At some point during my teenage years, I began to call my paternal grandmother by her first name, Joanie. As children, my siblings, cousin and I spent weekends and summers running around my grandparents’ house, picking raspberries, driving golf carts around their farm, and splashing around the creek. At night, we played Uno, ate popcorn and watched movies. When I was a teenager, Joanie and I often went vintage shopping and she enabled my fashion explorations of men’s golf pants, vintage homecoming dresses, and beaded clutches. Even when I went through the “my family is so uncool” phase, I always enjoyed an afternoon with Joanie. We have what I think may be an atypical relationship for a grandmother and granddaughter.
Last month, Joanie mentioned that she wanted to collect her favorite recipes in a cookbook. I offered to type them, cook them, take photos and post it all on my blog. Joanie and I will also discuss why these recipes, and the people she got them from, are important to her.
This is the first in the series.
We called Joanie’s mom, my great-grandmother, Mamah Birdie. (She liked birds; I think that’s the origin of that nickname.) Her real name was Sarah Elizabeth Albu (nee Evans). I share her middle name. As a tiny kid of maybe four years old, I visited my great-grandparents’ house, where they had buttermilk in the fridge. I had never seen it before, and they give me a tiny drink. It was gross to me then — too thick and tangy for a child’s palate. That memory emerged when I looked at the recipe below, which calls for buttermilk. Joanie confirms that her parents always had buttermilk around for drinking and baking.
And now, Joanie’s words:
“We had cornbread a couple times a week; my mother always made that. This is cornbread that isn’t sweet. She made it in one of those big iron skillets. She put a whole bunch of shortening in the skillet. After she got older, she kind of switched to oil.
“We ate at 5 o’clock sharp. My dad got home from work about 4, 4:30. If I was late because of basketball practice or something, they would hold my dinner for me, but other than that, I had to be there.
“My mother made a lot of creamed peas, pork chops, hamburgers, fried potatoes. She was big on coleslaw. Of course, my son loves that coleslaw, and so does my husband. My mother was a big string bean person; in the summer it was always fresh string beans. Mashed potatoes, cornbread, string beans, chicken. Spaghetti and meatballs with a salad. Swiss steak.
“You know, my mother couldn’t read or write until she married my dad. He taught her. When he found out she couldn’t, he went up to Lockland school and got a bunch of books. When I was a kid, I had to sign her name on permission slips.
“The reason she couldn’t read or write was she lived back in the hills of Kentucky. Her mother died when she was young. My mother was sent from one person to the next. She was real big on never being someplace where you weren’t wanted. Therefore she moved around so much she never went to school.
“She didn’t have any recipes because she couldn’t read them. She knew all the ingredients. That’s the way all those old country people did.
“She was really a good mother, though. Because she never had a mother. She was a nut on education. I wanted to go to school when I had the measles. I said, I’m going!”
“I didn’t make it much until she got sick. No, what I did was buy that mix. I’m lazy. When she was bedridden, I’d go up to her house and make it for her.”
Cornbread – Sarah Elizabeth Evans Albu
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 2/3 cup flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Mix until not lumpy. Put 1 tablespoon hot oil in skillet and heat in oven until hot. Add cornbread batter to skillet. Cook at 400 for 30-35 minutes.*
A secret — let cornbread batter set for a few minutes after beating it and then carefully pour it in skillet.
*Suzanne’s note: Check your cornbread after about 20-25 minutes, as mine was done then. It’s possible my oven was set a bit too high.