By Pamela Walker, author of “Growing Good Things to Eat in Texas”
My mother and grandmother made corn bread from scratch. The dry ingredients were approximately a cup and a half of cornmeal (yellow or white), about a half teaspoon of baking soda, and a pinch of salt, all mixed together with a wooden spoon. Wet ingredients were a cup or so of buttermilk, one egg, and a couple of teaspoons of warm bacon grease. When they were out of buttermilk, which wasn’t often, they substituted whole milk and stirred in a teaspoon of cider vinegar to sour it. They beat the egg with a fork into the milk, added the bacon grease – which they’d set to heating in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop, the gas burner at medium to medium-high heat – and then combined the liquid and dry ingredients into a batter.
Once the bacon grease got good and hot but not too hot, not smoking, they poured the batter into the skillet and browned the bottom, knowing always just how long it would take to brown but not burn. Then they set the skillet in a pre-heated oven of about 475 degrees, and let it bake for maybe 10 minutes, until the top turned slightly golden brown. The bacon grease lent a nice hint of fat to the flavor, and the brown bottom made the taste more robust and the texture less uniform than had it not been browned.
We ate corn bread often, especially with mustard and collard greens and black-eyed peas in the summer and with pinto, navy, and lima beans all year round. And at Thanksgiving and Christmas, cornbread was the basis of our stuffing for the turkey.
Depending on the size of the turkey, my mother and grandmother made a quantity of corn bread in their usual way and boiled the turkey giblets – the heart, liver, gizzard, but also the neck – until they were tender. Then they pulled the thin strips of meat from the neck and chopped it and the giblets into small pieces and reserved most, but not all, of the broth and chopped meat for giblet gravy. What they didn’t reserve for the gravy, they mixed with crumbled cornbread, seasoned it with salt and pepper and sage – lots of sage – and stuffed it into the turkey just before roasting.
While I was growing up, sometimes the stuffing smelled and tasted too sagey, and it was always mushy, but as with many other things in my family, I took it as a given, as something that was part of the fabric of the universe. Corn bread was made with corn meal. Stuffing was made with corn bread and giblets, loaded with sage, and was mushy, always and everywhere.
That stuffing didn’t have to include sage and that corn bread might include even a little wheat flour didn’t enter my consciousness until I was in my early twenties. Born in Texas, as were my mother and grandmother and most people in our family, I learned from my Ohio born and bred mother-in-law that corn bread could include a third to a half as much wheat flour as corn meal and also include sugar! And, just as shocking, I learned that stuffing might be made with dried cubes of white bread and its crust, seasoned with salt, pepper, tarragon, parsley, and chopped celery, and without any sage at all!
I was actually relieved to learn that it was perfectly acceptable to make corn bread with a small amount of wheat flour, which, for purposes of leavening, meant using a little baking powder along with baking soda. No longer did I have to fail at trying to make corn bread the way my mother and grandmother did. In my hands, their ingredients and methods produced a flat, dry, dense round. So I began adding flour and baking powder to the corn meal and baking soda, and otherwise keeping to my mother and grandmother’s ways. As for adding sugar? That was, and remains, a bridge too far.
Nor could I reconcile myself, in my own kitchen, to white bread stuffing, and yet I wanted to depart from the sagey mush I’d grown up with. I consulted James Beard’s cookbooks, among many others, and found in James Beard’s American Cookery what became a mainstay for the 40 years I lived in Houston – corn bread stuffing with oysters; oysters from Galveston Bay. My two sons grew up on this stuffing, and the older one has long made it in his own home for the holidays.
Now that I live in Santa Fe, where really good, fresh seafood is hard to come by, I forgo the oysters. Instead, I substitute green-chile pork sausage available at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market from a local rancher who raises pigs and cattle for meat. The market is also the source of the heritage breed turkey I roast.
Below is the James Beard recipe I use. If you are lucky enough to get good oysters, substitute a pint of them with their liquor for the sausage. Sometimes instead of onions, I use shallots, or a combination of onions and shallots, which are abundant at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market most of the year. And instead of Madeira, I use a port from La Chiripada in Dixon, N.M.
Oh, and I omit the sage entirely.
Corn Bread Stuffing from James Beard’s American Cookery
- tablespoons butter
- 1 ½ cups finely chopped onions
- 1 pound well-seasoned sausage meat
- The liver of the turkey, finely chopped
- About 8 cups coarsely crumbled corn bread
- ½ to 2 teaspoons salt to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- ½ teaspoon sage
- ¼ cup finely chopped parsley
- ½ cup Madeira
Saute the onions in the butter in a large skillet until they are just pale gold. Remove to a mixing bowl. Add the sausage to the skillet, break it up with a fork, and let it cook several minutes over medium heat. When it is lightly browned, add the chopped liver. Brown it for 2 to 3 minutes with the sausage meat, and add it to the onions in the bowl. Add the corn bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and the rest of the seasonings. Mix well with your hands and add the Madeira. Taste for seasoning and stuff the bird.