The edges bubble a little where a thin halo of molten oil rises atop the batter. The oven obediently opens its mouth to receive the offering, swallowing whole this ironbound flux of gritty meal, buttermilk and oil. In 20 minutes, more or less (depending on my father’s covert attempts to eat it raw rather than wait for it to cook), my mother will once again arm herself with a ragged shield of half-melted Dacron loops (potholders earn their keep in her kitchen) and remove this freshly minted gold coin of the Southern realm. She’ll flip it upside down onto the countertop where it slips from the pan with a steamy sigh of pleasure (which sounds more like a description of “porn-bread”, perhaps, but we are, after all, talking about an object of desire).
Four scores across the bottom (it must remain bottom-up to keep the crust from sogging) yield eight wedges of cornbread, with the biggest pieces cut again to preserve an illusion of excess. Someone—usually my father—dances attendance on the process, hoping to score a bit of crisped crust or a handful of damp crumbs in the fallout. Still nearly too hot to handle, the wedges are transferred into an elderly plastic basket lined with paper towels. (I wish I could tell you it was a vintage basket, like the mixing bowls, but it has no such cachet—like my mother’s potholders, the basket is merely old and slightly melted from one-too-many close encounters with hot burners.)
We progress to the table (and I digress to the table, which is actually two tables bolted together in an attempt to provide seating for the original six members of my family, plus three spouses, two second-generation nephews and sundry friends and relatives that sometimes join us). (The dog doesn’t get a seat, but she’s always there, woven in between our ankles, hoping for her own surreptitious share of cornbread.) We “turn thanks”—a phrase which puzzles those who’ve had the misfortune to be born in places where South is not spoken fluently—it’s a shortened version of the classic admonishment to “return thanks” or ask a blessing for the food we are about to eat, to the nourishment of our bodies to Your service, Amen. Dig in!
My mother’s cornbread is the patron saint of the table; bestowing a blessing on soups and stews, beans and greens, this and that. It’s a martyr, drowning beneath black-eyed peas and homemade salsa; a warrior, standing firm under the onslaught of spicy chili; broken and buttered, it’s a peacekeeper, inviting all-comers (whether you prefer your butter straight from the cow or squeezed from some heart-healthy blend of vegetables) to take and eat.
The food is blessed; it’s passed the test and now my mother sits, at rest.