This post is for the America Day event hosted by Casey at Eating, Gardening & Living in Bulgaria.
What is American food? I have asked several people this question recently, and invariably received the same answer. “Hamburgers”. Some would then furrow their brow and slowly list some other comfort foods: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, pot roast.
I love hamburgers, and I love traditional American comfort foods. But I think our cuisine is so much more than these. It’s fast food, processed food, convenience stores and factory farms. But it is also regional specialties like grits or barbeque or lobster or po’ boys or biscuits that mean home and belonging. It is various ethnic foods that immigrants have brought with them, and Native American foods like corn and beans, and endless fusions of those styles of cooking. It is truck stops and all night cafes, but it is also cutting edge chefs working with seasonal, local ingredients.
In the end, it seems to me that what American food really means is what Mom used to make, or Grandma and Grandpa or Uncle Joe. It is about comfort and familiarity and love. It may be different for each of us, but we know it when we taste it–or even when we just smell it. American food stirs deep memories, inspires great loyalties, soothes frayed nerves, cures colds, and is even the subject of impassioned debates about the best hamburgers or whether apple pie should be served with cheese. (It should. Cheddar.)
Because it isn’t just food, it’s where we came from. It’s the smell of Thanksgiving turkey roasting in the oven when you walk in out of the cold after a long flight home for the holiday. It’s the chalky little mints that Grandma always kept in a dish on the counter next to the phone. It’s your mother’s special casserole, your father’s grilled ribs, the particular kind of chicken soup you got when you were sick as a child.
If I had to choose one food that is the most American of all, it would be corn. Corn, in all its many forms, is such a quintessentially American food. And cornbread has been served since this country was founded. It is simple, filling and nourishing. Baked or fried, sweet or savory, it seems that every family has a favorite recipe.
On Sunday, Michael got out his Grandfather’s skillet, and made Hot Water Cornbread. This is a beloved food that he ate as a child on visits to his grandparents. He remembers his Grandfather making the cornbread, and how good it was–hot and crisp and fresh. We built a meal around it, with fried catfish and black-eyed peas, but the Hot Water Cornbread was the star.
It is important to note that Hot Water Cornbread is made by feel, rather than by precise measurements. Start with “about a cup” of cornmeal and you will end up with 7-8 corn patties.
Hot Water Cornbread
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 2 Tbsp all purpose flour, more or less
- approx 1 tsp salt
- about 1 cup of boiling water
- Vegetable oil for frying
Mix first three ingredients, then add boiling water while stirring, until dough forms stiff clumps. Allow dough to cool just sufficiently to handle. Dip hands in cold water, then take balls of dough and form into flattened patties about 4 inches across (like making hamburgers!).
In a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, heat enough oil to partially cover the corn patties. When oil is hot, fry patties quickly, turning after a few minutes. The patties of Hot Water Cornbread should be crisp and browned on the outside. Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot.