I believe cornbread can save humanity. Before you write me off for being a lunatic, think about it. Nobody can think negative thoughts while eating hot cornbread from a skillet. Cornbread is powerful stuff.
I don’t know if you know this, but cornbread has already saved the nation once. In fact, cornbread is one of the reasons you’re alive right now. I’m being absolutely serious. Allow me to explain:
One of the first foods Native Americans taught the pilgrims—our uptight fundamentalist ancestors—to prepare was cornbread. Thus, our puritian forefathers’ diets were heavy on the cornbread.
It is a fact that cornbread kept our fledgling infant country alive during hard winters and prevented colonists from starving in dire circumstances. Cornbread was life.
So in light of this simple information, this means that, in a manner of speaking, without cornbread, there would be no America. Simply put, cornbread is more American than Chevys, Coke floats, mailbox baseball, and pugs dressed in bow ties.
And I’m talking about the real cornbread here, not the fare from a box. I wouldn’t feed box-cornbread to a Labrador. No, I’m speaking of corn pone cooked in a greasy iron skillet, smeared with so much butter your cardiologist disowns you.
Long ago, I used to work as a drywall man. One day my coworker, Bill, asked if I’d help drywall his basement. Males are always roping their friends into huge projects like this, often promising to pay them with beer.
The thing is, no amount of beer would have convinced me to help Bill. Because Bill and I weren’t friends. Actually, we were enemies. It’s a long story, and I don’t have room to tell it, but we had a falling out over a girl. So I responded by telling Bill to get lost.
Bill started begging. “Please? Nobody else wants to help Sheetrock my basement. If you help me, I’ll get my mom to cook for us.”
“Nope,” I said. “Sorry. I’m busy.”
“She’ll make fried chicken.”
“You can’t bribe me, Bill.”
“And zipper peas.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“What day were you thinking?”
I freely admit, I am a noted admirer of cornbread. Men like me appreciate cornbread the same way wine enthusiasts appreciate a Lafite Rothschild rebouchée au château 1874. And I don’t care what kind of cornbread you feed me: cracklin’ bread, johnnycakes, hoecakes, jalapeño cornbread, or hot water cornbread. Just put it on my plate, and pass the Lipitor.
I grew up with this food, and I have held the blessed hands which prepared it. These hands were steadfast, gentle, and belonged to elderly women who spoke in tongues and occasionally handled legless reptiles during the clapping songs.
These were women whose hair was piled atop their heads in 19-foot beehives, who wore cat-eye glasses, and made you pick out your own hickory switch when you used the word “Farrah Fawcett.”
Oh, what these souls could do with flour and lard. They were our virtuosos. Composers. These females were to cornmeal what Michelangelo was to marble.
They had names like Nadine, Rayline, Earline, Maurine, Jolene, Arlene, Bobbie Jean, Irma Jean, Norma Jean, Wilma Jean, and lest I forget, Sister Arenetta Sue Ann MacDonnough III, may she rest in her eternal joy.
So I agreed to help drywall Bill’s basement.
And I was in for a surprise. Because Bill’s mother was not the only person cooking that day.
Apparently there was a big function going on at her church that night, so his mother invited the entire Civic League to prepare food in Bill’s kitchen.
No sooner had I parked in Bill’s driveway than four Buicks pulled beside me, all crammed full of gray-haired women clad in polyester, wielding spatulas, and smelling like bath powder.
The women labored in Bill’s kitchen for hours while we hung drywall and the aroma of food wafted through the house like ghosts from my childhood. And I was a 4-year-old again.
Basic smells like this remind me how fortunate I was that my youth was spent among simple people.
I experienced the tail end of a computer-less era that has vanished. But I am grateful to have known rotary phones, stovetop percolators, TVs that received only two channels, encyclopaedia sets, and comic books. Ours was a slow existence, when kids lived outdoors, and a boy’s primary means of communication with the outside world was a Schwinn. But those days are gone.
Anyway, that night at Bill’s supper table, I was covered in drywall dust. The meal was perhaps the best I’ve ever had. The cornbread came in a skillet. There were two additional varieties of cornbread present. Including lace cornbread, and “cheesy cornbread sticks,” which are illegal in 19 states.
I ate so much that I fell asleep on my friend’s sofa in a glycemic coma. When I awoke, it was past midnight, and I was draped in a quilt. There was an old woman sitting beside me, knitting by lamplight. It was Bill’s mother.
Bill’s mother accompanied me to the door when I was leaving, half asleep. She gave me a cooler filled with leftovers wrapped in foil. She hugged me, kissed me, and left a coral-colored smudge on my cheek. Then she whispered something in my ear about forgiveness.
Before I left, I gave Bill a firm handshake and told him I was sorry we’d ever let a quarrel come between us. Then we embraced.
He said, “Does this mean we’re friends again?” Which, of course, is exactly what it meant. In fact, we remain pals to this day. Bill sat on the front pew at my wedding and cried like a newborn. And I did the same thing at his saintly mother’s funeral.
I’m telling you. Cornbread is powerful stuff.