Thoughts on a southern staplePosted on October 1, 2023
I’d Kill for a Pan of Her Cornbread
There are few things in this life worth killing or dying for, but I’d make an exception for a pan of Jewel Gilbreath’s cornbread. I married into the generosity of her kitchen when I swapped vows with her granddaughter, my first ex-wife, back around 1977. Widowed for a decade or more before her death, Mama Jewel, as we called her, lived alone in a stone farmhouse near Cone, Texas. Her front yard was no yard at all. She preferred a prolific vegetable garden to a grassy lawn. Her back yard, bordered by a section-size cotton field, was planted in pear and apricot trees. Her pump house, which doubled as a storm shelter and root cellar, was filled to bursting with the largess of her agricultural endeavors. Canned vegetables and cases of preserves were stacked floor to ceiling there. After surviving the depression, tornados, the dust bowl, and rationing from two world wars, her self-appointed mission was ensuring that no member of her family suffered from want of something good to eat. From that standpoint alone her life was an immeasurable success.
She was a tiny, white-haired, bespectacled epitome of a farm family matriarch who drove her Olds “deuce-and-a-quarter” ninety to nothing and punctuated her sentences with, “as to that,” and “don’t you know,” “so to speak.” Her back was bent by a lengthy lifetime of farm labor and tending to the babies of her babies, and their babies, too, but her blue-grey eyes always held the sparkle of constellations in them, and she loved to laugh. I loved to make her laugh just to hear her chuckles. Her whole body would shake with merriment. After nearly ninety years in the flat Texas panhandle, her roots ran as deep as the aquifer that lent life to her garden. She had the fortitude of a triathlete and a work ethic John Henry couldn’t beat. I have yet to discover anyone who can beat her cornbread, either.
First off, hers was a southern-style cornbread cooked in cast iron—no sissified sugary pone came out of her oven. That stuff tastes more like cake and won’t do at all dunked in a glass of buttermilk or broken into a bowl of Texas chili, or much of anything else useful south of the Mason/Dixon. Hers was simple and savory, moist and magnificent, golden on top, brown and crusty underneath. It was the ideal accompaniment to a mess of purple hulled peas swimming in porky pot likker. She used bacon fat to make it.
When my two grandmothers passed away I was too stoic and macho to shed tears. I loved them both dearly and miss them to this very day, but I just couldn’t seem to turn on the waterworks at check-out time. When Jewel’s journey reached its end I’d been divorced for a couple years. Even though she was my ex-granny-in-law, I was sobbing when I got the news. I believe I was mourning all three of those good women at once—all they stood for and endured, all of the love they had shared with me.
In order to better honor her memory, I’d like to pass along her exact cornbread recipe, but I’m afraid that just isn’t possible. See, Jewel wasn’t the kind of cook who needed cups and tablespoons. Nobody makes an approximate 4-ounce measure shaped like her gnarled, hard-working hands. Jewel just threw ingredients together until they looked right. After making cornbread for the ten thousandth time, she just knew.
- Michael C. Osborne
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