The following is an essay from my new Southern Living cookbook, The Way to Fry.
I remember the day I learned to make hot water cornbread with absolute clarity. It was Christmas Day and my grandfather (Gang Gang, as he is most commonly known) was poking and prodding his holiday cooking project; a soaked, boiled, baked, and glazed Virginia ham of which I was assisting in the finishing touches. I can still see him holding the yellow stained newspaper clipped recipe with a circa 1950’s Sears ad firmly planted on the back. This particular Christmas brought together three generations of Pippin’s, King’s, and in-betweens to a cozy snow covered home out west. It was there, in house filled with loud voices, laughter, and love that I was taught an important culinary lesson.
As Gang Gang and I toiled away, giving the ham a sequin shirt of cloves, and a varnish of sweet sticky molasses, we were being observed by his two sisters, Aunt Icelia and Aunt Harriet, who were stationed at the kitchen’s wooden peninsula. After we had completed dressing the ham, Gang Gang turned to me and asked aloud in his intentionally mispronounced Kentuckian accent “Whata ya think we otta have with this?” I being a child of the west coast and not totally familiar with a ham served in this manner shrugged my shoulders and deferred back to him. He then boldly proclaimed a side of hot water cornbread would be the perfect accompaniment. At the time, I was only familiar with hot water cornbread through mentions in James Brown songs my father played on road trips. And now it seemed as if I was entrusted with providing the last crucial element to the holiday meal. However, my grandfather gave me the most confident of nods, one that I had seen at times when I was ready to learn a new life skill. Like when he first let me handle a miter saw or went on a trip to Ace to pick up dry wall screws. He always knew when I was ready. So with that convincing gesture, Aunt Harriet slid out from the counter and docked her hip at the stove as he exited stage left.
As Aunt Harriet took the helm, out came the 12-inch iron skillet, a large mixing bowl, oil, cornmeal, and all other necessities for hot water cornbread. Once everything was in its place, my lesson began. Her instruction held a few choice techniques; make sure the water is at a hard boil before pouring into the” meal”, as she called it; add the right pinch of salt, she demonstrated using her first two fingers and a thumb; and stirring in a tablespoon or two of finely chopped sweet onion into the mix doesn’t hurt either. After the “meal” was formed, fried, and rested Aunt Harriet smiled and said “That’s how it’s done baby.” She too exited stage left.
After her sister had left and was occupied, Aunt Icelia, the matriarch of the clan, came over to the stove where the hot oil still lingered and then gently asked “Do you really want to know how to make cornbread?” I smiled as I knew this was somehow not particularly allowed on normal occasions but seeing as she was the eldest member present, I figured I would be protected by family hierarchy if any trouble arose. So I agreed, and my lesson in hot water cornbread continued. I watched as Auntie I, went through the same choreographed routine as Aunt Harriet however, her wisdom was contained within the “Art of Frying” and the addition of a tablespoon of bacon grease into the “meal’ to add flavor.
Auntie I’s methodology was not to overshadow her sister’s instruction, but provide refinement. She gave me visual cues as to when the oil was ready, “look for the ribbons” she expressed. Her delicately aged hands demonstrated how to form the corn patties so that you have a crisp exterior and moist and fluffy interior, and pointed out when the patties were just the right shade of radiant golden brown. Easing the last morsels out of the oil and placing them on neatly arranged paper towels to drain, I looked back over my shoulder to find that she too, had exited stage left; leaving me with a head full of stately wisdom, the heavenly aroma of fried corn, and a few dishes to wash.