In Search of Southern Cooking in America at Large:
Corn Bread in Boston
Let’s talk about corn bread for a moment.
When I was growing up, corn bread meant one of two things. If it was a weeknight, and my mom, the daughter of two upstate New Yorkers, was cooking dinner, corn bread meant a side dish made from two boxes of Jiffy, cooked in a cast-iron skillet, and crisped on the edges by a half-stick of butter. If it was a Sunday, and my Georgia-bred dad was cooking, we’d get corn bread from scratch: It had no flour, maybe a touch of sugar for seasoning, and was moistened with buttermilk. Sometimes it would come in cast iron, just like the Jiffy mix; other times he’d bake it off in muffin tins or the corn “finger” molds. This bread was sweet only from the natural sugar in the corn and, instead of holding together like cake, crumbled when sliced. The corn fingers were my favorite, as they had the highest ratio of shattering, buttery crust to tender crumb.
It’s the memory of this corn bread that I’ve taken with me in my moves across the country. It is the standard to which all others are judged.
Judging from the stream of comments posted to a recent New York Times Magazine essay about a popular Boston restaurant’s corn bread, I am not alone in my judgment. This restaurant, East Coast Grill, serves a mash-up of Caribbean, South American, and Southern-style dishes, from myriad barbecued meats to fried plantains. Their real specialty, however, is “Hell Night,” an evening where hot sauce addicts gather to torture themselves with ghost chili sauces and the like. It’s not exactly the place I’d look for quality corn bread, but hey, maybe the New York Times knows something I don’t.
According to the author, their corn bread (served as a side dish as well as a component of their barbecue platter) is so popular that any changes to the recipe have brought outrage from regular customers. Fierce attachment to one particular recipe is usually a sign of distinction (especially in the South).
One look at the recipe, however, and it becomes clear that this corn bread would have no place on a real Southern barbecue platter. Containing twice as much flour as cornmeal, almost a full cup of sugar, and absolutely no buttermilk, East Coast Grill corn bread is more cake than bread. In fact, it shows striking similarities to the Jiffy mix of my Mom’s weekday meals. There’s nothing really wrong with Jiffy (short of the hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated lard), but sweet, corn-flavored cake isn’t exactly what I’d want to use to sop up pulled-pork juices.
If only the Times had ventured down the road to the venerable Hungry Mother, they could have avoided the whole controversy. At Hungry Mother, they make corn bread that puts my Sunday night corn fingers to shame. Their bread, always served as a side in half or full portions, is cooked in a small cast-iron skillet until a perfectly caramelized, buttery shell forms around the barely sweet, crumbly interior. A simple mixture of little more than cornmeal, egg, butter, and buttermilk, this bread is better than even the best Sunday night corn fingers. A dollop of their just-sweet-enough sorghum butter almost guilds the lily, but instead turns a common slice into a bite transcendent.
Still, eating Southern food here in cold New England is usually like listening to the final sentence in a long game of telephone. Dishes will at least show some semblance to their Southern progenitors—the East Coast Grill corn bread is at least cooked in a cast-iron skillet—and sometimes restaurants will even get the food just right. But even at spots as good as Hungry Mother, some details still get lost in translation.
Take, for example, Hungry Mother’s pimiento cheese appetizer. The spread is the stuff of pimiento dreams—it manages to be bright, spunky, and rich all in one bite. For me, it begs to be slathered on soft white bread and squished between my fingers. Alas, this pimiento cheese has an air of pretension unjustly foisted upon the humble appetizer. It is served in a demitasse cup alongside thin, whole-wheat crackers, pickled celery, and thinly sliced Benton’s country ham. To be sure, each of these items is wonderful in its own right—the crackers crisp and nutty, the pickled celery just vinegary enough, and the country ham is truly the jamón ibérico of the U.S.
When pimiento cheese is served in such a way, it is easy to forget its origins. Sure, it tastes great with picked celery and top-shelf ham, but it also tastes great when copiously applied in the crater of raw celery on a crudités platter or dolloped on top of deli ham and Ritz crackers. But at Hungry Mother, you’re paying extra for a fancy version of what was originally a leftover serving as an appetizer. The beauty of Southern cuisine is the way in which it celebrates earthy ingredients; many of the region’s most beloved dishes—grits, collards, biscuits, and, of course, corn bread—are low-key, ingredient-driven dishes that make the best use of food readily and cheaply available. I am glad that I know I can hop over to Hungry Mother for standout corn bread and properly punchy pimiento cheese, but dining there conversely makes me yearn for simpler dishes.
Now that Southern food has reached what may be the pinnacle of mainstream trendiness (see Bon Appétit’s February issue for an almost obscene ode to all things Dixie), it is easy for displaced Southerners to step into a restaurant and find some taste of home. Yet how much of it is actually good Southern food and how much of it is just an excuse for excessive cooking? Where does one draw the line between celebratory appreciation and unnecessary decadence? Does the best Southern cuisine exist solely within memory, or can it be found amongst cake-like corn bread and fancy pimiento cheese? It may take more than a few extra pieces of corn bread to find the answers to these questions, but, in this column, I am sure gonna try.