'True' test of friends: Do they use a skillet to make corn bread?

HAPPY EATER

September 23, 1992|By ROB KASPER

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who make their corn bread in a skillet. And those who bake it elsewhere.

The elsewhere contingent of corn bread bakers make a passable bread. They may even toss in a jalapeno pepper to liven up the flavor. There is nothing wrong with this corn bread, it simply lacks a passionate following. Most people who bake their corn bread in pans tend to regard corn bread as a side dish, or just another baked good.

Not so with the skillet set. They see corn bread as the main course of the meal, if not of life itself. If the corn bread isn't up to snuff, then the whole thing -- the supper, the marriage, the future of mankind -- is called into question.

Moreover, if upon tasting his first piece of skillet-cooked corn bread, a visitor doesn't roll his eyes with joy, the cook quietly but firmly categorizes this newcomer as "not our kind of people."

I know this because I married into a skillet-cooking corn bread clan, the Magness family of Arkansas. Early in the marriage I traveled to Lake Hamilton, southwest of Little Rock, and met most of my wife's uncles and aunts. They fed me a meal and sized me up. I didn't care for their okra or their black-eyed peas. And I had never seen so many people drink buttermilk.

But I carried on about their corn bread. That, I think, made this clan decide I was worthy of their niece.

Now, some 20 years later, I still get to enjoy the clan's corn bread. My wife makes it, following hand-written instructions scrawled on a piece of paper. Since I can't be trusted to keep a recipe secret, I am not allowed to read the paper.

But I can say it uses buttermilk and bacon drippings, it is baked in a skillet in the oven. And it is the best corn bread in the world.

Until recently I thought the joy of skillet-made corn bread was a private pleasure, confined to folks who married women whose relatives grew up in Arkansas.

Then the other day I met a cook who had gone public with the corn bread recipe. Her name was Crescent Dragonwagon and she lived in Arkansas.

Yes, that is her real name. She showed me her passport. She changed it in her youth, from Ellen Zolotow. She grew up in New York but for the last 15 years or so has lived in Arkansas where she wrote children's books and where, along with her husband Ned Shank, she operates Dairy Hollow House, an inn and restaurant in Eureka Springs.

She stopped in Baltimore recently to promote her cookbook, "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook" ( Workman, $13, paper).

In my interview, I got exclusive information. I can now report, with some authority, that Gov. Bill Clinton, who has eaten breakfast at Crescent Dragonwagon's restaurant, does not like fried eggs.

This leads me to conclude that November's election is obviously sizing up as a contest between a guy who doesn't like broccoli (George Bush), and a guy (Clinton) who doesn't care for fried eggs.

While getting these reports out about presidential candidates' eating habits is obviously a public service, I didn't stop there. I was also able to get Ms. Dragonwagon to divulge her recipe for skillet-sizzled buttermilk corn bread.

xTC Crescent Dragonwagon's skillet sizzled buttermilk corn bread

From "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread : A County In Cookbook"

Serves 6

1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1 large egg

2 to 4 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup mild vegetable oil

cooking spray

2 to 4 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.

In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk. In another bowl whisk together the egg, sugar to taste and the oil. Whisk in buttermilk. Spray an 8- or 9-inch cast iron skillet with cooking spray put on the stove over medium heat. Add the butter and heat until it starts to sizzle. Tilt pan to coat bottom and sides. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and quickly stir together just until ingredients are combined. Scrape the batter into the hot, buttery skillet. Immediately put the skillet into the oven and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve.

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