When I was about 12 or 13, we very nearly went bankrupt. I didn’t know it at the time because Mom and Dad didn’t share that kind of stuff with a kid who couldn’t do anything about it, anyway. This was in the early 60’s, when bankruptcy was a shameful thing, and the folks were under tremendous strain. There was about 5 years when we ate a lot of beans! Now, we’d always eaten a fair amount of beans, so I didn’t consider it much of a change, and most certainly not a sacrifice! Mom’s red beans were the stuff of legend, and her cornbread was the stuff of mythology! (We always called pinto beans “red” beans. I didn’t know until I was well into my 20’s that most folks use the color adjective to refer to kidney beans.)
Like most kids, I guess – most boys, at least – I never thought about how to cook red beans and cornbread. We’d have beans for dinner three or four of times a week, and cornbread with them about half the time. On Sunday, our great treat was hamburger beans! I’ve no idea how Mom fixed it. It was hamburger meat mixed with the red beans. She wasn’t much into chile then, so they weren’t spicy, but they were oh! So tasty! It is my dream to figure out how she made that dish.
Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve messed around with making beans, and have found a number of things that don’t work very well. The last pot I made was outstanding, though, and I’ve been thinking about making another pot, if for no other reason than economy. Even eating cheap stuff at the cafeteria or local restaurants can run into money, but a few cents worth of red beans and salt pork will feed me for a week or more. Another reason for my interest in cooking is that I’m newly single, and there is a strong temptation to get lazy with my diet. I’ve never been a good cook, but my increasing waist size testifies that I haven’t been a total failure, either!
So, it was serendipitous that I picked up my cookbook while looking for something else, and out fell some papers. On one of them, written in Mom’s own hand, was her recipe for cornbread! Nostalgia crashed over me, and the memory of taking a bite of that wonderful stuff, covered with red beans and sopping in their juice, and wallering it around in my mouth transported me to a whole ‘nother time and place. .” I went right out and bought a cast iron skillet!
(For you Yankees, “waller” is the transitive form of the verb, “wallow,” and refers to rolling or wobbling something around. In this case, one would waller a mouthful of cornbread and red beans around with ones’ tongue in order to saturate all the sensory elements of the mouth with the flavors and textures. Other uses of the word include the way bearings can wear to the point that they cannot support the shaft that runs through them; they are then said to be, “wallered out.” And perhaps, given the climate of political correctness that infests our national dialogue today, I may be forgiven for using the half-word, “Yankees)
Here is Mom’s recipe for cornbread, verbatim.
1 heaping cup cornmeal
1 cup milk – about
1 teaspoon baking powder – about
1½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons bacon grease
Mix dry ingredients. Add egg and enough milk so batter is smooth and easy to pour but not runny. Stir just enough to mix. Have grease very hot and add to ab***** [illegible] stir in good. Pour mix into very hot skillet and bake at 500 degrees about 20 minutes.
So assuming I was supposed to add the very hot grease to the mixed ingredients, it went very well. I ended up with a little less than 3 tablespoons of bacon grease, but went with what I had. The mixture was pretty runny, so I added a little more cornmeal. My oven may be a little hotter than hers, so it was very fully done. About another minute and it would have been burnt. It came out about ½ inch thick, rather than the inch or more I remember her cornbread being, and it was a little dry. But, oh, my! The taste was familiar, like the face of a dear old friend that has been changed by the passage of years, but will always be familiar. It soaked up the bean juice in fine form, and I had a wonderful dinner!
Next time, which won’t be far off, I will double the recipe, use four tablespoons of bacon grease and a little less than one cup of milk per unit of meal. This may not be on the same level as “Julie and Julia,” but I bet I don’t starve!