To Sean Brock, corn bread is the simplest thing in the world. And the most complicated.
At its essence — especially if you make it the traditional way, as he does — it is a mere handful of ingredients: cornmeal, buttermilk, bacon, egg, leaveners, salt. But much more than that goes into it. When Brock visited Washington in November to promote his new book, “Heritage” (Artisan, 2014), he made a batch of corn bread for a PostTV video shoot in my kitchen and talked about not just how his own recipe comes together, but why it’s his favorite representation of Southern cooking — and what those ingredients really represent.
“When you have a recipe this simple, it’s essential to have the very best ingredients you can find,” he said. “That’s the beauty and the difficulty of simple cooking.”
Brock, 36, made his name as a chef (Husk in Charleston and Nashville, McCrady’s in Charleston) and as an emissary of Southern food traditions who is determined to investigate and reinterpret them. And pretty much all of his philosophies come together in a skillet of his Cracklin’ Cornbread.
I laid out what we needed, including yellow cornmeal mail-ordered from Anson Mills, whole-fat buttermilk from Trickling Springs Creamery, Allan Benton bacon from Harvey’s Market and my favorite deep cast-iron Griswold skillet from a decades-ago garage sale. Here are edited excerpts of Brock’s comments about the ingredients, the equipment and what they really add up to.
Cornmeal. “The flavor of that corn is ridiculous! You don’t have to order from Anson Mills. You can use whatever mill is closest to you, and that’s what I urge people to do. Seek out the mill that’s in your area, in your region, because it’s going to be fresher, more flavorful, because that’s the corn that grows there, and that’s the corn that belongs in that region.
“Honestly, if I didn’t have good cornmeal, I wouldn’t bake the skillet corn bread. I’d rather just not have it. I did an event in Australia last year, and you can’t bring any food in, you can’t ship anything, they can’t get anything, but they’re obsessed with Southern food there. It’s crazy. I was doing this dinner, and everybody was excited about the corn bread, and they gave me this cornmeal that tastes like a cardboard box, and I said, ‘I’m not making corn bread out of that.’ If I did and people ate it, they’d be like, ‘Well, corn bread sucks.’
“And that’s what happened with Southern food! From 1930 to 2000, that 70-year span, nobody was growing the right products, so the food had no soul, it had no spirit. It didn’t have the depth of flavor it had when the cuisine was developed, when it was celebrated.”
Buttermilk. “This is one of my favorite things in the whole world. You can see this buttermilk is very thick and luscious, and it smells tangy and acidic. You can always tell how great a buttermilk is by how it pours out of the container. You can see this one is very, very nice. You always want to use full-fat if you can find it. Don’t get nervous if you can’t. Buttermilk’s great because it adds beautiful acidity.”
Bacon. “This is a fantastic bacon, made in Madisonville, Tennessee, by one of my heroes, Allan Benton. I like this one because it’s really smoky. When you eat this, there’s no mistaking you’re making bacon. This, to me, is how bacon should smell.
“You don’t have to put bacon in corn bread. When I was researching corn bread, I read every single recipe I could find, and the older recipes had some sort of dried or cured or smoked pork product in them, and once I started making corn bread this way, I was hooked, and I don’t want to ever make it any other way.
“This is a sign of great bacon made from great pigs. It’s full of great fat, which is a very useful thing in Southern cooking. It adds that depth of soul that it takes to make beautiful Southern food.”
What’s not in there. “The world is filled with a lot of bad corn bread, laden with sugar and flour, and those things don’t belong in the skillet. My grandmother always said, ‘If God wanted sugar in corn bread, he would’ve called it corn cake.’ I still believe that corn bread should be very, very simple.
“No flour, no sugar. There’s all these reasons sugar ended up in the skillet. It was how the corn was processed, how it was milled, how it was grown. The corn was poor quality, the cornmeal that was available during that time was processed in a hammer mill, which heats it, and as heat enters the process you’re essentially cooking out some of the volatile organic compounds.
“This recipe was inspired by Ronni Lundy’s ‘Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken’ (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991). She wrote that book 24 years ago, when she was very adamant about no sugar and no flour. I mean, my mom doesn’t even use eggs. She’s a purist.”
Cast-iron skillet. “This is one of the great symbols of the South, a beautiful cast-iron pan that’s been taken care of properly and seasoned properly. My grandma always said, ‘If you take care of that pan, it’ll take care of you.’ And this one is really, really beautiful. Cast iron’s important because it’s essentially nonstick, and that’s really great, and it gets very, very hot, which is important to form the crust.
“I make corn bread in my great-grandmother’s pan. It’s pretty amazing to be able to use the pan that your grandmother was taught to make corn bread in. That’s freakin’ cool. I’m obsessed with cast iron.
“I was at this book signing in Oakland, and this lady brings me this cast-iron pan. She says, ‘It was my grandmother’s. I want you to have it. It’s from 1937.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ She says, ‘There’s a card in there. Read it on the plane.’ Seems like her mother was terminally ill and couldn’t eat and was not doing well, and she went to Husk and was feeling so nostalgic that she got her appetite back and started eating, so they came back four days in a row. She was alive again. It was one of those moments where you realize how lucky you are to be able to feed people and provide those kinds of memories.”
What it all means. “I grew up in the South, and I’m very lucky to be able to have that as my heritage. The food that I cook is a reflection of the food that my grandmother taught me and my mother continues to cook and food that I’ve had the opportunity to research at a pretty intense level. I get to take the ingredients that are indigenous to the South and the ingredients that belong there and have stories linked to that area and use them in a modern context and celebrate the people who make them, the producers.
“This corn bread is a great example of that. Each component is something that’s special to the South. When you can gather those ingredients and put them in one bowl and put them in one pan, once they end up on the plate, it’s the beauty of Southern cooking. It’s taking these humble things that are preserved and are going to last you all winter and transforming them into something that brings you so much happiness and comfort. That’s real cooking.”