By Florence Ditlow
I was born in Pennsylvania but became a Tennessean in the ’70s. That is to say, I felt Knoxville was home, my neighbors were my extended family, and the Smokies helped me feel so alive picnicking in hallowed glades and walking a sacred rhythm on her hiking trails.
My childhood played out in my grandfather’s bakery, where there was always bread, pie and cake but not a bit of cornbread. From my first week in Knoxville, I found cornbread was a standard cultural component. People talked about it on the bus, at work and on TV. This intrigued me as a bakery girl. I heard about cornbread history, hard times and cherished recipes. Among strangers, I had an unfailing conversation starter.
Later I understood why: Cornmeal is in your bones, y’all. It’s part of surviving in war and peace in a way that yeast bread is not. The creative possibilities fill cookbooks and will always be a part of the Southern kitchen.
Imagine me years after the bakery closed. I hungered to read of bakery work, invention and building of layer cakes. There were no stories about using pie baking as therapy. This baking frenzy had a hold on me; I had to tell the story inspired by my family’s bakery. One tale of war time occurred in Alabama, so in my novel The Bakery Girls, I decided to write a scenario where cornbread was the featured queen. This was inspired by a baker who liked corn kernels mixed into cornbread batter. In this scene, Bakery Girl Elaine meets Southern cook Veronica in a grocery store:
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“Veronica! How are you?”
Veronica smoothly took her by the arm. “You ever made cornbread?”
“No. There was no need for me to bake.” Elaine went on to tell her about Stitt Bakery (in Pennsylvania) and that cornbread was not on the menu.
Veronica giggled, “Do tell. That is a durn shock. Why, in these parts, cornbread’s a big fav-o-rite,” said Veronica as she fidgeted on toward the flour shelf of the store. “Hey, you gonna haf’ta advise me about bakin’ fer the State Fair.”
“Hah!” Elaine chuckled darkly. “Let me repeat, Veronica. I’m not a baker, and I cannot help you bake. Heck! I never even tasted cornbread.”
“Oooheee!” But the imprudent Veronica remained convinced a baker’s daughter had to be full of wisdom, if only by association. Then there was the matter of the cash prizes.
Elaine gripped the handle of her woven market basket saying, “If you’ll excuse me…”
But noooo. Veronica launched into explaining her mission: winning the state fair baking contest and the coveted cornbread blue ribbon. She then followed her annoyed acquaintance into the produce section, begging for a tip, a hint, some precious kernel of Yankee baking creativity!
But Elaine had tuned her out, way back in jams and jellies, and when Veronica blocked her path, Elaine bellowed, yelling loudly enough for the grocer’s ears, “Put corn in it!”
Veronica was nearly floored by the force of Elaine’s response and gaping, shouted after her, “Oh my stars! Fresh corn! I will! I will do it!” She skipped out of the store with gayety, waving flirtatiously to the grocer.
Veronica miraculously proceeded to take a three-egg cornbread recipe, add corn she had cut off the cob and pray. Oh, she won every judge’s vote, to the dismay of last year’s reigning bake-off winner, Polly Thigpen, a veteran baker who had been nicknamed “Pone” because of her reverence for the chewy yellow stuff.
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Florence Ditlow writes of women’s survival history through the lens of the memories of love, endurance and joy connected to food. She began a nursing career in Knoxville and graduated from UT Knoxville. The Bakery Girls was published in 2011. The author may be contacted through thebakerygirls.net.