cornbread in iron skillet


How hard can it be to make a pan of cornbread?

We grew up eating cornbread with a big pot of pinto beans.  Two or three times a month.  Maybe more.

I must have seen Mother make cornbread back then.   Plus, I’ve watched her make it many times since moving back into the house when Daddy got sick.

She does it from memory in no time at all.  In fact, the day she collapsed with heart failure, she’d made a pan of cornbread just a few hours earlier.  That’s kind of amazing.

I find a recipe and start pulling the ingredients together.

“This summer,” Mother lifts a hot pot of brewed tea leaves and pours it into the gallon pitcher, “I’ll teach you two how to cook,” her cheeks are red from the heat of the boiled water. They match the red polka dots on her sleeveless white blouse.

I’m sixteen and intent on making a new dress.  I lean over the kitchen table fitting a McCall’s pattern onto three yards of soft gray cotton.

“Uh,” my fingers dig out a straight pin from the pin box and I pin the sleeve pattern to the fabric, “I need to make my dress, Mother.”  The dress will have a double row of buttons down the front and decorative white plackets.  I saw a photo of Audrey Hepburn in a dress similar.  I have visions of how classy this dress will look.

Mother turns back to the counter, opens the sugar canister, scoops sugar and dumps it into the hot tea.  She’s looks slim and healthy with tanned arms and legs from days spent digging in her flower and vegetable garden in the back yard.  I wish I were that slim.

“I can’t, Momma,” Winzona, thirteen, blond hair flying, breezes through the kitchen on her way to the back door, “I’m playing ball with the kids on the street.”

Mother hasn’t made cornbread in months.  She hasn’t cooked anything in months.  “Mother, how much oil do I heat up in the iron skillet before putting in the batter?”

Getting food on the table is up to me these days.  She may be losing weight because I’ve been cooking high protein/low carb stuff.  Which is how I eat and how I feel best.  Might not be how she’d feel best.

So, how hard can it be to give her some bread that she can slather up with butter?  Low fat butter that is.  Mustn’t aggravate her acid reflux.


Talking to her has woken her up in her chair in front of the TV.  She mutes the TV and I repeat my question.

“Just enough to cover the bottom,” she answers and turns the TV sound up again.

I get the eggs, milk and salt mixed in with the corn meal and flour and slide the skillet into the hot oven.

Whew.  That wasn’t hard.  I’m rather proud of myself as I clean off the butcher board island and put stuff back.  Corn meal goes on the counter by the sink; Lite Salt goes on the counter by the stove; recipe goes in the pantry in the recipe box.  As I reach for the recipe box, my eyes catch the ingredients list.

Uh oh.  Forgot the cup of oil.  Quick, get the pan out of the oven and stir in the oil.  The hot air hits me in the face and flutters my hair back.  I squint to keep my contact lenses from drying out.

Oops, the skillet was hot going in so the batter is all ready getting crusty.  Oh well, can’t be helped.  And anyway, at least it now has more liquid.  It should be ok.  Maybe.

“How will you survive and take care of your own family,” she pours hot tea from the pitcher into a tall glass filled with ice, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“Mother, look at this pattern piece,” I hold up the collar pattern.  Maybe she’ll get off the cooking kick if I distract her, “do I put this on the bias of the fabric?”

The cornbread smells great.  Looks golden brown when the timer goes off.  The hamburger-tomato-squash stew is hot, the fresh vegetables are sliced; the table is set.  We’re just about ready.

“Sweetened Iced tea, Mother?”

“Lots of ice, please.”

I pull the cornbread out of the oven using two hot pads and two hands.  The skillet is heavy.  Which is part of the reason Mother isn’t cooking these days.  Too much pain in her twisted fingers.  Not enough energy or strength.

I look critically at the cornbread.  Ok, Mother’s cornbread normally has a nice rounded top that rises above the skillet.  This one is pretty flat and doesn’t look much thicker than when I put it in the skillet.

Was I supposed to add baking soda?  Pull out the recipe and check.  Yep.  There it is.  How did I miss that?

“Hope it’s edible,” I set it on the table and cut Mother a slice.

She butters her slice and takes a bite.

“I forgot the oil and had to add it after it was in the oven.”

“Did you put in baking soda?”

“I confess.  I did not.”

Mother takes another bite, “it tastes ok.”

“Just pretty dense and flat,” I salt my stew.

We eat and watch TV.

The last couple of months have been rough for Mother but she’s feeling better and again gets dressed every day; she takes care of her hair, walks to the front drapes to close them as it gets dark in the evenings, moves around the house again.  My cooking just might be the incentive she needs to decide she can find the stamina to get back to the kitchen.  I’ve seen her push herself to do other things she wants to do.  Like get out again on Sundays to go to church.

“How will you take care of yourself,” Mother washes the strawberries we bought at a roadside stand, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“The same way I took care of myself and ate just fine since I left home forty years ago, Mother.”

She mutes the TV at the commercial and says carefully, so as not to offend, “I find it works best to get all my ingredients together before I start so that I don’t forget anything.”

“You say that like I intend to do this again,” I ladle another serving of stew into my bowl.  “Cornbread is up to you, Mother.”





I’d been waiting on the Sears Fall 1965 catalog for days.  Daddy’s income was barely enough to feed our family of six and there was not much for clothes, but I could dream and the catalog was my window into the world of colors, textures, patterns and designs.

When it finally came, I poured over the catalog, studying hemlines, styles and colors.  School that semester included Home EC sewing and with my babysitting money and fabric at $1.98 a yard, I was hopeful.  I spent hours at the drug store with the McCall’s and Simplicity dress pattern books and fingered all the fabrics.

“Are you sure you want this fabric?” Mother asked, a frown on her face.

We were in Greenbrae Drug Store, in front of a red satin fabric that glistened in the store’s bright lights.  Around us the murmur of other mothers and daughters swirled as they searched for the right sewing pattern and fabric, while from the overhead intercom Andy Williams crooned “Moon River.”

I stood there in my cut-off jeans, sleeveless, cotton blouse and white Ked’s tennis shoes and longed for some class beyond cast-offs, beyond plain, durable and serviceable clothes.  If I could make this dress, like Audrey Hepburn’s, maybe I’d find sophistication.  In one hand I held the A-Line pattern and in the other, a button card with two large buttons.

“Yes,” I said “this is what I want.”

“Ok, but it won’t be easy to sew this fabric,” Mother said, “and I’m not sure about the bright color.”

Undeterred, I labored.  Finally, my beautiful A-Line dress finished, my make-up perfect, hair washed, curled, teased and sprayed into place, I slid the dress over my head, pulled up the zipper, took a deep breath and went to look in the full length mirror in Mother and Daddy’s bedroom.

“It’s bright, isn’t it?” Mother said, putting on lipstick, her slim figure in a straight skirt of periwinkle and a flowered blouse of blue, periwinkle and pink, both of which she had made.

In the mirror, the stiff satin of my dress just hung there, no nice drape, it just ballooned out.  It had an orange tint to it I’d never noticed.  Like a huge tomato, I stood there, mother’s reflection behind me looking rosy and healthy in her periwinkle and me looking wan and washed out in reddish-orange.

I was devastated and embarrassed but I put on my best smile, after all it was Easter Sunday morning and we couldn’t be late for church in our new Easter dresses.

Creating my own fashion did not improve with time.  There was the double breasted coat dress that looked sophisticated in the Simplicity pattern, but the gray, cotton-linen blend I’d chosen wouldn’t hold its shape.  Then there was the red, long sleeved blouse with a Peter Pan collar I’d made to wear under a gray, wool, sleeveless shirt dress.  Sounded perfect, but the sheer fabric I’d chosen was too thin and delicate to be paired with the wool dress.

I was frustrated; unable to turn my desire into a garment that worked, with the correct drape, the right fabric, the tailored look.  The ability it took to make something classy was beyond my skill and patience level.  I felt impotent, ineffectual, depressed and drowning.  I pushed my way through the bleakness.  I would not let this beat me.  If I couldn’t make the look I desire, I would find a way to get. it.  I swam my way back to the surface, changed and energized.

I’m sure anyone who looked at my life today would agree I’ve reached my goal.  Here I am; a shining example to hundreds of troubled youth who are sent to my Care Foundation by concerned parents and the courts.  Some say I’m too harsh, but I believe the results speak for themselves.

Their tacky tee shirts, skinny jeans, leggings, exposed bra straps, baggy-low-riding pants, midriff baring, cleavage-enhancing bustiers, dreadful leather with chains, dresses with uneven hemlines that scoop up in front, short-shorts; all these are left behind. There are so many of these misguided ones who’ve marked up their bodies with tattoos our plastic surgeon stays busy. Their hair is tamed and trimmed and dyed by our stylists.  Oh, they might resist at the beginning, but they soon learn that the way to food and rest and peace is through obedience.  My staff makes sure of that.

Yes, I’ve arrived at my goal as I stand here on the balcony above them in my periwinkle Dior suit, matching Manolo Blahniks and a flowered Hermes scarf, with Wagner’s “Der Ring” sailing across the air from the sound system.  I blow through the whistle in my hand and my charges come to attention.  They’re stretched out below me, a sea of black-haired crew cuts in dark blue, tailored jumpsuits, with Peter Pan collars and wide leg trousers so eyes are not drawn to their curves or bulges.

There are those who say this intervention costs too much, but how can you put a price on perfect fashion?  I’ve saved these poor wretches from themselves.  One day they’ll thank me that they can make good choices, though they’re not ready for that yet.  They make such a good contrast to my color palette, don’t you think?

[3rd Place Award, LinkedIn Writing Contest #12]