October 6, 2010
Corn light bread

Photo by Judith Hausman

Nashville introduced me to many corn bread variations, including corn light bread, which is a sweet, loaf version.

I got around this summer! Lucky me, within 10 days I was in a covered market hall in Montreal and another in Nashville, Tenn. At the start of the autumn harvest season, the two markets shared much in common despite the radically different grow zones: tomatoes and squash, string beans and garlic, grass-fed meats, sophisticated cheese (get a hold of Bonnie Blue Farm’s wonderful farmstead goat Camembert, if you can), lined-up jars of jam, and pickled  vegetables. In fact, even the music was similar; the fiddle and twang of Celtic roots are the sturdy backbone of both bluegrass and Acadian music.

But what I loved at the Franklin Farmer’s Market at The Factory just outside of Nashville was noticing what was different there.

Tiny, pale-green bagfuls of lady peas or field peas never show up in my market at home. They looked wonderfully tender and moist, just begging for a succotash. We have foxy Concord grapes but no Muscadines in the Hudson Valley. Those sweet, wild grapes must make a great pie. Jam made from the large fleshy variety (aka Scuppernogs) was for sale as well, next to jars of pickled okra and chow chow, a sweet-tart relish that enlivens stewed turnip or collard greens.

Now, I make a pretty good corn bread, but I’ve never seen so many gradations of corn bread as I did in Nashville. Corn light bread is sugary and cake-like; we had a thick slice on our plates with the smoked brisket and chicken barbecue we ate for lunch later that day.

At our cafeteria-style, meat-and-three lunch (fried chicken, squash casserole, turnip greens and sweet potatoes for me), I found out that fried corn bread is a skillet cake. It’s puffy, not lacey like johnnycake, made with flint cornmeal in Rhode Island, not thick like Colombian arepas made with masa.

Round hush puppies are actually the deep-fried version of corn bread, and my hostess described another intriguing, simple corn bread she makes by spooning the batter right into the fry pan. And grits is just hominy cornmeal, and it’s just amazing made with butter, some cheese and topped with grilled shrimp, peppers and tomatoes.

It’s funny to think that polenta can be a fancy Italianate menu item when you see how many down-home ways cornmeal is prepared in the South. And visiting the Franklin Market was like hearing the gracious Nashville accent represented in local food.

Melba’s Corn Light Bread

Turns out, my hostess usually buys her corn light bread from her favorite barbecue joints, but this is the recipe she uses when she makes her own. I found dozens of variations of the bread (sorghum syrup, more butter, an egg, self-rising flour, heated pan) and also the history of the specialty. Light is not the color; it’s the leavening, and light was also synonymous with loaf—that is, bread baked in a loaf pan not a skillet. Expect this to be grainier and sweeter than other corn breads.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups corn meal
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 3 T. hot bacon drippings, melted shortening or butter

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together cornmeal, sugar, flour and salt. Combine buttermilk and baking soda, then stir into dry ingredients until combined. Add bacon fat, melted shortening or butter. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan, and bake until golden brown, about 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool before slicing.

Makes 1 loaf.

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