Corn Bread: A Family Recipe

The author shares the secrets of making corn bread, including a history of its preparation, baking tips, and recipes for traditional and new varieties of corn bread and corn muffins.

| November/December 1989

"You missed a spot," my mother said last night with considerable satisfaction, as I finished sweeping the front porch. Being dead for seven years hasn't quieted her down a bit. She appears regularly, unexpected and uninvited, to trail her hand along a dusty bookcase or to shake her head at a week's worth of newspapers strewn across the living room floor. She's right, of course. Compared with her well-ordered house, mine has always been, shall we say, relaxed.

Food is another matter. A reluctant cook, she served plain fare—sliced fresh tomatoes, steamed summer squash, fried chicken, and, her favorite food, corn bread—and was dazzled by anything fancier. I was 13 when she announced that I was a better cook than she was, and when she wanders into my kitchen these days, always welcome, she has only good things to say.

When it's been too long between visits, when I'm hungry for my mother's company, I make corn bread. When I need to impress her—just a little—I add almonds.

To the American Indians, corn was the great "mother and nourisher," the "giver of life." A Central American native domesticated at least 5,000 years ago, this giant grass fed Aztec and Maya, Inca and Iroquois, Navaho and Zuni alike.

Corn was able to support several high civilizations because of the way it was grown, cooked, and eaten. Columbus, who had departed from a Europe where seed was haphazardly broadcast and allowed to grow up with the weeds, marveled at the neatness and economy of Indian agriculture. Without benefit of draft animals, fields were divided with geometric precision; in the center of each square, a mound was planted with corn, winter squash, and beans. The beans grew up the tall, straight cornstalks, and the sprawling squash vines kept the weeds down. Some anthropologists speculate that this productive, labor-saving scheme left leisure for such things as building pyramids.

The vegetables were also eaten together, and that was vital. Although corn is about 10% protein, it is deficient in two of the essential amino acids: lysine and tryptophan. Beans, rich in both, completed the protein, and squash supplied vitamin A.

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