kayne now being in a different hemisphere.

So I got out the iron skillet and bacon grease, and set out to mix the ingredients specified on the Indian Head cornmeal package. (No Martha White. The cornmeal section of my Northern grocery store is not extensive.)

Simple enough, for a food not known for its complexity. In addition to the cornmeal, the recipe called for flour, baking powder, salt, milk, oil, sugar …

Sugar?!

I recognize the great divide on this matter. Some say it has its roots in race, others say it depends on regional influences. I won’t take this opportunity to disparage those who hanker for sweetness in their cornbread. I’m not always a purist on the topic myself. If I discover that the cornbread I’ve encountered contains sugar, I don’t reject it. I just move it to the end of the meal, as a dessert.

But if it’s Grandmother’s cornbread I’m trying to emulate, I’m sure not putting sucrose in the batter. Fact is, I’m not even sure she put flour in hers. Or whether Mama did. That’s probably an issue that bears further research.

In any event, I stuck to the recipe, minus the quarter-cup (quarter-cup!) of sugar. Was the result better than Mama’s?

Honesty compels me to say yes.

Was it better than Grandmother’s? Honesty compels me to say no.

Lastly, was the result better than Kayne’s? Prudence compels me to say, no comment.

Native Mississippian Joe Rogers worked for The Clarion-Ledger, The Tennessean and The New York Times.
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Joe Rogers
Native Mississippian Joe Rogers worked for The Clarion-Ledger, The Tennessean and The New York Times.

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