Where the Red Fern Grows Skillet Cornbread with Honey-Butter

by Cara Nicoletti on April 30, 2012

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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.

Cara and Henry at end of driveway

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Billy’s Skillet Cornbread with Honey-Butter
Makes one 8-inch skillet
Ingredients:

  • 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)

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Directions:

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.

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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.

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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.

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Leave a Comment

Gemma April 30, 2012 at 9:14 am

This is so beautiful. It made me cry.

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Elise April 30, 2012 at 10:57 am

I vividly remember reading this book and being so overcome by emotion, it was the first book I cried reading as well. Quickly followed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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yummybooks May 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I think it was a lot of people’s first book-induced-cry. Bridge to Terabithia was my first but it was closely followed by Where the Red Fern Grows. Thanks for stopping by, Elise!

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breakfastbachelor April 30, 2012 at 11:28 am

Did you ever read ‘Walk Two Moons’, by Sharon Creech? Another one of the first to get me misty-eyed. This is incredible, and skillet cornbread with its sizzling grease is my FAVORITE. I once tried to adapt them into skillet corn cakes with honey butter, successfully enough so that I think I may give them another whirl soon.

PS The other day I made a conversational allusion to Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake from ‘Matilda’ (I’ve read your post on it as well) and everyone in the room got the reference and I don’t think I’d ever felt better.

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yummybooks May 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm

YES! it’s funny I was just talking about Walk Two Moons the other night with my best friend! I remember the scene where Phoebe won’t eat the fried chicken and she starts talking about cholesterol–oh I hated her in that scene.

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Toomanyronis April 30, 2012 at 11:31 am

I made the STUPID mistake of finishing this book during reading time in class (3rd or 4th grade). Cried like a lil baby in front of everyone. Luckily I think most of my classmates had already read the book, so they “got it.”

I wish I wish I WISH we still had book fairs and book orders. Ugh.

Great post, I’m going to make this this weekend!

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silverfinofhope May 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I did the same thing!

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Marcy April 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Two things: First, this makes me ashamed that I EVER (and i did) used a Jiffy cornbread mix and
Second: one of my best memories of mom-hood was watching this movie with Jack when he was in elementary school and home sick from school one day. Needless to say, I’m sure the book is much better, but the movie was so good I think I made him stay home for 2 more days so we could watch it again and again. Major tearjerker in the best possible way.
I love this post and the photo of you with Henry at the gates on S Shore Rd is so beautiful and such another wonderful memory.
Thanks Cara!

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The Elegant Hedgehog April 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Last week we smoked some pork bellies – no nitrates allowed here – so I will diced some tonight to go with the Rancho Gordo beans that slept in cold water last night, since all I wanted to have today was a good dish of beans, some homemade rajas from fresh chiles, sprinkled with Cotija cheese, lime wedges and cornbread,

Your cornbread now. Sunshine in a cast iron pan. Leave it up to you to do that.
Thank you my dear, the sun is not available today but there is some in the a cast iron pan. It will do. And how.

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yummybooks May 11, 2012 at 7:21 pm

You always leave the best comments, Allegra, I look forward to them so much. Your supper sounds like it was absolutely fabulous, I wish I had the energy to cook like that at the end of my work day. Thinking of you, I hope you’re well.

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baconbiscuit212 April 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm

You made me laugh, you made me cry, you made me remember!

And then you made me hungry :-)

What wonderful stories and what a great book to be inspired by!

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yummybooks May 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I couldn’t hope to do much more than that! So excited to make your kale pesto, I have lots of almost-withered kale languishing in my fridge–thanks for the inspiration!

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baconbiscuit212 May 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

You definitely should! I have eaten kale pesto for dinner, lunch, dinner, and probably lunch tomorrow. And I’m not tired of it! Which means it must be good :-)

Btw, I just wanted to say how much I loved your last post on chicken soup and hot milk cake. For some reason, I can only access it on my phone? Have you had this come up with other blogs?

In any case, the post really brought back great memories. Here’s a virtual toast to Maurice Sendak!

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yummybooks May 11, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Last night I pressed “publish” before it was edited by mistake! so I took it down from the website but everyone who subscribes still got an email with the first draft in it! It’s up on the website now (or should be…) and fully edited, sorry for the confusion!

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baconbiscuit212 May 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm

No worries! That has happened to me too. Did you just go, “Noooooooo!!!!!!”

Because that’s what I did when it happened to me!

I am glad to see that the post is back up. Those recipes look great!

susan corson May 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I think I need to buy a cast iron skillet JUST so I can make this :)))
You and Henry? Too adorable for words!

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robincoyle May 2, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Just the mention of Where the Red Fern Grows made me tear up. By the way, I am the owner of a miniature dachshund, William Wallace. He is an old guy, and I am dreading the day . . .

Great post and lovely photos – as always.

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silverfinofhope May 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Oh, that beautiful book…and don’t you just miss the wonderful smell of the book fair? All those new paperbacks, bright, glossy….you’ve taken me back there! thank you…

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rsmacaalay May 7, 2012 at 5:29 am

This cornbread looks good!

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thegallivant May 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm

This looks delicious. Have you read the book “No More Dead Dogs” by Gordon Korman? it was a welcome relief after Old Yeller and Where The Red Fern Grows:) Would you maybe consider making a recipe to honor Maurice Sendak?

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yummybooks May 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Chicken soup with rice is being made for dear Maurice as soon as I have a day off! Will definitely check out that book, thank you!

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thegallivant May 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Wonderful. Looking forward to it!

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{Adventuresindinner} May 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Love it! Almost (almost) tempted to feed the neighbour’s dog some crayons just to see the result C:

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Katie H July 21, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Another great kids book featuring a boy, his dog, and cornbread is Sounder. And it’s also a tear-jerker!

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yummybooks July 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

I absolutely adored Sounder as a kid! Will have to give it another read and see if I can dig up anything besides cornbread to make for it. Thanks, Katie!

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jessicabenjestorf December 7, 2012 at 11:27 pm

I remember one time when my mom picked me up off the couch sobbing after watching Braveheart and she told me “i love how much you care” I remember her saying the same thing when I was reading this book.

Anything stashed away in a rucksack or described as being wrapped in cloth/a handkerchief is so endlessly appealing to me.

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Sharon December 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Yum yum yum what a perfect dish for a cold day!

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Shanna September 11, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Reading this was sort of a revelation for me. I come from the Midwest but now find myself in Nashville, and just this morning I tried a Southern recipe for cornbread that seemed kind of weird to me. It wasn’t sweet! That’s what it was! I had to bathe the thing in honey because I grew up with sweet cornbread! I love it when all of a sudden something clicks for me, haha. I guess I have a ways to go in adopting my Southern home. : )

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