Unlike the movies, life is not filled with action-packed drama. But there are dramatic moments that sometimes test our faith and resilience.
Most of life is punctuated with simple, pleasant memories, which can be awakened by the sound of a train in the distance or the sweet scent of wisteria in the wind. My memories of pinto beans and cornbread fail to recall that this was the best my mama was able to provide when times particularly were hard. I only remember they were made with love, and they were delicious.
It also was one way my mama was able to get me to eat onions, which she insisted were good for me. Now, I know onions really are good for me. She’d wash and then soak dried pinto beans overnight before putting them in her pressure cooker with chopped onions and pieces of ham hock.
She made her cornbread at least three different ways, four if you count the cornbread she’d make with pork cracklings in the mix. Usually, she’d make her cornbread in a large, iron frying pan, which she placed in the oven for at least 30 minutes.
She taught me this method when I was a boy. I’d mix up a large batter of cornbread, usually without salt but plenty of bacon drippings. When it was done, I’d dump the huge cornbread cake onto an old pan and take it outside. I’d then chop up the cornbread in an extra-large dog food bowl and smother it with grease from our last fish fry. This fish-grease cornbread was served to our Gordon Setter, two beagles and Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Daddy said it was a home remedy for worming dogs. It worked, too, except for heart worms.
Another way my mama fixed cornbread was in muffin pans, like Cracker Barrel’s cornbread. My favorite way she fixed cornbread though was what folks down South call hoe-cake cornbread. It’s cooked in a little oil on a hot skillet — like a large, thin pancake.
I’ve found only a few restaurants that serve hoe-cake cornbread, including Sybil’s Family Restaurant in Jesup and Fuller’s BBQ in Lumberton, N.C. By the way, some barbecue restaurants in the Tar Heel State make a crispy cornbread stick that’s worth the 350-mile drive.
I love Cracker Barrel’s pinto beans with cornbread muffins because they’re close to how my mama fixed them. Nowadays, I add extra chopped onions to my beans, but the little bowl they serve the beans in is not large enough to mix my cornbread with the beans, so I ask for a soup bowl.
If you’d like to make your own pinto beans and cornbread, start with dried pinto beans, which have to be thoroughly washed and then soaked for at least 12 hours. Chop a large onion then sauté it in a little oil in a large pot. Add two cans of chicken broth, plus two more cans of water. Wash off two ham hocks and add to the pot with beans. Allow beans to come to a boil then simmer for three or four hours. Stir often. Salt and pepper to taste.
1/2 cup butter (bacon drippings optional)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup of milk
Grease an 8-inch pan. Beat melted butter (and bacon grease) with sugar and egg then stir in cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Add milk and beat with electric mixer. If it’s too thick, add water as needed. You may need to use a spoon to press out all the lumps. Pour batter into greased pan and bake for 30-35 minutes.
To cook as hoe-cakes, add a little oil to a nonstick skillet and heat. Pour batter onto skillet just as you would a pancake. Try to keep it thin. As bubbles start to rise around edges and in center, flip it just like a pancake. I find it easier to do one at a time, but then, that’s why I also prefer to make waffles instead of pancakes. Maybe I’ll try using my waffle iron next time I make cornbread.