My friend Anna and I had a cooking date the other day. She brought with her a church cookbook from her hometown. Her nostalgia was evident as we pored over the recipes trying to decide what we would cook. Her lovely Southern accent and her stories of her family transported me to the small town in Georgia where she is from.
This town, as many others in the Southern US, still retains a strong sense of community. Everyone knows their neighbors and you can count on them when you need help. Here, your mother and your grandmother keep a grease jar where all the bacon drippings go to be used as seasoning in cooking green beans, adding flavor in cornbread batter, or to fry in. Here, wives meticulously rinse fresh collard greens, break up the leaves into just the right size and discard the stems. Here, people use not only the choice cuts, but giblets and all. This is comfort food heaven. And in this heaven, the stock made from boiling greens actually has a name – “Pot liquor.”
Having decided to make corn pone and collard greens, we walked to the neighborhood grocery store, my slow steps due to a sprained ankle in sharp contrast to my excitement of cooking something new. In my mind, our cast iron skillet corn pone had already come out with a perfectly golden crust on the outside and moist on the inside. And the collard greens, mushy, slightly acidic from the vinegar and heavenly. Having already made ‘innovative’ changes to the corn pone recipe (added sweet onion and sautéed mushrooms) from an abundant sense of confidence, we proceeded to devise a dessert corn pone recipe made with pineapple and mango. There was no way this could go wrong, right?
Indeed, almost nothing came out tasting perfect! The cornmeal in the corn pone was not fully cooked in some parts despite giving it an extra five minutes. The dessert corn pone was a bit more cooked but still raw in some parts. In my brief trip into Georgia, I must have felt a little bit too much at home!
Despite the issues, there was hope. On our plates the crumbly corn pone mingled with the warmth of the pot liquor, making it obvious that we needed more moisture in the batter and to bake it at a higher temperature. The texture of the wholesome corn meal married with the flavors of sweet onion, baked beans and all the goodness of the collard green stock gave rise to the hope that, on my next ‘trip’ to Georgia my corn pone would be better. I will not hope for perfection. For that, I would have to wait till I can tell my grandchildren of the first time Anna and I tried to make corn pone while showing them how to do it right.
So I will leave you with this recipe for the traditional corn pone, modified to compensate for the uncooked cornmeal. If your grandmother has any tips for me, I would love to hear them. And I thank you for taking this journey with me into a small town in Georgia.
- 1 ½ cups cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups milk (or buttermilk)
- 1-2 teaspoons salt, divided (use 2 if the beans are unseasoned)
- 2 cans of baked pinto beans (roughly 13 Oz cans)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees
- In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, eggs and milk. Work out all the lumps.
- Heat the beans on medium high till you can barely touch them because they are so hot, about 5 minutes. Mix in a teaspoon of salt if the beans were unseasoned.
- While the beans are heating up, distribute the oil around a 9 inch cast iron skillet. Heat the skillet on medium high till the surface of the oil shimmers. Add the hot beans and distribute evenly.
- Pour the batter over the beans.
- Bake in oven for 25-30 minutes or till a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The sides should be golden brown.
- Enjoy as a side with cooked greens.
- If your corn pone still comes out dry, pour some milk or stock over it and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes.
- If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, butter an oven safe dish before adding in the hot beans.
- There are 2 types of corn pones that I’ve heard about. One is the type baked in a cast iron skillet, which is what we made. The other uses a similar but thicker batter, and the ‘pone’ is shaped by hand and cooked in hot oil or grease.