Written by Eileen Mouyard Sessoms
As I type, I feel the three joints of each one of my fingers tighten, reluctant to make movement. They are tired—cranky, even—because I gripped the end of a hand mattock and cultivator for the better part of yesterday. Still damp from past rains and thick dewy mornings, the Georgia red clay soil was lenient with me—pliable and easily turned over.
Planting season will be here before we know it, what with this unseasonably warm winter.
So, I struck and dug down and pulled, every so often uprighting my body to stretch and balance out all the bending.
“Woooooo! Ooookaaaayyy!” I exclaimed, frightening my dogs sniffing and sunbathing nearby. As I reached for a jug of water and can of PBR (you can take the girl out of Savannah, y’all…), I looked down at all that red earth still to go, the compost still to turn, the manure to shovel over and work in, the apple trees to prune, the chicken coop to ready, and about ten other tasks to tend.
What the hell am I doing?
My mind began to work and wonder on bigger things as I toiled away. What and who has lived in and off of the soil surrounding my house, which has been standing almost 160 years? What hands have broken this ground, raising and harvesting food for the mouths that lived in my house? How many stews had braised away while people worked up an appetite out in the yard, just as I had been doing all day?
“What it is to be Southern has many variances and layers for all the people that seek to claim her. For some it is a birthplace and hometown. For others, it is the love of sunshine and 70 degrees in the winter and big bugs in the summer.”
Near the end when, out of sheer exhaustion and sore thumbs, I could dig no more, I started to answer my own questions.
I am just one more in a long line of Southerners who’ve toiled here, but we are not the same. To be “Southern,” for some, is about birthplace and hometown. For others, it’s the sunshine and 70 degrees in winter and big bugs in summer. But for me, it’s a plate, a fork and a spoon. To me, food is the most personal, most intimate form of communication and understanding. The food of our region has a pumping heart and emanating spirit that sets its apart from other places. Its roots are in the ground, in more ways than one, and I feel that the more I get my hands dirty, the more I understand where I’ve been and where I’m going.
I think we all can, if we’re willing to do a little digging.
My Mother’s Cornbread
In my experience, there are few Southern dishes that provoke more bickering than cornbread. Some say no sugar; some say no leavening. Shared below is my adaptation of the cornbread my mother made. It is my favorite, and I would eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert daily if I could. Depending on how the corn grows this year, maybe I will.
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons Duke’s mayonnaise
3 eggs, beaten slightly
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
2 cups cornmeal
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup creamed corn (homemade is always best)
Grease a large cast iron skillet with a generous amount of bacon fat (or butter if you so choose). Place greased skillet in cold oven and then preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift together all dry ingredients in a bowl. Set aside. Beat together butter, mayonnaise, eggs and buttermilk in another bowl with a whisk until well mixed. Add dry ingredients to wet and begin to stir until combined. Once halfway incorporated, stir in creamed corn. Mix all together until just combined. Carefully remove skillet from oven and pour batter into skillet. Replace the skillet into the oven for 25-30 minutes or until set. Allow to cool slightly before serving alongside stew, greens or just some good salted butter and radishes.