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Spooning it up




Perhaps you, like me, grew up in a household where the only two spices deemed good or necessary were salt and pepper, and as for fresh herbs, that was the parsley you got on your plate in a fancy restaurant. Most food was well prepared but hit the table so devoid of seasoning that the plainness was almost a flavor in and of itself. Perhaps even garlic was sometimes considered pushing it.

I liked the sparsely seasoned food I grew up with as a child, but somewhere in my teens began to long for something more exotic than the occasional plate of chicken chow mein we’d eat at Soon Gaines, the closest sit-down Chinese place. I wanted tangy dill pickles from a kosher deli, spicy Indian curry, authentic Italian marinara instead of spaghetti sauce from a jar. Worse, I came to realize that some of the defining dishes of Southern cuisine did nothing for my tastebuds.

Tony Earley, the award-winning author from Appalachian North Carolina, wrote a book of essays titled “Somehow Form a Family” a few years ago; when I read it, I found out I wasn’t alone, at least in disliking foods that the rest of the family loved.

In one of his shorter essays, called “The Quare Gene,” he talks about hating a lot of such foods, including collards. This delighted me because I don’t like them, either, despite growing up with adults who stood around the stove with cornbread in their hands, eager to sop up pot likker (the leftover greenish juice from boiling them to a swampy mulch).

Another of the dishes I grew up with that came to the table wreathed in tradition and redolent of family pride was Aunt Georgia Rogers’s spoonbread. It’s one of those dishes that men in particular love and my grandfather accordingly ate a generous portion of it. I seem to recall we ate it with fish, probably fried trout or catfish. It made everyone speak of the lady herself (who died long before I was born) in tones respectful and nostalgic.

Unfortunately, it left me cold. It was bland and yet somehow had that flavor that was a lack of flavor, so acutely that I dreaded its appearance.

(At this point I really feel I must say that I came up in a family of good and enthusiastic cooks, and the food was delicious and abundant; I just had a curious palate, and wanted to explore dishes that older family members took to be foreign nonsense. Which I suppose makes me seem like an odd child, but some of us rebel with beer and cigarettes and some of us do it with five-spice powder and pastrami.)

I felt guilty for overlooking such an imperatively historic dish, but I did, and eventually moved out and got old enough to not have to touch a bite of it if I wanted to.

With time, though, I softened to the things I’d pushed aside on my plate, and after an absence that was filled with all the other foods I’d wanted to try—or at least the ones I could afford—I came to appreciate the blessings of fried, freshly caught fish, squash casserole and succotash made from corn and butterbeans grown in the family garden.

So I was prepared to take a dutiful taste of spoonbread that my mother made last year, and did so, and was surprised by how much I liked it. Rich, creamy, filling, and while unseasoned, it didn’t have that antiflavor that I recalled with a shudder. I was practically teary-eyed with remorse and ready to swear fealty to every family recipe I could find when Mom told me it wasn’t the one I grew up with, but something she’d gotten from Southern Living magazine.

Oh. Well, as a lot of us secretly feel, if you don’t have a cherished heirloom recipe for something, SL can provide the next best thing.

As an aside, I’m sure this would be even better with some parmesan or chedder and maybe some finely diced sautéed onion or garlic thrown in (or some paprika, or chopped herbs, or…) Also, I don’t know who Memmie is, but I hold out the hope that we’re related.

Memmie’s Spoonbread, courtesy of Southern Living

3 cups boiling water

2 cups cornmeal

1 stick butter, cut up

2 tsp. salt

2 cups milk

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 Tbsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 375F and lightly grease a 9 x 13” baking dish (glass is best, as I recall). Pour water gradually over cornmeal, stirring until smooth, and let stand 10 minutes. Add butter and salt, again stirring until smooth. Gradually stir in milk and eggs, followed by baking powder. Pour into prepared dish and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until lightly browned and set.

This is a good side dish with almost anything and has the added virtue of making you not have to fiddle around with biscuits when you just aren’t in the mood to get flour all over everything. I think it’s best with fish, but let your own palate be your guide. It also plays well with any vegetable you care to serve alongside it: peas, butterbeans, tomatoes…even, alas, collards. If you like that sort of thing.





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