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Welcome to Hill Reeves, a blog where I write about the things I cook and bake in NYC.

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Yankee Cornbread

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One of my favorite memories from childhood is the annual field trip I took with my school to the Teddy Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary. My mom, a nursery school director, planned the annual trip for every November. I think I maybe even played hooky to attend when I aged out of her school. The trip was to this preservation site, established near Theodore Roosevelt's home on the North Shore of Long Island, where birds and wildlife could live in a protected environment. It was acres and acres of wooded landscape along the Oyster Bay harbor, one of the most beautiful little towns on earth.

Educators at the park would lead this legendary walk around the grounds, telling us about Native American culture with each step. We'd listen to different bird calls, forage for mushrooms, touch hides that the staff had left drying out on a clothesline, search for animal tracks, pretend that we found arrowheads, and repeat back the names of local tribes. My mom took us on a lot of "nature walks" and she talked to us a lot about Native American culture out on Long Island, but this particular walk through the Oyster Bay backwoods was always the highlight of my year... that was, until the CORNCAKES.

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At the end of the mini-hike, which, as a four-year-old, felt like a trudge across Middle Earth, but actually looked a little more like this, we'd all be famished. The group leaders would build a bonfire, and as it died down, they placed cast iron skillets on top. In little bowls, we'd each mash up some corn meal and grind it into a paste with a little bit of water and salt, told that this was one thing Natives prepared with the bounty of corn they'd harvested. We'd form the paste into a small cake, which the adults would fry up on the griddle. They'd pass back our cake to us and, every time, convinced that this was the best day of my life and nothing could go wrong, I'd eat the cake. And every time it tasted like flavorless toejam.

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So, for a long time thereafter, every time I was offered corn bread I turned it down. I knew I hadn't liked what I'd tasted on each of those field trips, but I honestly think it was also a bruised ego. Eating the corncake at the Teddy Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary was, and probably still is in the recesses of my mind, the real test of whether or not a person could hack it in a world without supermarkets and refined sugar. I hadn't eaten the corncake when it had mattered, that afternoon in the woods, so I sure as hell didn't deserve it now. There's a glimpse at one of my more thoughtful/existential moments as a young person.

Eventually corn bread and I became friends, somewhere in my college years. Dan had a gigantic, Costco-sized box of cornbread mix that his mom had bought him and it sat in the cupboard for way too long. One weekend, we just made a ton of cornbread, but this mix produced something that tasted way more like a Twinkie than the corncakes of my childhood. Sugar! Eureka! It made all the difference. I know this isn't the kind of cornbread the Native Long Islanders would have eaten, and any Southerner would tell me to talk to the hand if I served them Twinkie-flavored cornbread, but if enjoying sugared-up cornbread means I'm not a true American, then so be it.

And I say put some jam on top while you're at it.

Anyways, all this is to say, here's a really easy cornbread recipe from Mark Bittman that I suggest you try next time you make a batch of chili, just want the house to smell like something's baking, or you have some leftover cake frosting that needs spreading. Plus, at the above link, Bittman provides a variation without any sugar, in case you need to prove something.

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