It has been a hot summer, a suffocating heat. I did my best to escape it and I think it broke sometime this week. I went to Denver and Los Angeles, Dallas and Seattle. Today was my birthday, and I want to celebrate the year how I did for my 23rd: by continuing to do what I love and remember those who have loved me.
I haven't been baking much, even something as precious as creation has its limits in 110* heat. It doesn't mean I'm not creating. I am writing, I am growing, developing and connecting. I was given the opportunity to work on a series of posts for Baked on their blog, Baking Society. It's a series focusing on Midwest baking, Heartland recipes. I share the story with you below, but you can find the rest of the recipe here.
New England Corn Cake
There is a pulse in the Midwest on American cooking that beats like nowhere else. It’s called the Heartland for this reason. Food piled high on the fold out tables of church basements and on the worn farm tables, as smooth as river rock. I remember it from my childhood, from when I visited my relatives in small towns that followed creek beds, where a pale blue water tower stood like the Colossus of Rhodes. Where my great-grandmother’s house was bulldozed and we picked up stones from the rubble like souvenirs. Where the roads stretched out like promises, but you only ever went as far as the Dairy Queen down the street.
I come from a town of Versailles, Indiana and it’s pronounced, plainly and unapologetically, how it’s spelled. My mother lived humbly and her father was a truck driver. My dad’s family were farmers, decades of farming that formed callouses on their lifelines. My dad often describes the golden light of the sunsets on the farm. He also describes how he nearly drowned in a creek one summer. His mother never cooked vegetables, so they never ate vegetables. He left and joined the military when he graduated high school.
He had a brother that stayed behind and we’d visit his house on the farm in the summer. Blackberries twisted around the porch lattice and stained the white fence purple. A sun-bleached two-liter soda bottle was filled with water and you’d wash the juices off your hands before dinner with it. We’d pick the blackberries and make baskets from our shirts. My siblings and I grew up in Pennsylvania, on a plot of land covered with shale. All that grew were twisted peach trees, rotten on the ground, the pits crunching beneath our feet. We weren’t used to foraging, to fresh fruit. We were greedy and the bleeding juices dripped off our teeth when we smiled. We would go home that night, asleep in the backseat while our parents counted the mile markers instead of talking to one another. We were covered in mosquito bites and thorns stuck in our hair.
The Midwest to me has that sort of dichotomy. It’s a foil to itself. A place of dreamers who speak in idioms. A place where your teeth ache from sweet cakes at a church potluck and your feet ache from running as fast as you can in a race with your cousins. A place where the light hits every acre of your family’s farm except the plot called Tanglewood, where the Baptist church was. The church that buried women with heirloom names—Bernice, Eunice, and Ruth. The church that produced a cookbook one summer to highlight the women of the community that surrounded my family’s farm.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing recipes from this cookbook. Recipes that follow the seasons and are classically American, unapologetically Midwestern. Some are written by relatives, some are written by strangers, but all are a part of me. They tell a story that I cannot tell; creating an autobiography of a town that has 2,000 people and a lot of heart. They map a genealogy of those who baked before me and explain the reason I cook my cornbread in cast iron and understand that the thorns are worth the reward. I am excited to share my personal portrait of American baking with you, and I start with what this little cookbook of mine calls a “New England Corn Cake”, which I topped with a sour cream icing and blackberries.