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Here’s How to Make Harper Lee’s Crackling Cornbread

The recipe is offered with a side serving of dry wit

(Norwood Browne, Angie/the food passionates/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Recipes aren’t simply instructions for creating a dish. They can offer a glimpse into the traditions of a culture, an era or a person. With a recipe, even a casual cook can enjoy a culinary connection to the past. When the connection is to a famous creative mind, the allure is even greater. Such are the recipes contained in 350-page collection of recipes in The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook, published in 1961 but recently featured by Jason Kottke at kottke.org

Alice B. Toklas wrote the introduction and the pages include contributions from Harper Lee, John Keats, Irving Stone, Robert Graves, Pearl Buck, Upton Sinclair and others. Marcel Duchamp, Robert Osborn and Alexandre Istrati added original drawings. Lee’s recipe is one for crackling cornbread:

First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:

1 ½ cups water-ground white meal

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg

1 cup milk

Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).

Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

At The Paris Review, Sadie Stein writes: "This is noteworthy not merely because of its author’s famous reclusiveness, but also because—in combination with To Kill a Mockingbird—it indicates a certain preoccupation with pork." Stein points out that Scout, the book’s narrator, dresses as a ham for the town pageant. After the show, Scout walks home with her brother Jem and is attacked while wearing the ham costume in one of the books climatic scenes. The chicken wire Scout’s costumer used to create the shape of a cured ham ended up saving her from the attacker’s knife. Stein comments:

Pork, then, is both confederate bane and savior in the work of Miss Lee. As to cracklin’ cornbread, those of us who make less than nine thousand a day in royalties can create a decent approximation with a fatty piece of ham. But this may affect the totemic qualities thereof. It does, however, allow you to employ another key quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Pass the damn ham, please.”

In her review of the cookbook, Maria Popova at Brain Pickings writes:

The diverse contributors take the assignment with various degrees of seriousness, some sharing their recipes in earnest and others using the cookbook as a canvas for wit and creative deviation — but all having invariable and obvious fun with the project.

Popova also highlights an omlete recipe that George Sand once sent to Victor Hugo, Irving Stone’s "Perfect Writer’s Luncheon," and steak tartare described by Marcel Duchamp, among a few other gems.

Should the slyness of Lee’s recipe tickle your fancy, perhaps take a taste of some imagined recipes fixed up by author, photographer and parodist Mark Crick in The Household Tips of Great Writers, also reviewed by Popova for Brain Pickings. The tips (and recipes) are written in the voice of each writer. Popova includes an excerpt from eggs with tarragon attributed to Jane Austen:

The possibility that her eggs might find themselves cooked with the aristocratic herb sent Mrs. B— into such a state of excitement that Lady Cumberland would have risen to leave were it not for the promise of luncheon. Instead she instructed her host to produce the dish without delay: ‘I suggest you begin.’

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