The other day my friend, Dan, was giving me a ride home and we stumbled onto the topic of our childhood dogs. Dan had just gotten a tattoo on his arm–a big red heart with “Bertha,” the name of his childhood basset hound, written inside of it. I talked about Henry, my miniature dachshund and constant companion from the time I was seven until right before I left for college. Henry loved to eat crayons–he was even able to remove the paper wrapper in order to just consume the wax.
Me and Henry, 1993
At first we blamed my little sister for all the missing crayons, but then Henry started to poop the most beautiful, colorful jewels of poop all over the yard. They were speckled all colors of the rainbow, neon pinks and greens, oranges and purples–just gorgeous poops. They were so beautiful it took everything I had to convince my best friend that they weren’t candy and she couldn’t eat them.
My sisters and I would walk around the yard, pointing to the little piles and matching them to their crayon names; “Burnt Sienna!” “Carnation Pink!” “Screamin’ Green!” ”Wild Watermelon!” A week before I left for college Henry died. He was never sick, he never seized or got tumors–he just came in from playing in the yard one day, curled up on the rug in front of the fire and died. He looked very small and very peaceful.
Dan and my conversation turned from childhood dogs to the book Where the Red Fern Grows–a book that had greatly moved both of us dog-lovers as kids. I remember checking it off on one of those Scholastic book fair packets they used to pass out once a year in elementary school (was there anything more exciting than those colorful, book-filled, whisper-thin packets?). I was always a sucker for any books that looked slightly spooky or packed with adventure and I remember distinctly the third grade book fair in which I picked up The Indian in the Cupboard, Wait Til Helen Comes, and Where the Red Fern Grows all based on their promising-looking covers.
Where the Red Fern Grows is the story of a farm boy named Billy who desperately wants his very own pair of coonhounds. When his father tells him that they are too expensive Billy works to earn the money to buy them on his own–selling bait and fruit to local fishermen. He eventually earns the money and buys a girl and boy coonhound, whom he names Little Ann and Old Dan. The story follows the trio’s adventures–fighting mountain lions, camping out in caves, and cutting down enormous trees all in the name of catching raccoons. Old Dan is eventually killed by a mountain lion and Little Ann dies a few days later of a broken heart. A red fern, which according to Native American legend can only be planted by an angel, sprouts on top of their gravesite.
After talking about the book for a little while–how it was one of the first books to ever make us cry–I said I needed to re-read it, as I had a vague sense that there was a great food scene in it. “Cornbread.” Dan said, “There’s lots of cornbread.” Whenever I come across someone who has a really solid memory of a food scene in a novel, especially one from childhood that they haven’t read in years, it thrills me. I went home that night and re-read Where the Red Fern Grows and sure enough there was cornbread everywhere. Billy stuffs it in his rucksack to go camping, he sells the stale chunks of it as bait to the fishermen, he makes salt pork sandwiches between its crumbly layers and eats it with jarred peaches, fried potatoes, fresh huckleberry cobbler, honey and butter.
The farm-freshness of everything in Billy’s meals was dazzling to me as a kid, it was the same reason I found the eating scenes in The Little House on the Prairie so bewitching. It was books like these that had me searching my backyard for edible berry bushes, mushrooms and roots before sitting down at night to a meal of Weaver chicken nuggets and canned fruit cocktail (No complaints, mom, it was delicious).
Mama opened a jar of huckleberries and made a large cobbler. Papa went to the smokehouse and came back with a hickory-cured ham. We sat down to a feast of the ham, huge plates of fried potatoes, ham gravy, hot corn bread, fresh butter, and wild bee honey.
Billy’s Skillet Cornbread with Honey-Butter
Makes one 8-inch skillet
- 1 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
- 3/4 cups AP flour
- 1/8 cup sugar (If you’re a Yankee, like me, and used to sweet cornbread you might want to up the sugar to 1/4 cup, although the seriousness of this cornbread mixed with the honey-butter was pretty divine)
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup butter, melted
- 1/4 cup shortening, melted (plus extra for greasing skillet)
- 2 eggs beaten
- 1-2 pieces of salt pork, bacon or ham (optional–frying one of these up in the skillet and pouring the batter over the grease adds a delicious smokiness to your bread and greases your skillet)
If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet you can bake this in a cake pan or baking dish, but I do recommend doing it in a skillet, it adds a great crispness and flavor. If you are unsure of how to season your skillet there is a great tutorial here (although I think that rather than putting it in the oven at 200 degrees for 3 hours you can do 275 for about an hour and a half-two hours). You’ll probably want to do this the day before, it’s time-consuming.
Once your skillet is seasoned, put your oven to 375 and melt your butter and shortening in the skillet. Pour melted butter and shortening into a dish and rub the remaining grease around the skillet with a paper towel, being sure to coat the sides. Put the skillet in the oven while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Sift together all your dry ingredients then add buttermilk, milk, beaten eggs and melted butter/ shortening mixture. Mix until incorporated, being careful not to over-mix, it’s okay if it’s just a little bit lumpy. Take your skillet out of the oven and if you have a piece of salt pork, bacon or ham, fry it up in the skillet leaving the grease in the pan. If you don’t, add a little but more butter or shortening and spread it around the pan. Pour your batter into the pan and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
For the honey-butter simply add about 1/4 cup of honey and a pinch of salt to 1/3 cup of softened butter and whip until emulsified. Allow it to set up and marry in the fridge a little bit before spreading on hot cornbread.