Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Lady Who Invented Cornbread

I actually have no idea who invented cornbread, but if you asked my 5 year old self she would tell you it's this lady right here:

This is my Nena Howard, the year she got a dishwasher for Christmas

My grandmother on my dad's side, Jean Howard, is pretty much the reason I cook. As far as I'm concerned everything she ever made was delicious. I can't smell macaroni and cheese baking in the oven without being transported to her house on Christmas day (or any other holiday for that matter - I believe it is actual law in Brooks County, Ga that Mrs. Howard make mac and cheese for any celebratory occasion). I would gorge myself on her fruitcake cookies, crumble her cornbread over greens, eat my weight in the jiggly green congealed salad, and fight for the last slice of pound cake. I'd hover in the kitchen, underfoot, amazed at the fact that she needed no measuring cups for biscuits or cornbread. I'd make excuses to run in and out of the house to see what she was up to, what that smell was, and steal a taste.

Now I'm stealing recipes- quite literally (she's hardcore, man - won't give them up!). A while back I did high recipe crime: while the family was distracted on the porch I claimed a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. I ran into the kitchen, rifled through the recipe file, snatched out the cornbread dressing and took post-it notes and a pen to the bathroom. I felt like Jennifer Garner in Alias copying some secret government document, or maybe Julian Assange when he does whatever it is he does... Anyway I emerged from the bathroom, sweaty and with a pocket full of post-its. My deed was done. But why? Why did I resort to covert ops just for a recipe? Because I wanted it and there was no other way to get it. That's why.

Look, I'm thirty-two thirty-something years old now. I am aware that people do not live forever, and is it SO important to keep Nena Howard's food alive, well, forever. I want my children and grand children to sit down to a table like this on a regular basis:

Yes, that fluffy headed thing in the floral sweater is me.

As she gets older, my need to keep her cooking going gets stronger. Watching her cook, and eating her food, is what helped make me the food lover and cook I am today. No, my mac and cheese is not hers, but its roots are in hers. And no, I cannot make a biscuit without measuring everything (my husband will say I can't make a biscuit, period. He never seems to be available when they come out PERFECT...). But I do think I know what her secret ingredient is. You all know what it is too...

Duh. It's love. Yes, I know that that is cheesy and over-written, but hear me out. It's not just any love. It's this unwavering desire that the people you are feeding are satisfied and nourished and made happy by what you put on the table. It's not just "you're my family and I love you so let's eat," It's more along the lines of "I love you and I want you to taste it in your soul."

Hence the term Soul Food.

So here we are, I'm writing and you're reading. Sure, I'm hoping for a book deal and maybe a TV show. But mostly, I'm hoping that when you cook my recipes (and any of Nena Howard's that I share), that you cook it with that love and make it soul food. I hope that you can taste it, I hope you can taste how much I love to cook and how much I love to share it. I hope you can taste it in your soul.

Still cookin'. Hope you aren't too miffed that I stole some recipes!

Thanks, Nena, for all the good food and for helping me realize who I am and what I want to be. Betcha had no idea you could do all that with a spoon.


  1. Funny, because of your Edisto Mac recipe, Roger's mom and sister have dubbed him the official Mac N Cheese Cook for any and all future family functions! Hahahahaha!!! Thanks for sharing! I wish I had some more recipes from my maternal great grand mother! Her chicken n dumplings were to die for... Cracker Barrel is the closest I've ever tasted to hers, but still not the same... *shrugs*

  2. Aww that makes me happy :)

    And there is NO shame in Cracker Barrel chicken and dumplings - they really are great!