When I once asked the late Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan what she felt was the most important thing in cooking, that was her immediate and emphatic answer.
Marcella died four years ago today, just a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday. When I reflect on her life as a teacher and sum what she taught us, it all comes down to that: Taste.
It may seem obvious and simplistic, but it’s all too often overlooked in our age of so-called culinary cleverness. It’s far too easy to get carried away with being “creative,” or with taking too much to heart the notion that we “eat first with our eyes,” and lose sight of the single most important thing: that moment when we lift our forks and the food meets with our tongues.
Just then, it doesn’t matter how clever or inventive the cook has been. Whether the cook’s technique has been precise becomes irrelevant. Philosophical ideals, no matter how deep, are moot. It no longer even matters how it looks.
All that matters is how it tastes.
It’s not that ideas, techniques, and appearances aren’t important, but when we embrace the universality of that elemental truth, we recognize that those things are subservient to it.
Taking that into account, then, it will seem far less unlikely that one of the key women to shape my life both as a Southern cook and food writer was an Italian, because the principles that she wrote about in her books and taught in her classes apply equally to any cuisine.
Over the years, her undiminished passion for good cooking in general and Italian cooking in particular gave me a deeper appreciation and passion for my own native cooking and eventually led me out of architecture into my present career.
Our friendship was not close. I probably saw her face-to-face only about four times over a span of more than twenty-five years’ acquaintance, and we only cooked together once. Her influence on my cooking, writing, and living in general was mostly through the pages of her books, letters, and a handful of rare phone conversations. And yet, that influence was as substantial and present as if she had been standing beside me in my kitchen every day, and has been as critical as the time I actually did spend in the kitchen with my mother and my two grandmothers.
Now, when I miss her, I do the same thing that I do when I miss my grandmothers: I go into the kitchen and cook. And once again, she’s right there beside me, reminding me to keep taste balanced and at the heart of everything I do.
When Marcella and her husband, Victor, visited Savannah, I wanted to share with them a taste of my native cooking and made fresh, hot cornsticks for breakfast. She slathered one with butter, took a bite, and waving it in the air, hummed, “Damon, this is good: you show me how to make this.” Sadly, we never cooked together again and I never got the chance. But when I make them, I always think of her.
Here, texture and consistency is equally important as flavor, but even so, they can be perfectly crisp and toothsome and still not be worth touching if they don’t taste richly of corn.
Makes about 16
2 cups fine stone-ground corn meal (I use white meal, but you should let your own taste guide you with it)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1½-to-2 cups buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned to buttermilk consistency with milk
4 tablespoons melted bacon drippings
Softened butter, for serving
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Heat 2 well-seasoned cast iron cornstick pans in the oven for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sift or whisk together the meal, salt, and baking powder in a mixing bowl. In separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1½ cups of buttermilk, and 2 tablespoons of the drippings.
2. Make a well in the center of meal and pour in liquids. With a wooden spoon quickly stir together, using as few strokes as possible. It can be a little lumpy. If the batter’s too dry, add buttermilk by spoonfuls: It should not be runny.
3. Remove the heated pans from oven and brush the remaining fat generously into the wells of the pans with a cloth or heat-proof pastry brush. Quickly spoon the batter into the wells until slightly rounded at the top: it should sizzle as it hits pan, or pan isn’t hot enough. Bake in the center of oven until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Immediately invert pans over a cloth-lined bread basket or clean towel. Cover them to keep them warm and serve as soon as possible with plenty of butter passed separately.
Notes: if you only have one pan, you can cook these in batches. Bacon drippings lend the most traditional flavor and are the best enhancement for good stone-ground cornmeal, but olive oil actually makes lovely cornbread if you’d rather not, or can’t, use pork fat.
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