A few years ago, I interviewed Jack Lombardi, owner and head chef, for the arcade, Tulane's student magazine, and asked him if the secret to his food (and cult-like following) was butter. I think I offended him. I certainly didn't mean to. My dirty little dinner party secret? Butter. As any cunning gal will tell you, the more you put in, the thicker the praise. People walk away thinking you've performed small miracles when in fact it was just a simple pound of butter. (What other edible serves as the perfect stand-in for fine Italian marble? Would you be surprised to learn that it is one of my dreams -- unrealized and, indeed, unattainable -- to have my visage carved into an 80-pound block of butter, a la Dairy Princesses of the Minnesota State Fair?)
Thing is, there's a reason you can't spell butter without "but." Lately I've been on a bit of a butter-backlash. I adore Mario Batali as much as the next, but when I watch him toss a pint of heavy cream and a stick of butter into an Andouille sausage something-or-other on Iron Chef, I want to cry, Cheater! I mean, that's not even trying -- the judges can't help but melt like (yes) butter! It's like hiding sweet potatoes in the mac n' cheese and then saying your kids love vegetables.
(That being said, I'd happily gobble up a plate of Mario's something-or-other any day of the week. What can I say, deep down I'm a butter-lovin' fool, although I do find it a diverting challenge to create actually delicious "creamy" soups without cream or butter, and muffins and quick breads with, say, yogurt. Bonus: I still get the applause that, let's face it, I love: my friends lap 'em up with even greater abandon when I declare my creations "[relatively] low fat.")
Clearly I've got mixed feelings about butter, but there's one quick (i.e., yeast-free) bread that you just can't mess with: for the love of all that's sacred, please don't take the butter out of cornbread.
Indeed, in a very early (1848) recipe for cornbread, butter was one of just 6 ingredients, the others being eggs, milk, corn meal, molasses, and salaeratus (baking powder to you and me.) The source is Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers' Guide by Tunis G. Campbell. Mr. Campbell had one of those lives that seemed to span more than a century, although he died at 79. Born in New Jersey, one of ten kids to free black parents, he went to an otherwise all-white grammar school where he trained to be a missionary, became an evangelical, preached abolition, and worked as hotel steward to pay the bills (we've all got our day jobs). Later, he made speeches beside Frederick Douglass, co-owned a bakery, and was elected to the Georgia state senate during Reconstruction.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia says that the Hotel Keepers (etc) Guide:
provides practical information for supervising and running a first-class hotel, but the book is more valuable for its instruction in interracial social skills, its insistence that managers recognize the dignity of labor, and its emphasis on the need for workers to be educated, well paid, prompt, clean, and competitive.Well amen. I'm glad the Guide has all that going for it, because as a cookbook, I have doubts. The measurements in the recipe for cornbread were about as off as can be and try as I might I just can't sort out that it was my mistake. Granted, I did reduce by one-sixth, but I took out a calculator, went through the numbers at least three times, and should have ended up with something wetter than the recommended consistency ("about the thickness of good molasses") because instead of including two-thirds of an egg (4 eggs divided by 6) I put a whole one in there. But no. My batter was dry as month-old chicken bones left out in the yard.
So I just kept adding more of the same -- butter, milk, and eggs -- until I got the batter where it needed to go. Then, following Campbell's instruction, I added one-sixth of a "tea-cupful of molasses" (this begs the question, what size are your teacups? I eyeballed it; oh, about a tablespoon); poured it into a greased skillet, and stuck it in "a good hot oven" for 30 minutes (less than Campbell's recommended "three quarters of an hour" which indicates that 375 degrees is a little too good and hot.)
On a side note: when this project is complete, I'm going to be a veritable expert on the differences between a hot oven, a good hot oven, a naughty oven, a steady oven, a low oven, a quick oven, and a bun in the oven.
Needless to say, I can't offer a recipe this time. I have no idea how much of what went into that batch, except that there was a pound of cornmeal. But there are two lessons from Campbell's cornbread that you might consider if you're hankering for a more authentic version of the American classic. Campbell's recipe uses all cornmeal, no flour, and that making for a very dense, decidedly old-fashioned consistency; the addition of molasses lends a sophisticated flavor without the sweetness of many modern cornbreads. It could have done with some salt (I ended up sprinkling some on top, along with chives, Jacque-Imo's style), and something to jazz it up, possibly buttermilk (a common ingredient in many Southern-style cornbreads, which also have bacon fat and, like Campbell's, no flour.)
To be honest, I wouldn't recreate it exactly even if I could, but it served its purpose -- as a hearty counterbalance to my roommate Jane's very delicious but very spicy "white" chicken and corn chili -- and the leftovers will be reincarnated this weekend in Jane's oyster stuffing for our pre-Thanksgiving dinner. I'm brining the bird and making cranberry jelly from a 1901 recipe published in The Picayune's Creole Cook Book!
Actually, I don't know why I'm knockin' the cornbread. It was good. And how could it not be? It had almost a pound of butter in it.