Cracklin' bread is a member of the cornbread family, the oldest and most versatile family of American breads. Cornbreads and cakes ranging from flat little hoecakes, which were actually baked on a hoe over an open fire, to the porridge-like, southern spoon bread have been staples here since the Indians introduced early settlers to the virtues of corn.

Cracklin' bread, which was sometimes called spider corncake because it was baked in a "spider" or black cast-iron skillet nestled in hot coals, combines two staples of the early American diet, salt pork and cornmeal.

The diced pork was first fried in a hot spider until it had rendered its drippings, leaving crisp little bits called cracklings. The drippings were added to a simple batter of cornmeal, buttermilk or sour milk, and a touch of molasses if there was any on hand, and poured over the cracklings in the spider. It was returned to the bed of coals to bake and was often served up with whatever soup or stew was bubbling in a big black pot hanging over the fire.

As in the olden times, cracklin' bread is an apt companion for a steaming bowl of soup or chowder. But it also rounds out a breakfast or brunch featuring eggs or an omelet, and goes very nicely with salads and grilled dishes, too.

Because most modern Americans prefer a lean piece of bacon to saltier, fattier salt pork, the following recipe uses bacon. It is best to use a good quality smoked bacon, which will give the hint of a smoky flavor to the cracklin' bread once absorbed from the wood coals it was baked in. CRACKLIN' BREAD (6 servings)

2 thick slices smoky bacon, diced

1 cup boiling water

3/4 coarsely ground cornmeal

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons bacon drippings

3 medium eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon sorghum or molasses

In a 7- or 8-inch spider or cast-iron skillet, saute' the bacon over moderate heat until crisp. Pour off and reserve the drippings, leaving the cracklings in the spider. Meanwhile, pour the boiling water over the cornmeal, stir to mix and allow to rest 5 minutes.

Add the butter and bacon drippings (adding more butter if necessary to make up the 2 tablespoons of drippings) to the cornmeal mixture. Mix well and stir in the beaten eggs, baking powder, buttermilk and sorghum or molasses. Arrange the cracklings evenly in the skillet and pour the batter over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Adapted from "American Food" by Evan Jones (Clark, Irwin and Co., 1975)