by Toya Wolfe
Grandma’s from Jackson, Mississippi, so you know she can go to work on cornbread and buttermilk or cornbread and beans or, well, cornbread and anything, as long as it’s all smashed up in a bowl. You live in the city, and you’re only country by association, so you’ll need something like greens, cabbage, or spinach to add to your cornbread. Choose one.
Toss the leaves in a big pot. Fill half the pot with water if you’ve chosen cabbage or greens, and not quite half a pot for spinach. Hook that up, and go sit down. Sit in the kitchen, cause something on TV might snatch your attention, and you’ll let too much water boil out of the pot. You can flip through a magazine, but do not get on the phone.
When you smell the greens/cabbage/spinach or hear some sizzling, check the pot. If you chose spinach, it might be done already. Frankly, it might be burning. The greens or cabbage should be fine. Now that you smell the food, it’s time to make the cornbread. You’ll need grease, baking powder, salt, and water (hot enough to melt paint off walls). What did I miss? What will make the cornbread cornbread? If your answer was not cornmeal, stop reading, stop cooking —maybe you should go watch TV or get on the phone. Call a friend and tell them that you don’t know jack about cooking. Order a pizza or some takeout. If you stayed on your toes and answered correctly, you may continue.
Let the water boil until the bubbles spit angrily. In that big bowl you use for popcorn, mix yellow cornmeal, baking powder (just a pinch or the bread will taste straight-up nasty!), half a teaspoon of salt and even less sugar (you ain’t making cake).
Add a tablespoon of grease so that the bread will stick together. Don’t sweat the fact that you’re about to fry it in grease too. Grease is simply another word for cooking oil. Do not go running into the garage and grabbing something you’d use on the car. Do go to the bathroom for the hair grease. If these thoughts have crossed your mind, cooking is way too dangerous for you, and you should go the pizza or microwavable dinner route.
I forgot to ask, what spoon are you using? If it’s the big one your mama hangs on the wall for decoration, she’ll trip. Go get the one from the drawer, the old one with the melted handle, (cause your stupid brother left it on the stove) and use that one.
Mix the ingredients while you watch the bubbles spit at everything outside the pot. Imagining how much it would hurt if that spit landed on your arm will help you to be extra careful when you pour the water over the dry mixture. Do that now. Pour a fourth of the water in and stir. This ain’t enough water, but you’ll add a little, and repeat this three more times. By now you should have a stiff, sloppy mix.
Grab a skillet and pour in enough grease so that you don’t have to tilt the pot in a million directions to cover the bottom, but no more than a quarter of an inch —you ain’t deep-frying chicken. Turn the heat up as high as it’ll go. When you think that the grease is hot, test it. Run the faucet, and stick an already clean hand under it. And while we’re on the subject, you did wash the greens/cabbage/spinach, right?
Shake a little water off of your hand over the skillet; you ain’t trying to start a war between you and the grease, you just want to aggravate it a little. I know it sounds dangerous, but trust, you got this. If water starts popping all over the place, utilize the James Brown slide, and get the hell out of the way. Now you know two things: one: you still got it, and two: the grease is ready for the batter.
Grab that crazy-looking spoon again and get a good amount of batter. Let it slide off the spoon. If it falls like cake batter, you’re in trouble. If it doesn’t move at all, you were too stingy with the water. If it falls in a lazy drip that takes four seconds to leave the spoon, you’re in business. Scoop a spoonful and let that lazy batter drop down into the skillet. It should slide down and form an oval. Do this until there is no more room for ovals. Cover the bowl after you’ve filled the skillet, cause you never know what else may want a taste of your cornbread. You’ve probably done a good job, so as a reward, you get to sit down again. Don’t read this time, you’ll burn the cornbread. Your phone will ring; it’s only a test, so let whoever leave a message.
Sit down and think about how good the cornbread will taste all smashed up with the greens/cabbage/spinach. This will help you to focus. Sweat it; get up every few seconds to look at it, poke it, attempt to flip it, even though you realize, after hopping up for the sixth time, that you need to stop. This paranoid behavior is good — at least for the cornbread. Once you can get a spatula under it without it trying to fall apart, flip it, and repeat the sweating process. When this batch is done, do it over and over until the bowl is empty. Rinsing away batter cause you’re tired of cooking is a no-no. And don’t even try to justify it by saying “It’s not real food yet.” Remember lectures you got growing up about people starving overseas, or simply think about the people starving right in your city.
Clean the big spoon, and make some Kool-Aid with it, cause somebody drank it all and left a swallow. Don’t even get mad this time, just make some more. Go get your favorite plate, cause it’s time to go to work. Take the top off of the pot, and inhale in the steam. If it smells good, be dramatic and exhale an “Mmm.” Dig in! Get a nice amount of greens/cabbage/spinach on your plate. Use discretion. If other people got to eat, don’t be all greedy. Pick the best piece of cornbread, pour some Kool-Aid into a glass, and make your way to the table.
If you’ve lived down south, you’ll probably smash the cornbread into the greens/cabbage/spinach, and you might eat it with your fingers. Depending on if you went away to school, who’s in the room, or any other number of factors, you might find yourself eating with a fork and knife, cutting the cornbread like it’s Chicago-style pizza, chewing it completely, and then eating the greens/cabbage/spinach separately, which defeats the whole purpose of why you made cornbread in the first place. If you must, compromise: smash it all up and then eat it with a fork. Wipe your mouth before sipping the Kool-Aid, or you’ll have grease glaciers floating in your cup. If you don’t care, don’t wipe.
When you’re done, don’t get up right away to put the food away. It’s too hot, and it might spoil. Go watch TV and rub your belly. If you’ve followed directions, you should be full, happy, and sleepy. Don’t sleep yet. Studies have shown that sleeping right after you eat ain’t healthy, but since you just ate fried bread, smothered greens/cabbage/spinach, and drank a cup of sugared-water, you probably ain’t too concerned about those studies. If you want to have leftovers, though, you have to stay up so that you can put the food away in about an hour.
Call your grandma, and tell her that you just hooked up some hot-water cornbread. If she lives in your city, you just messed up, cause she’ll want you to bring her some so that she can taste it; not cause she’s hungry, cause she’s doubting your skills. If she’s moved back to Jackson, she’ll just ask you a bunch of questions about how you made it, just to see if you jacked it up. No matter where your grandma lives, or what she says about your cooking, pat yourself on the back cause you didn’t give up and order a pizza, and you didn’t burn down the kitchen.
Toya Wolfe studied Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago and Youth Ministry at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University. She has enjoyed working as a Mentor, Extended-Day Coordinator, Women’s Dean, Youth Pastor and Nanny in Chicago and Southern California. Her writing has appeared in African Voices, Chicago Journal, Chicago Reader, Hairtrigger 27, and Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas. She is the recipient of the Zora Neale Hurston-Bessie Head Fiction Award, the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation Short Story Competition, and the Betty Shifflet/John Schultz Short Story Award. She currently resides in Chicago, where she is at work on her first novel and an MFA in Creative Writing.