Sunday, November 15, 2009

South of Broad-Way

When I moved back to New York in 1986, there was a bookstore, unfortunately long gone, across the street from our apartment. The first time I wandered in, I found they had their own little lending library; they rented current bestsellers out for a week for $2.00. As I was picking up a book by an author I was unfamiliar with - The Prince of Tides - I heard a soft voice say "Hello. I'm here to pick up the books I ordered."

I turned around to find myself face-to-face with a smiling Jackie Onassis, who it turned out lived exactly one block away from me. She lived on the fifteenth floor of 1040 Fifth Avenue; I lived on the fifteenth floor of 35 East 85th Street.

But I digress.

My friend Stephanie, who now lives in the north Georgia mountains, was born and bred in Atlanta. A gen-u -ine Cherokee Country Club deb-u-tante.

She was a golden girl, and the most beautiful bride I ever saw. When she stepped into the aisle of St. Philip's Cathedral on her daddy's arm, she took everyone's breath away.

She is on the short list of funniest people I know, and if for some reason I had to go fishing, she is the person I would choose to go with. We share a love of Pat Conroy's books, which for me started on that day in the bookstore on Madison Avenue, and when she told me how much she loved his newest book, South of Broad, I put it next in my queue of books to read.

I loved it too.

Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude. My sense is that the millions of readers who cherish Conroy's work won't be at all disappointed -- and nor will anyone who owns stock in Kleenex.

Chris Bohjalian
The Washington Post
August 11, 2009

So in my search for side dishes that go well with Thomas Keller's fried chicken for a project I am working on, my thoughts naturally went to biscuits and cornbread. Southern cornbread.

In my book, Rule Number 1 is Don't Be a Jerk. But it turns out, if you're from The South, Rule Number 1 is

Don't Put Sugar in the Cornbread

Southerners might drink their tea sweet, but they take their cornbread straight. So since this left out my (delicious) Tiny Corn Muffins, I decided to check out what Hoppin' John has to say about the subject.

Hoppin' John Martin Taylor is from Charleston, where he used to own a cookbook store. He has written a number of special cookbooks himself, is well-known in the food community, and has a website that is worth checking out for interesting articles and great recipes. If you happen to live in New York City, keep your eyes peeled; he is planning to open a restaurant here.

His cornbread recipe calls for stone-ground grits made into a batter and cooked in an unwashed black iron skillet coated with bacon fat. My jar of bacon fat is in the country where I can usually be found on Sunday mornings cooking bacon and eggs. Since I'm in the city this weekend nursing myself through the flu thank you very much, I didn't have bacon fat handy and wasn't up to cooking any, so I made the cornbread in a 9-inch springform pan coated with olive oil. Don't arrest me; I observed Rule Number 1 - no sugar.

Adapted from Hoppin' John Martin Taylor
Serves 6

Because you want to serve this hot, time it so it's done just before you want to serve it. Leftovers can be reheated in the oven.

Small amount of fat to grease the pan
1 large egg, at room temperature or heated in a bowl of warm (not hot) water for 2 minutes
2 cups buttermilk, either at room temperature or the chill taken off in the microwave
1-3/4 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 scant teaspoon baking powder
1 scant teaspoon baking soda

Grease the pan; I used a 9-inch springform pan. Hoppin' John recommends an unwashed 9 or 10- inch cast iron skillet. Put pan into a cold oven and heat to 450 degrees.

Put the buttermilk in a bowl large enough to hold all the batter. Beat in the egg. Then add the cornmeal and blend. When the oven has reached the 450 degrees, stir the salt, baking powder, and baking soda into the batter. Remove the hot pan from the oven, and pour the batter in right away. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top starts to brown. Serve hot with butter.

Turns out, Hoppin' John's recipe is the real deal. It was delicious with dinner,

and maybe even better heated in the toaster oven and slathered with butter this morning. With Thanksgiving so close, I'm starting to think about cornbread stuffing. If you're looking for an authentic recipe for cornbread, this is it.

Next time I'll make it in the black iron skillet. (Stephanie agrees it's the only way to go.)

Oh, by the way, any suggestions you have for side dishes with fried chicken, will be appreciated.


  1. I agree about NO sugar in the corn bread. Corn bread has a sweetness all its own - nothing extra needed.
    Well, life got super-busy and I haven't had a chance to make the fried chicken yet. So now there is this post to add to the menu. Hmmm, maybe if I stall long enough there will be a side? Beans? Southern baked beans? I have never known how to do that right. My Billy is here on the couch recovering from surgery, so maybe I will get to the fried chicken for him this week. I know he will be happy.
    Thanks for all your helpful cooking notes,
    xoxo Michaela

  2. not knowing much about baking I tried to get this out of the skillet right after I took it from the oven...rumour has it that that isnt a very clever idea. In any event, the bread is very tasty. thanks for the recipe

  3. I was born and raised in Texas, and although my family never made cornbread from scratch, we always added some sugar to the Jiffy mix. I was shocked the first time I heard someone say that Southerners don't add sugar to their cornbread...I guess we didn't get the memo. As for side dishes to go with fried chicken, my favorites are mashed potatoes and fried okra. And maybe some macaroni and cheese if you're feeling fancy.

  4. I love the idea of a book store having a little lending library w/ current bestsellers. I just spent a long time wandering around City Lights Bookstore this morning. There's nothing like a bricks & mortar book shop. Buying on the internet just isn't the same. Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope at least some of these little bookstores are able to hold on and remain open.

  5. looks delicious! i love cornbread, but i've never made it from scratch. mmm...i don't really eat fried chicken, but mashed potatoes are always good with it =)

  6. I just saw your comment on Ruhlman's mayonnaise post, and I thought I'd stop by. There are many things I haven't mastered as a cook, but I'm pretty good at roux-based things such as gravy and bechamel. I'm in Philadelphia, if you want a hands on demo - because it's really more technique than recipe.

    And I have two techniques - both southern. My mother thinks that if you are cooking the flour (such as for gravy), it gets toasted dry first; then you add your lipids until you have a grainy paste; and then you add the liquid slowly, over fairly high heat (for an electric burner, which it what I mostly use), stirring thoroughly, in order to bring it up to the right consistency.

    My cousin, however, first heats the liquid to near boiling and then she adds the flour slowly through a sifter, until it's just a bit thinner than she wants (because it will continue to bind more) and adds lipids to taste. Her method seems very wrong, but it's a little easier to do.


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