Mark Ballard

Southern cornbread is a magical thing

Mark Ballard was brought up eating some wonderful cornbread, and now he cook his own.
Mark Ballard was brought up eating some wonderful cornbread, and now he cook his own. Special to The Telegraph

Granny called it egg bread. It was her version of glorified cornbread. “The extra eggs make it taste richer,” she would say as she added a couple of extra eggs to the cornbread batter. I watched closely as my mouth watered in anticipation. I could barely wait until it was ready to eat.

Granny believed that every Sunday dinner table had to have both cornbread and biscuits. It’s no wonder I’m addicted to carbs. I never refused either. They were hot from the oven and real, yellow butter couldn’t wait to join them. It melted upon contact filling every crack and crevice.

Granny always used an old, black cast iron pan to bake her cornbread. It was still strong and always dependable even after years and years of use. Granny was a firm believer in adding grease to the pan and popping it into the oven to heat up while she whipped up the batter. When it made contact with the bubbling hot grease, it instantly formed a golden-brown crust.

Everyone makes cornbread their own way. Debra’s mother’s cornbread was very different than Granny’s. Hers was what used to be called a “pone” of bread. It was much thicker and crustier. She used the same kind of cast iron pan, but an oven wasn’t involved. She cooked her cornbread on top of the stove. It was an art that I was never able to achieve although I tried relentlessly.

She placed the empty pan on a burner on top of the stove and plopped in a generous blob of Crisco. She turned the heat on and the grease immediately began to melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. After the grease was completely melted and popping, she poured in her batter. She waited until one side of the cornbread was golden brown and, with one movement of her wrist, she used a spatula to flip the entire pone over while throwing in another blob of Crisco. It was like watching a magician perform. She never missed unlike me. I could never flip it successfully.

Sometimes, when Daddy took a notion to, he would make what he referred to as “lacy” cornbread. It was also made on top of the stove. Thin batter with much fewer ingredients was quickly spooned into a cast iron pan hot with bubbling grease. It was sort of like making pancakes with very different results. Upon contact with the pan, the thin batter would spread out into irregular shapes leaving the edges ragged and crispy. It is a delicious variety of cornbread that tastes best straight from the pan.

The other day, I made some Southern cornbread dressing. To begin with, I always make a big pan of cornbread. I could feel Granny standing beside me gently nudging me to add another egg. I always make more cornbread than I need for the dressing because everyone knows the cornbread you bake for dressing is always better than the everyday cornbread.

I purposely allow some real butter to get to room temperature. That’s right, no cold butter will do. The butter sits in the middle of our kitchen island waiting patiently for the golden-brown cornbread. Two butter knives sit on either side of the butter. No announcement is made or word uttered. I take the cornbread out of the oven and from both sides of the island Debra and I attack the crispy corners and edges. We smear butter on them and, being careful to not burn our mouths, indulge. Please do not judge us. If you haven’t ever done it, you should!

It’s amazing the memories Southern cornbread can stir. Memories that make your mouth water and your stomach growl. Is cornbread the best thing for you? No, it isn’t. But, sometimes you need to fill your stomach and sooth your soul with some warm cornbread smeared with real butter. It makes you forget all about your worries with each bite. I’ll go ahead and say it. Cornbread is magical!

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email mark@markballard.com; follow him at instagram.com/mark creates; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.

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