April 20th, 2008

ozarque figure

Book UnReview; The Cornbread Gospels...

When I was a child, there were years when we were poor. Really poor, poor enough that putting food on the table was a challenge. I will never forget the winter when what we ate for dinner, night after night after night, was bowls of navy beans. We had those because a truck driver my lawyer father had done some work for was paying his bill by dropping off a sack of navy beans at our house every week.

But there was a silver lining even in that cloud, because another thing we ate that winter was corn pone. We had corn pone with the navy beans at night, and we had corn pone for breakfast in the morning, and that was wonderful. [Corn Pone: Stir together one cup of milk, one beaten egg, one cup of cornmeal, and one teaspoon of salt; drop the batter by spoonfuls in a hot greased skillet, let it cook on one side, flip it over and cook it on the other side; serve. If you don't have milk and you don't have an egg, you can make it with cornmeal and salt and a cup of water, but it's better with the milk and the egg. And the cornmeal doesn't have to be stone- ground, although if your Fairy Godmother has gifted you with some, that's lovely; plain old standard store cornmeal will do just fine.]

Which brings me, meanderingly, to the book I want to tell you about: The Cornbread Gospels, by Crescent Dragonwagon; NY: Workman Publishing 2007; ISBN-13: 978-0-7611-1916-6. It's only $14.95, for 379 pages and more than 200 recipes, and I recommend it with all my heart. The chapter titles go like this: "Introduction: The Gospel Truth About Cornbread; Southern Cornbreads; Northern Cornbreads; Southwestern Cornbreads; Global Cornbreads; Babycakes; Yeasted Cornbreads; Soulful Spoonbreads; Both Sides Now: Pancakes and Other Griddled Cornbreads; Crisped Cornbreads; Deja Food [all about good things you can do with leftover cornbread]; Great Go-Withs; Sweet Somethings; Pantry [which tells you what all the ingredients in the recipes are and where you can get them]; Index." Lots and lots of great recipes; lots and lots of Cornbread Lore. It's a splendid book. [And one of the highlights of my recent Arkansas Literary Festival weekend was the chance I had, at the author's party on Friday night, to talk with Crescent about the writing of that splendid book and what's gone on with it since it came out.]

Here's the opening warble from pages 1 and 2:

What if, in a world where news is too often bad, where the future, never certain, seems especially tenuous and fraught at the present moment, there were a happiness-giving magic word that automatically brought forth love, enthusiasm, recognition, and pleasure?
There is such a word. Cornbread.
"Cornbread? I love cornbread!"
I discovered cornbread's true power about six years ago, when, in response to being asked "And what are you working on now?" I'd say, "I'm writing a book about cornbread." Instantly, almost invariably, I'd get a response nearly shocking in its suddenness, conspiratorial delight, and universality. ... That ability to call forth joy, and memory? That's cornbread's mojo.

I worry, right now, about how people working minimum wage jobs who have children to feed and cars to fuel can possibly manage to put food on their tables. [Food prices in our area are skyrocketing; every day now, they're higher than they were the day before; often they're much higher than they were the day before.] I worry that maybe they don't know how to make corn pone. I worry that maybe they never had a chance to learn real poverty cooking.

I know for sure that they can't afford to buy a copy of The Cornbread Gospels. But people who can afford to buy a copy should do that and share it around, and should ask their public libraries to do that too.

Full Disclosure:
Crescent tells us in the book that the cornmeal you use absolutely has to be stone-ground, and she makes a good case for that proposition. She absolutely does know what she's talking about when she says that; I agree with her that stone-ground cornmeal is better than the other kind. But people working minimum wage jobs who have children to feed and cars to fuel and can't afford stone-ground will discover that using the other kind is not going to hurt anything. The recipes in The Cornbread Gospels, made with the other kind of cornmeal, are still going to be Very Good Food.