All fall, in random hours, I’ve been looking for my great-grandmother’s recipe for corn cakes. I have a perfectly serviceable recipe for everyday cornbread, but it’s nothing like those corn cakes I find myself returning to in memory. My cornbread is prepared in the usual way and baked as cornbread should always be baked: in a cast-iron skillet. I’ve made it so many times I don’t need to consult the recipe anymore, and maybe that’s the reason I’ve never found the recipe for my great-grandmother’s corn cakes, too. It’s likely there never was a recipe.
I keep searching anyway because winter makes me long for those glistening golden discs that Mother Ollie made right on the stovetop, dropping a dollop of thin batter, pancake style, into a shallow pool of heated oil in her own cast-iron skillet. The circles would spread out in the oil, thinner and thinner, until they formed a kind of lace around the edges. A properly formed corn cake is golden in the centre, soft and puffy, with lacy edges that are crisp and almost brown. When they look like that, it’s time to flip them over and cook the other side.
Mother Ollie’s cooking technique I remember well enough; it’s her recipe for the batter that’s lost to me now. I found her recipe for gruel (“good for ailing folks,” the card notes) and a recipe in my grandmother’s hand for buttermilk rolls, as well as two different copies of the cream-cheese poundcake invented by Miss Tommie, my grandmother’s best friend. But in the recipe box I inherited from my mother there is no card for corn cakes.
Yes, yes, I know the internet is full of recipes for every possible kind of cornbread. Google “lacy corn cakes,” and half a dozen recipes will pop up, though none of them look just right in the pictures. Some call for a mixture of plain cornmeal and flour; some call for self-rising cornmeal; some require buttermilk, and some make do with water. It’s a surprising variety of options for a food made from no more than four ingredients, and I tell myself I don’t have time to test them all.
The truth is that I don’t want to cook from a stranger’s recipe. I want to cook from a family recipe. It’s Thanksgiving, when I am always most homesick for beloved elders no longer here. I am searching for a very particular taste, for a mixture of corn and salt and butter that will take me instantly back to a farmhouse in Lower Alabama, the house where my people lived for generations. I want my kitchen to be filled with the same scents that came from that old kitchen when the house was full of family.
The recipe I’m looking for might still turn up. In her life, my mother created inscrutable taxonomies of every kind, and the cards in her recipe box were no exception. Just because a cornbread recipe isn’t in the bread section does not mean it isn’t in the box somewhere else. And there are hundreds of recipe cards that aren’t in the box at all anymore because Mom pulled them out and never put them back.
During the last years of her life, she ate supper at my house every night. Her own stove was unplugged for safety’s sake, and there was no reason for her to spend hours poring over recipes for dishes she was never going to cook. She left the cards in little piles all over her house anyway — on bookcase shelves, on the floor beside her bed, on every side table in every room. I gathered them up in the days after her sudden death and dumped them into various baskets and boxes. Six years later, I still can’t bring myself to sort through them.
When I was growing up, my mother put a hot meal on the table every night, but she was never an enthusiastic cook — no one greeted the invention of Hamburger Helper with more gratitude. I don’t know why, decades later, she kept pulling out the recipe cards. Maybe she was looking for a particular recipe, too, hoping I might be persuaded to cook a dish she remembered and suddenly missed. Or maybe she wanted only to remember her own beloved dead.
For me it is always both heartbreaking and comforting to open my mother’s recipe box on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The family Thanksgiving recipes are there, of course — the squash dressing, creamed spinach and pecan pie that my children regard as holiday non-negotiables in the same way I did when I was in my 20s and feeling both the intoxication and anxiety of independence. Thanksgiving is not a time for culinary experimentation, at least not in our family. There’s comfort in a traditional holiday meal that goes far beyond the notion of comfort food.
But my mother’s recipe box is also a kind of living document, an annotated interplay of generations. Recipes in my great-grandmother’s hand are adjusted in my grandmother’s, and then again in my mother’s. Tucked behind Mom’s recipe for a ground-beef-and-sour-cream casserole is my recipe for spinach lasagna — I don’t remember copying it out for Mom, but I recognise the notebook paper I habitually used in graduate school. There’s a recipe for pork tenderloin in my mother-in-law’s handwriting, too, and countless recipes from friends and relations whose handwriting I can still identify even decades after their deaths. I could create a timeline of my own life from those recipe cards.
My children have grown up eating Sister Shubert’s rolls on Thanksgiving Day, and they will not be brokenhearted if I never find Mother Ollie’s recipe for corn cakes, though I am not giving up the search. Even if I don’t find it in time, I hope my grandmother’s recipe for yeast rolls, newly recovered from the unfathomable mysteries of my mother’s recipe box, will fill my kitchen with the scent of home. Perhaps the secret is in the buttermilk.
— New York Times News Service
Margaret Renkl is the author of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in July 2019).