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Getting an earful (in a pan)




Like pretty much everyone who refers to themselves as a foodie or a gourmet, I like the idea of eating seasonally. It seems so romantic! Living off the earth’s rich bounty, cooking and eating generously proportioned and lusty peasant dishes, following the weather with not only your wardrobe but your palate. How natural and simple and good, you think.

This vision of a neverending banquet hits a snag when you realize some parts are more neverending than others. As anyone who has ever overplanted tomatoes or made endless batches of pesto from riotously lush basil will tell you, you can get powerfully tired of eating the same thing over and over again. Yes, your ancestors ate what came to hand and were grateful for it, but they didn’t have access to freezers or pizza bagels, did they? It’s our secret shame that sometimes we’d rather hit the drive-thru than the vegetable garden, but nonetheless it’s true.

Even the stuff you genuinely like gets old; I personally adore fresh sweet corn on the cob, but I find I can only eat so much of it before I’m done. It can be frozen, thankfully; blanching it, cutting the kernels off the cob and popping them into pint or quart freezer bags were regular late summer rituals I grew up with, to assure my family of succotash and corn pudding through the holidays and well into the next growing season. There’s remarkable satisfaction in it, at least after you finally get the last piece of itchy, sticky cornsilk off your sweating skin.

Which brings us to the subject of cornbread. I’ve never much cared for the plain baked kind; it lacks the softness of yeast bread and has almost no flavor to speak of. I know it’s almost sacrilege to dislike it in a region that has a special fondness for cornbread and brown beans, but my preferred kind was always fried: my grandmother made it two ways, either in thick oval cakes or thin, lacy rounds. It usually meant fish was being served, and this cornbread bridged the gap between regular cornbread and hushpuppies.

Somewhere in the early ‘90s, an altered version of baked cornbread started making the rounds back home. I think everyone first encountered it at the long-gone Stonebridge Restaurant in Chesapeake, where the walls were decorated with local high school football team knickknacks and everything was cooked to order. They brought you a basket of bread while you waited, which contained both their light and oniony hushpuppies and the best baked cornbread I’ve ever had, and you pretty much fell into it face first.  Then someone put up a recipe on the Virginian Pilot’s food page that produced a taste-alike version, and now that’s the kind everybody back home makes. It’s good with seafood, but I’ve eaten it with pork barbecue and had no complaints. You can use freshly cooked corn, cut off the cob, or last year’s frozen, or frozen from the store if that’s all you can grab.

Betty Keeling’s Cornbread

1 stick butter, melted

2 pkgs. Jiffy corn muffin mix

8 oz. sour cream

3 Tbsps. sugar

3 eggs

14.5 oz. fresh or frozen corn (about 2 slightly scant cups)

Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9 x 13” pan (PAM is fine). Mix all ingredients except butter. Pour half the butter over the bottom of the pan; pour in batter, and pour the rest of the butter over it. Make for 30 minutes, then increase the temperature to 375F and bake 10 minutes more. Cool and cut into whatever sized squares you like.

This is moist and tender and cakelike, sweet but not so much so that it clashes with the rest of the main meal. I wouldn’t serve it with beef or anything really savory, but it works nicely alongside fish or pork, and as long as you have corn ready to go, it’s good all year long, which is a comfort if your freezer is just bulging with the stuff.

On a final note, I don’t know if Betty Keeling worked at Stonebridge or if she was just a home cook somewhere who cracked the code, but I can’t thank her enough. I wonder if she has any recipes for tomatoes?



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