‘Cause grandma’s from Backwoods, Mississippi, she can go to work on cornbread and buttermilk, or cornbread and beans, or well, cornbread and anything all smashed up in a bowl, but you live in Chicago and are only country by association, so you’ll need something green like greens, cabbage, or spinach to accompany your cornbread. Choose one, and then toss the leaves in a big pot. Fill half the pot with water if you’ve chosen greens or cabbage, and not quite half a pot for spinach. Hook that up and go sit down. Sit in the kitchen ’cause if you go to your room something on the news can snatch your attention and then you’ll let too much water boil out of the pot and burn the greens/cabbage/spinach, and then you won’t want to make the cornbread. So sit in the kitchen and flip through a magazine. Do not get on the phone.
When you smell the greens/cabbage/spinach or hear some sizzling, go check the pot. If you’ve chosen spinach it might be done already; frankly, it might be burning. The greens or cabbage should be fine. Now that you smell the food, and you can’t forget your motivation, it’s time to make the doughnuts, I mean the cornbread. You’ll need grease, baking powder, salt, and water (hot enough to melt the paint off the walls). If you are not trippin’ about the fact that I did not list cornmeal, stop reading, stop cooking, and maybe you should go watch TV or get on the phone. Call a friend and tell them that you know jack about cooking. Order a pizza, or go buy a TV dinner. If you raised an eyebrow about the main ingredient being missing, you’ve stayed on your toes and you may proceed to read.
Let the water boil until the bubbles spit angrily. Mix, in a bowl: cornmeal (you choose a color, white or yellow–ask yourself if you think that bleached food is healthy), baking powder (just a pinch or the bread will taste straight-up nasty!), half a teaspoon of salt, even less sugar (this ain’t cake). Add a tablespoon of grease so the bread will stick together. Never mind the fact that you’re about to fry it in grease too. And please know that grease is simply another word for cooking oil. Do not go in the garage and grab something you’d use on the car, or run to the bathroom for the TCB hair grease. If these thoughts have crossed your mind, cooking is way too dangerous for you, and you should do the pizza/TV dinner thing.
Mix the dry ingredients while you watch the water spit. Imagine how it would feel if the spit landed on your arm. This will help you to be extra extra careful when you pour the water over the dry mixture. Do that. Pour a fourth of the water in, put the pot down, and stir the stuff in the bowl. That ain’t enough water, but this is how you do it, a little water at a time, so be patient. Pour another fourth. Repeat two more times. By now, you should have a stiff mix that is sloppy. Use a big spoon. You know the one that mama hangs on the wall for decoration? Don’t use that one. She’ll trip. Go in the drawer, grab the old one that’s got the decrepit handle ’cause your stupid brother sat it on the stove and melted it. Use that one. Stick the spoon in, and get a good amount on it. Let the slop slip off the spoon. If it falls like cake batter, you’re in trouble. If it doesn’t move at all, you were too stingy with the water. If it falls off in a lazy drip that takes four seconds to leave the spoon, you’re in business.
Grab a skillet and pour in enough grease to cover the bottom. There should be only about a quarter of an inch–you ain’t deep-frying chicken. Turn the heat up high, real high. When you think that the grease is hot, test it. Run the faucet, stick your clean hand under it–I really hope you washed your hands. I left that out, but you should know better! Shake the hand off, you ain’t trying to cause a war among you and the grease, you just want to aggravate it a bit. I know this sounds like suicide, but trust, I know what I’m talking about. Shake the hand over the pot. If the water starts popping all over the place, utilize the James Brown slide and get the hell out of the way. Now you know you still got the moves, and you know that the grease is ready for the batter.
Grab the crazy-looking spoon and fill it with batter. Let the lazy batter drop down into the skillet. Do this again until there is no more room for ovals. Cover the bowl after you’ve filled the skillet. You never know what may also want a taste of your cornbread. Go sit down. Do not read this time, you will burn the cornbread. The phone will ring; it is a test, let the caller ID get it, ’cause I know you got one. Sit and think about how good the cornbread will taste with the greens/cabbage/spinach. This will help you to focus on the cornbread. Sweat it: get up every ten seconds to look at it, poke it, attempt to flip it. You realize that you need to chill after hopping up for the fourth time, but this psychotic behavior is good.
Once you can get a spatula–from the drawer–under the bread and it doesn’t try to fall apart, flip it, and repeat the sweating process. Once that batch is done, do it again and again, until the bowl is empty. Throwing away what you don’t feel like cooking is a no-no. That’s wasting food. Refer to lectures you got growing up about people starving in places across the world or simply think about the people starving downtown. Snatch a plate, clean the big spoon, and make some Kool-Aid with it, ’cause somebody drank it all and just left a swallow. Now it’s time to put it all on a plate. Get a nice amount–you decide what’s nice. If other people gotta eat, don’t be all greedy! Get a nice amount of greens/cabbage/spinach on the plate and grab the best-looking piece of cornbread. Pour the Kool-Aid into a glass, and make your way to the table.
If you’ve been down south you’ll smash the cornbread into the greens. You might even eat it with your hands. Depending on how long you’ve been in school and who’s in the room, you might eat the greens/cabbage/spinach with a fork and knife, cutting the cornbread like it’s pizza, chewing it completely, and then eating the greens/cabbage/spinach separately, which defeats the purpose of why you made the cornbread in the first place. So just crunch it up, and then use a fork. Wipe your mouth before sipping the Kool-Aid or you’ll have grease glaciers floating around in the cup. It’ll be disgusting. If you don’t care, don’t wipe. When you’re done, let the greens/cabbage/spinach cool in the pot ’cause putting it away now could ruin it. Cover the cornbread and let it chill on the counter.
Go watch TV and rub your belly. If you’ve followed my directions, you should be full and happy and sleepy. Don’t sleep yet. You’ve gotta put up the food in an hour or so and studies have shown that sleeping right after eating ain’t such a good idea. But you just ate fried food and smothered greens/cabbage/spinach so you ain’t too concerned about that study anyway, but don’t sleep yet ’cause you want to have leftovers. Call grandma and tell her that you’ve just hooked up some hot-water cornbread and greens/cabbage/spinach. If she lives in your city, you’ve just messed up ’cause she’ll want you to bring her some so that she can (a) eat it, and (b) see if you know what you’re doing. If she doesn’t live in your city, she’ll ask you a million questions about how you made it, just to see if you jacked it up. Either way, pat yourself on the back ’cause you didn’t burn down the joint, and you didn’t give up and order pizza or buy a TV dinner.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Stroede.