A West Virginia native fails to find spiritual transformation in a Southern classic
It’s 1976, I’m eight years old, and I’m sitting in my grandpa’s kitchen in Princeton, West Virginia watching him eat his breakfast. I’ve always been curious that way, preferring to observe someone else instead of finishing my Raisin Bran like I’m supposed to. It’s summer in the mountains, and all the windows—along with the screened back door—are open to let in that familiar morning breeze that often carries in the faintest aroma of my granny’s Early Transparent apple tree from out back. I crawl out of my chair and walk over to grandpa, leaning into the wobbly kitchen table, the one with the orange- and avocado-colored tablecloth, to get a closer look at what he’s got in that plastic bowl. It’s cream-colored, milky and undoubtedly soppy. Surely, it’s ice cream, my childlike mind quickly deduces, or maybe granny got up extra early this morning to make one of her famous chess pies—but that didn’t make sense. Whatever was in that bowl was texturally all wrong and resembled a chess pie as much as a bowl of grits resembles a baked ham.
So, not ice cream, not pie (boo), and definitely not cereal even though it was being enjoyed as such. I finally cave, point to the bowl in question, and ask, “What’s that?” to which grandpa replies, “Cornbread and milk, youngin’. Now sit down and eat your cereal.”
But, I no longer want cereal. I want what is in that bowl, partly out of curiosity, but mostly because I want to do whatever my grandpa is doing, whether it is helping him pinch back his pole beans in the garden, fetching him a wrench while he tries to fix the plumbing for the umpteenth time in the basement bathroom that he built himself, or just sitting next to him on a summer morning eating whatever he is eating.
“I want a bowl of that,” I plead, and again point to his breakfast.
“I don’t think you’ll like it,” he replies.
“I will. I know I will,” I say convincingly.
And with that, my grandpa, being a softie for his only granddaughter, gets up from the table, takes out a plastic Tupperware bowl from the knotty pine cabinet, walks over to the kitchen counter and removes some foil from off of a black cast iron skillet that still has a couple of slices of day-old cornbread in it. He takes a piece of the bread, crumbles it into the bowl, and pours a generous amount of store-bought buttermilk over it, soaking the bread with the milk. He plops the whole concoction in front of me.
“It’s best with a little sugar on it,” he says, as he pushes the sugar bowl towards me, going back to his own bowl as if none of this had just happened.
I take my spoon and plunge it in. The cornbread is still a little crunchy in places, mostly the burnt crusty corners that have broken through the surface of the milk revealing their jagged peaks. Most of the rest of the bread has already given way to the tangy liquid and has taken on the consistency of a saturated wet sponge. I put a spoonful in my mouth. It’s painfully sour, especially to an 8 year old who considers un-iced brownies to be the devil’s mess because they’re not sweet enough. I add some sugar and stir in. I add more sugar and stir it in. I wait. I take another bite. It’s vaguely tolerable, but the texture, dear god, the texture. By now, my crusty jagged peaks have gone the way of Davy Jones’ locker, disappearing into a milky sea made up of low fat, cultured, Borden brand buttermilk and the whole bowl has turned to mush. I look up at my grandpa, mouth still uncomfortably full, and through a half-assed grin give an overly enthusiastic “Mmm.”
What I really wanted to tell him was: yuck.
I bet you thought this story would end with me singing the praises of the Southern delicacy known as cornbread and buttermilk and how my life was forever changed by that first glistening spoonful. Maybe how my taste buds were at last awakened from their immature, sugary slumber by a mushy piece of tangy bread that would eventually morph into my own lowbrow version of M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, and how this entire existential experience would lead to some greater sense of knowing and frankly, a much better story.
I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Fact is, I don’t really like cornbread and buttermilk. More importantly, I’m not reinventing the wheel here by talking about it. The combination of cornbread and milk is not at all a new one for anyone who grew up on a regular diet of cornbread, which is a lot of people. If you ate cornbread on rotation, as I often did, you were probably also trying to find ways to use it up before it got stale because cornbread loses its initial charm in roughly a full day. Options are limited for day-old cornbread. There’s cornbread salad made with mayo, ranch dressing, onions, green peppers, and on a good day, fried pieces of bacon, but this is more a Paula Deen make it with a can of mushroom soup type cooking versus the from the garden, from scratch cooking many of us Southern folk grew up on. There’s also cornbread stuffing, which is undoubtedly good, but often better suited for holidays and not something you’d be itching to make weekly. I’m sure there are plenty of other recipes, but for regular cornbread makers, cornbread and milk is hard to beat in both its ease and diversity.
Day to multi-day old cornbread (that’s been made without any sugar or flour and preferably in a bacon greased-up cast iron pan) can be enjoyed in a bowl or better yet in a tall glass with a spoon. Many cornbread and milk purists adamantly refuse to submerge any of that sweetened, cake-like cornbread into their milk believing that only cornbread made sans flour and sugar and with coarsely ground cornmeal will do, but that’s a debate for another time. However, you prefer to savor it, one thing is for certain, you can have it for breakfast, after supper, for lunch or as a midday snack just like Jimmy Dickens.
There are no hard and fast rules when you’re eating cornbread and buttermilk, and just about anything goes. Eat it cold or hot. Top your cornbread and buttermilk with sugar, honey, spring onions, sorghum, maple syrup, freshly ground black pepper, or smear it with butter before submerging it into the milk or don’t add a thing. Heck, I once saw a man fry his cornbread in butter before adding it to his milk. Smart man.
I can’t tell you how to enjoy your cornbread and milk any more than I can say that I like it myself. I was born in West Virginia. I should be loving up on some cornbread and buttermilk in the same way that I hope to one day marry a West Virginia hotdog or a maybe pepperoni roll. Cornbread and buttermilk should be free flowing through my veins as part of my mountain bred birthright, but I just don’t like it.
Perhaps it was my initial introduction to the dish and the fact that my first taste involved store-bought, cultured buttermilk which doesn’t hold a candle to real, homemade buttermilk, the delectable liquid that’s left over from churning fresh butter. Perhaps, it was because I was only eight years old and would have preferred to eat Pixy Sticks every day for breakfast. Either way, I figure there are thousands of other cornbread and milk lovers out there who will strongly and perhaps vehemently disagree with me, and rightly so, for I have forever shamed my family and my Southern heritage.
My name is Kendra, and I don’t really like cornbread and buttermilk. There I said it.
Kendra Bailey Morris is a cookbook author, culinary instructor, recipe developer, speaker and food writer.