Editors note: I first published the writing of Jean Sexton back when Wild Table was just getting established several years ago.
Ever since then, I’ve asked Jean to submit some of her lovely writing- finally, a couple of days ago, Jean sent me this lovely piece… Without further delay, I bring you- my friend Jean Sexton. Cheers! wb
“Staff Of Life”
cornsbread: often made without milk or eggs and baked or fried (Southern)
While I know they eat cornbread in other parts of the world—even in other parts of the South—they don’t eat my mama’s cornbread. Hers is surely set apart; scratched into the dry cave walls of Anasazi legend and rained down as manna on the children of Israel wandering lost outside the Promised Land.
A pinch, a scoop, a sprinkle; a splash, a dollop, a dusting; heaped-up or just the least little bit. About that much, but not much more than that—these are words for measuring cornbread. No recipe needed; my mother can tell by the way it looks and feels how it will turn out—literally—of the pan: will it slide or stick or crumble?
My mother prefers her corn meal coarse-ground, which gives more texture and allows the finished product to hold its own against the pressure of a knife smeared with cold butter. Fine-ground meal equals cakey cornbread and cakey cornbread smacks of eggs and sugar; it is crumbling and delicate and no match for soup beans or stew.
With a practiced motion, my mother draws a black iron skillet (always wiped out, never washed) from the maw of the oven where it’s been heating. She leaves a potholder draped atop its handle as a “don’t touch!” warning to the household at large. She edges the pale, grainy-gold batter toward the lip of the mixing bowl-that-used-to-be-green (permit a brief digression: my mother is still using a set of vintage Pyrex mixing bowls—the ubiquitous yellow, green, red and blue set—that her sister gave their mother in 1950-something, and each one is still known by the name of the color it used to be), controlling its flow into the well-oiled, black iron hoop-sided skillet. This is the moment of no return: the bottom layer is instantly welded to its destiny; it must be crust.
The edges bubble a little where a thin halo of molten oil rises atop the batter. The oven obediently opens its mouth to receive the offering, swallowing whole this inbound iron bound flux of gritty meal, buttermilk and oil. In 20 minutes, more or less (depending on my father’s covert attempts to eat it half-baked rather than waiting for it to cook), my mother will once again arm herself with a ragged shield of half-melted Dacron loops (potholders earn their keep in her kitchen) and remove this freshly minted gold coin of the Southern realm. She’ll flip it upside down onto the counter top where it slips from the pan with a steamy sigh of pleasure (which sounds more like a description of “porn-bread,” perhaps, but we are, after all, talking about an object of immense desire).
Four scores across the bottom (it must remain bottom-up to keep the crust from sogging) yield eight wedges of cornbread, with the biggest pieces cut again to preserve an illusion of excess. Someone—usually my father—dances attendance on the process, hoping to score a bit of crisped crust or a handful of damp crumbs in the fallout. Still nearly too hot to handle, the wedges are transferred into an elderly plastic basket lined with paper towels. (I wish I could tell you it was a vintage basket, like the mixing bowls, but it has no such cachet—like my mother’s potholders, the basket is merely old and slightly melted from one-too-many close encounters with hot burners.)
We progress to the table (and I digress to the table, which is actually two tables bolted together in an attempt to provide seating for the original six members of my family, plus three spouses, two second-generation nephews and sundry friends and relatives that sometimes join us). (The dog doesn’t get a seat, but she’s always there, woven in between our ankles, hoping for her own surreptitious share of cornbread.) We “turn thanks”—a phrase which puzzles those who’ve had the misfortune to be born in places where South is not spoken fluently—it’s a shortened version of the classic admonishment to “return thanks” or ask a blessing for the food we are about to eat, to the nourishment of our bodies to Your service, Amen. Dig in!
My mother’s cornbread is the patron saint of the table; bestowing a blessing on soups and stews, beans and greens, this and that. It’s a martyr, drowning beneath black-eyed peas and homemade salsa; a warrior, standing firm under the onslaught of spicy chili; broken and buttered, it’s a peacekeeper, inviting all-comers (whether you prefer your butter straight from the cow or squeezed from some heart-healthy blend of vegetables) to take and eat.
The food is blessed; it’s passed the test. At last my mother sits, at rest.
Meet Jean Sexton
Asheville native Jean Sexton has been a writer with Biltmore for 10 years, most recently in her role as Editorial Manager for Biltmore and Biltmore Inspirations.
As Editorial Manager, Jean is responsible for blogging and crafting marketing communications for Biltmore Inspirations. In addition, she creates marketing collateral for Inn on Biltmore Estate, Biltmore Estate Wine Company, and is active in corporate and employee communications, Public Relations, and social media marketing, as well.
Prior to her position with Biltmore, Jean worked as the Non-English Speaking Services Coordinator for the Asheville-Mountain Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. She served as the Red Cross representative for seven western counties and was active as an International Services Instructor for the National Red Cross Chapter.
Jean received an undergraduate degree in Cultural Anthropology from UNC-Asheville and a masters degree in Management and Leadership from Montreat College. She is a published author whose work has appeared in a variety of outlets including Wild River Review, Appalachian Heritage, and the NC Journal of Medicine.
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Wild River Review/Wild Table editor, Warren Bobrow grew up on a Biodynamic farm in Morristown, NJ. A graduate of Emerson College in Boston- with a degree in Film, he spent his senior year of college as a research assistant in visual thinking. (Center for Advanced Visual Studies @ MIT)
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