You might be surprised to learn that I was not a fan of chili when I was young. In fact (and in direct opposition to this week’s red meat theme), I didn’t like most dishes featuring meat. Steaks and chops grossed me out in a major way; burgers were OK so long as they came from McD’s. (For further information about my childhood feelings re: homemade burgers, see this video.) Tacos were the only exception to my general meat abhorrence: I loved filling those Old El Paso taco shells with shredded lettuce, diced tomato, grated cheddar, and a flood of Mild sauce. The ground beef particles were so small that I could barely taste them: hallelujah!
But chili. Chili was maybe my least favorite childhood meal. Not only did I dislike meat, but I had a major problem with green bell peppers. I wonder now whether my hatred for peppers was the result of some conditioned taste aversion, or whether the peppers’ bitterness was too much for my young palate to bear. Whatever the grounds for my anti-pepper stance, my only redemption on chili nights was my mom’s cornbread.
Sometimes my mom used a Jiffy mix and made corn muffins (whose single-serve nature didn’t fool me: I always had two!). Sometimes, she made cornbread from scratch, pouring the batter into a greased Pyrex 8×8 pan. Through the lit oven window, I’d watch the batter solidify. I’d beg to cut the bread into squares before it had cooled.
Unlike the other starches we ate as sides — crescent rolls, baked potatoes, savory rice — cornbread was distinct. It was sweeter than other breads, hinting at the lusciousness of dessert territory while remaining fully footed in the realm of the main course. And unlike other side dishes, it was beautiful: vibrant yellow and grainy textured, its composition mimicked sculpture more than bread.
After all these years, my love of cornbread is undiminished. I’ve come to like chili — it was one of my mainstays in grad school, when any dish with beans and veggies ranked high on my meal roster — but cornbread will always be the star of the show.
Last week, when I came upon Mark Bittman’s recipe for Good Old Fashioned Cornbread, I had to try it. It turned out well, despite my failure to add butter to the bottom of the pan (OOOOPS!). (In my defense, I’d had a hella long day at work and was distracted by Jeopardy!) I have no plans today to make chili, but I might make another batch of this bread: snow is predicted, and nothing warms one better than a slab of buttered cornbread, eaten in the warmth of one’s kitchen.