Cornbread Nation

On a recent Sunday night episode of 'Music from the Hills of Home,' the radio show I host with Wayne Clyburn on WNKU (89.7 FM), a listener brought up an interesting and timely question: 'How do you season an iron skillet?'

Feb 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

On a recent Sunday night episode of Music from the Hills of Home, the radio show I host with Wayne Clyburn on WNKU (89.7 FM), a listener brought up an interesting and timely question: “How do you season an iron skillet?”

The question came from a young man who said he’d just moved into a “new” historic house and on the morning of his first breakfast the fried eggs he’d been craving stuck to his black iron skillet like glue.

“Where did I go wrong?” he wondered.

Neither Wayne nor I knew the answer, but we talked about it for a few minutes on air just to kill some time. We then turned to the more knowledgeable out there in Radio Land: semi-professional cooks like Shantyboat Mike, the Paul Prudomme of Rabbit Hash.

According to him, “Washing a cast iron skillet in soap and water is a hanging crime.

It will rust your skillet and render it scrap iron within 10 minutes.” The calls kept on coming. It was obvious that we’d struck a nerve with our listeners.

“Where can you buy the basic pan?” people asked.

“Flea Markets,” Shantyboat Mike said. “The stuff they’re putting into cast iron skillets just isn’t as good as it used to be. However, a new skillet will come with written instructions for the initial seasoning. If you read at a basic level, you should pass the initial phase.”

Mike went on to say he always hopes that lard will be used in the seasoning. Lard is the 10W/40 of seasoning oils.

“Lard won’t get sticky like oil does when it oxidizes,” Mike said. “But in an urban environment lard is hard to come by unless you’ve just killed pigs and rendered the fat.”

(Have you ever seen a hog butchered? The farmers hang the fattened porkers up by their hind legs from a strong tree branch and slit their throats quickly with a knife. Their blood gushes into a big pan and simmers there. If you listen carefully, somewhere in the distance you might hear a ghostly fiddle and banjo, and the sound of the fiddle and the blood gushing into the pan fit together as perfectly as a man and a woman.)

With your pan seasoned, you can make some of Ma Crow’s depression cornbread, or “ho cake” as it’s more properly called.

She makes it the old way, without milk or eggs, and cooks it in a cast iron skillet on top of the stove like a pancake. She combines self-rising corn meal and self-rising flour and enough water to give the mixture the consistency of batter.

At first she covers the skillet with a lid until it begins to bubble on the sides, then she turns it like a pancake and uncovers it to brown the crust.

She said she learned how to make cornbread from her mother in Norma Mountain, Tenn. “You have to get the self-rising corn meal, but it can’t be corn meal mix,” she firmly told me.

One night Ma Crow taught poet Melissa Mosby how to make this cornmeal delicacy, and Melissa added some new twists.

She makes her skillet cakes thinner and actually flips them in the air like an Army cook turning flapjacks. Her cakes turn out flakier, brown and crusty and small enough that you can carry one in a paper towel like a toasted Pop Tart.

I took one to Lee Hay at WVXU (91.7 FM). She’s from Eastern Kentucky, still eats Vienna sausages and drinks Ale-8.

When Lee bit into the cornbread, she said, in her quiet, soothing voice, “Well.”

She just said that one word, but when she said it it was so absurdly comforting. It was like going home.

I wonder if that’s what all of us want in these hard times — just to go home and be wrapped in the arms of our childhood again, to hear a mother’s voice or see an aunt’s red hair, thick and crackling with static while she brushes it.

The winter has been bitter. My dog, Sister, and I walk a lot, roaming around Vine Street seeing the skeletal branches of the trees and the freshly fallen snow curved like dunes in the empty parking lots downtown.

I miss the cardinals we used to see in the playground of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. I loved to watch them take off from the branches of the old trees on that block of Sycamore Street, so red against a bright blue sky.

I seldom walk down there anymore, so I don’t see many birds. Sister is getting older, and though she still enjoys the icy air and the cold wind she doesn’t have as much stamina as she used to when we roamed the streets of Over-the-Rhine.

My new apartment on Court Street has only three functional electric outlets. I like the southern exposure, though, and being close to the YWCA and the Main Public Library.

I’ve stowed the microwave, the toaster and the George Foreman grill my sister sent me for Christmas. Also the blender. To plug in my crock pot, I’d have to sacrifice the refrigerator.

I used to pop frozen dinners in the toaster oven. Nowadays I make chili and cornbread and vegetable soup on top of the stove.

I’ve gone to ground. I’m in deep cover, waiting for times to get better, for hearts to get lighter, for people to be kinder.

I keep my skillet good and greasy, like the song says, and I feel like I still have a fighting chance.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: [email protected].

Need a recipe for cornbread? Not sure how to season your skillet? Katie offers help at