I AM NOT MUCH OF a cook. I oversalt and overpepper, my pie crusts resemble raggedy bloomers, and my kids always refer to my breakfast potatoes as "hashblacks." But there is one meal I can reliably produce without the food—or me—burning or boiling over, and that is beans and cornbread. I'd like to attribute my success to a deep connection with my pioneer roots, but the truth is, any fool can cook beans and cornbread.
Surely every Texan has eaten these dishes. But if you are a city kid, and your parents and grandparents were too, you probably never ate them in combination as a single meal. It's not fancy: just a ladleful of beans flanked by a wedge of cornbread. That's it. The duo is so lowbrow that few eateries serve it (except certain rural outlets of Dairy Queen, like the one in Olney). One friend who grew up in Austin tells me, "My husband-to-be almost backed out of marrying me when he ate at our house and my mother served beans and cornbread—and nothing else—for dinner. To her, that was a good old Southern supper. You didn't need anything else." So beloved is the combo that some Texans have literally sung its praises. In his song "Church," about a hungry congregation and a long-winded preacher, Lyle Lovett wrote, "To the Lord let praises be / It's time for dinner, now let's go eat / We've got some beans and some good cornbread . . . "
Beans and cornbread make up the original home-cooked meal. For most of the state's first century, Texans lived on it. It was cheap, filling, and easy to fix. (And back then they didn't even know the nutritional bonus: Together, corn and beans provide a protein as complete as red meat.) I love beans and cornbread, but I also make them out of habit and nostalgia: When I was growing up in Pampa in the fifties and sixties, our family ate these plate-mates once a week, as my father's family had when he was a child. I'm partial to them for other reasons too. Reverse snobbery, for one. And in nippy weather I enjoy having a pot of beans simmering on the stove.
But to me the greatest appeal of beans and cornbread is their endless adjustability. If you have an extra egg to use up, you can throw it in the batter; if your cilantro's looking tattered, you can toss it in the beans. I get this from my daddy, who has two bean recipes: Father's Beans, which calls for only water and salt pork, and Father's Marvelous Beans, which also includes onions, tomatoes, carrots, sausage, and spices. Recipes for both cornbread and beans vary from family to family and cook to cook, with some folks swearing by a single special ingredient and others condemning the very same one. (Notes one daring friend: "My people did not permit garlic, though I sometimes use it now.")
Tasty as they are together, we'll examine beans and cornbread separately—cornbread first. Pioneers, whether Texans or not, usually kept a patch of corn, which was easy to grow almost anywhere. They picked it, dried it, ground it, and mixed it with water, salt, and lard to make what was called hoecakes (because field workers cooked the dough on a hoe blade over a fire) or corn pone. This minimalist cornbread provided more sustenance than pleasure—one early visitor to the state called it "a modification of sawdust"—but it was such a traditional Texas dish that Neiman Marcus included it in a cookbook as late as 1949.
When eggs and milk were available, however, cornbread became scrumptious. Early settlers generally baked it in a cast-iron skillet, then sliced up the finished product like pie. This method remains, in my humble opinion, the best way to bake cornbread—if you coat the pan with oil or bacon drippings first and then preheat it, which creates a divinely crispy crust. This is cornbread gospel. Go forth and sin no more.
While the oven and pan are heating, you can mix up the batter. Here's where folks draw battle lines. For example, I must confess that I don't mind sweet cornbread and will occasionally throw a tablespoon of sugar into the batter, which is pretty darn Yankee-fied; my father may disown me when he finds out. He also uses white cornmeal, never yellow, though I stir both ways. (Yellow supposedly makes cornbread crumblier and white makes it cakier; I can't tell the difference.) Some cooks mix flour and cornmeal to achieve a smoother texture. Then there is the question of buttermilk versus sweet milk. (Answer: buttermilk, whenever possible.) No one argues much about the necessity of eggs, salt, and baking powder, but then there's the thorny issue of special ingredients. For example, in one cookbook recipe, chef Dean Fearing of Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek calls for blue cornmeal; although the result tastes fine, it has a sort of green-eggs-and-ham aspect. Tom Perini, of Perini's Steakhouse, in Buffalo Gap, adds a drop of vanilla. If you think that's heresy, listen to these alarming suggestions, culled from a couple dozen cookbooks old and new: broccoli, sweet potatoes, raisins, piñon nuts, pumpkin seeds, lemon zest, oregano, molasses, feta cheese, coconut, and daikon radish. Get a rope.
One variation that is both popular and morally acceptable, however, is jalapeño cornbread, prepared with chiles and cheese. It tastes great, but I confess a deep and abiding prejudice against an ingredient required by many recipes: canned creamed corn. It is the worst kind of institutional glop. Plain corn mixed with sour cream or yogurt works well as a substitute. Jalapeño cornbread seems downright sophisticated, however, compared with the curious waste-not-want-not dish called cush or crumbin', which consists of buttermilk poured on crumbled-up leftover pieces. (The need for the liquid is explained by the rural expression "harder than last night's cornbread.") Cush is definitely old-fashioned, but a twenty-something colleague admits that she loves it.
And now to the subject