My paternal grandmother was magic with a messa cornbread. Yes, you read that correctly. A messa. It means a lot of something, in this case, cornbread. Southerners are not the only people to use cornmeal in their daily lives, but every person who grew up with the grain utilizes it differently. Just for Southerners, their family recipes are varied and different. As my paternal grandmother haled from the Deltas of Arkansas, this is where my family recipes for cornmeal originate from. I’ll be discussing the staple of cornmeal, making cornbread and also a recipe one can make from the finished product.
Cornmeal for southerners is born from poverty and lean times. Cornmeal started as a way to bake foods in Colonial times, such as with Johnny Cakes (fried cornmeal drenched in syrup), but it wasn’t an everyday staple until it was really needed. When Southerners were starving, they mastered the ways of all sorts of foods. Things generally meant for pigs and other barn animals like boiled greens and roots, as well as field peas; and cornbread became an everyday part of life because flour and butter were basically non-existent.
Or I should mention slaves. Most of the food that Southerners love to eat were basically delegated to the animals and to the slaves. This is probably why the black people of the south have a far better mastery of these choice southern foods as they were the original people here having to make food out of it, and thus shared it with white people later.
In some instances it wasn’t until the years of the Civil War or the years after, that people needed food and needed to know how to make something from what was available. Other times the slave owners would smell the cooking and wonder what it was and some allowed these dishes to be served in their homes.
None of it is a pretty affair, but it should be noted that a lot of techniques in cooking that the Southerner loves so much came over with some slaves from their native lands, and some were developed by slaves as they worked with what they were given. Some things, interestingly enough are also very French, at least in this area. It’s really all a hodge-podge these days, but it has its roots in Africa, slave cooking, and the French. And I don’t mean simply Creole. I mean French as in France. What is typically considered today as posh haute French cuisine, started as French peasant food.
However, we are talking mainly about cornmeal in this post, so I’ll stick to that; and it is not French in origin. Most people in the south today generally only make cornbread and cornbread dressing, which are both of the recipes I’ll be talking about today. But, I will also tell you very Southern ways on how to use your cornbread once it’s been made, besides the dressing.
Delta Arkansas Cornbread
I’m sure this is not central to just the Delta area of Arkansas, nor merely the state. But, Southerners are picky about their family cornbread. For some, sugar is out of the question, for others its perfection. It’s interesting to note that my grandmothers recipes do not list sugar, but were always made with sugar and is how my dad insists cornbread to be made. So that’s odd.
- 2 1/2 C cornmeal (yellow or white)
- 1 C flour
- 1 Tbs sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 C milk
- 1 C buttermilk
- 2 Lg eggs
- 2 – 3 Tbs butter
- 1 Tbs bacon grease
Add the 1 Tbs bacon grease to a cast-iron skillet and place in 400 degree oven to melt.
Mix together the first six ingredients (cornmeal through soda). Then add the remaining four ingredients (milk through butter) to the cornmeal mix thoroughly, but don’t over mix. Pour batter into the hot, bacon greased skillet and bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until nicely browned. Turn out onto a plate to cool.
- If you’ll be eating the cornbread as bread to go with a meal, it is advisable to cut wedge slices and butter inside immediately while it’s still warm. If you’ll be using this for something else then there is no need to butter.
- I do not eat greens or peas myself, but a Southern staple is placing hot cornbread into a bowl and then covering with fresh cooked field peas or pinto beans. Another option is to cover with freshly cooked mustard, turnip, or collard greens along with the pot liquor, which is just the broth from these cooked greens. I won’t be supplying these recipes in future, as I don’t eat them, but there are plenty of recipes out there. Make sure the greens (and possibly the peas) have some form of pork added in the recipe as salt pork, pork fat, etc give these things their flavours.
- You can cover cornbread in just about anything even beyond greens, peas, and pot liquor. You can cover it in butter and cane syrup. You can cover it in boiled squash and onions or in stewed tomato and okra, both of which are Southern fare. You can also eat it with Chow-Chow.
- I have seen numerous photos of people cutting it while it’s still in the skillet. It’s impractical. Just run a knife around the edges, turn out onto a plate (it will be upside down) and then cut, butter, and enjoy. Also, the bottom will be very dark, darker than the top. The top should be a nice golden brown. If it’s pasty yellow, you haven’t cooked it long enough.
- The bacon grease is essential to this. If you must, you may use butter to heat up in the skillet, but vegetable, canola, coconut, and olive oils will not give the same flavour. Always use bacon grease if you can, if not use real butter. I wouldn’t advise straying from either of these.
- The basic batter is great for making johnny cakes. These are basically cornmeal pancakes. Fry dollops of batter in butter like you would pancakes, flipping for each side, and then slathering in butter and syrup while they are hot. They’re quite tasty!
- If you’re using it for a dish, there’s no need to butter or cut and just follow me to the recipe below.
Grandma Betty’s Cornbread Dressing
Another kitschy name, but it works since my grandma’s name was Betty, and it’s such a delightful name. We make this every Thanksgiving and Christmas along with my maternal grandmothers Yankee Stuffing, though only my mom prefers that one. We also sometimes whip of a batch in the middle of the year because it’s just so good.
- 3 C cornbread, crumbled
- 2 – 2 1/2 C (6 slices) light bread, dried and crumbled*
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1/4 C celery, chopped
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 C butter (plus 1 – 2 Tbs for sautéing)
- 4 – 5 C chicken broth*
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
Saute onion and celery in butter until clear. Crumble the cornbread and light bread into a large bowl. Add the sautéed vegetables and all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well to combine.* Place in a deep, rectangular baking pan and bake at 375 for 40 minutes.
- *Dried light bread. If you have the time, just set the bread out overnight on the counter to dry out. If you don’t have the time, you can toast it in the oven, directly on the rack on a low temperature.
- Even though we make this when we have turkey, we always use chicken broth. If we don’t have cans of it, dissolved bouillon cubes work well. You may use turkey broth, but we find that there isn’t enough, plus, your turkey will be done before you’ve even popped the dressing into the oven.
- *Broth. Generally 4 – 5 cups is enough. You want it a tad sloppy, so that it’s not too dry, but it doesn’t need to be soupy. If you find it is too dry you may add possibly 1/2 a cup to 1 cup more of the broth.
- *Mix well to combine. You can use a spoon, but our grandmother used her hands. It really is the best way to get it all combined well, with no dry pieces of breads left.
- It depended on my grandmothers mood, but sometimes she would add meat to this. Either pieces of cooked chicken or turkey. We prefer it without. But you can chop up cooked poultry and add to it if you wish.
- You don’t want to over cook this dish, as it will become very, very dry. It should be just the tiniest bit jiggly when it comes out of the oven. Testing with a toothpick in the center should bring out a moist consistency, but not a soggy or drippy one. You may need to cook it 5 – 10 more minutes. But, once it’s a nice golden brown colour, it’s done. It firms up the rest of the way once out of the oven.
- This dish is generally served with giblet gravy. That is a creamy, light coloured gravy with boiled and chopped innards of the turkey, as well as boiled and sliced eggs. I do not like this gravy at all. I eat my maternal grandmothers Yankee gravy, which is just a basic, smooth dark gravy flavoured with either turkey drippings or chicken stock.
- This can easily be frozen. We’ve made double batches before just so we won’t have to prepare one from scratch later. Just mix everything together and place in a baking pan (we used the one-use kind that you can purchase from the store). Do not bake, leave raw. Be sure to cover the top very well. Cellophane topped with tinfoil works well. When you want to cook it later, just let it thaw in the fridge and then cook according to the original directions.
I always see recipes with varied measurement abbreviations. I always use the standard form, but if you are not familiar with that, it is as follows.
- C = cup(s)
- Tbs = tablespoon
- tsp = teaspoon
- Lg = large