As a cook finding myself replanted in New Mexico, one of the greatest gifts has been learning about the ingredients and foods that make up this region. Wherever I’ve lived and worked, I have always considered the farmers market to be equal parts schoolhouse and playground. As a child, my love for cooking developed because I saw how even the simplest meal contained a power to connect people.
I have made cornbread a hundred different ways over the years, and in the past I’ve made it as a side for summer barbecues, winter stews or chili. Maybe a handful of times while cooking in Chicago, I got my hands on some local cornmeal and felt happy (even lucky) about it. However I made it and with whatever ingredients I used, it was cornbread to go alongside something else and nothing more. But here in the Southwest, there is a window that’s always open, an invitation to look beyond the utility of a food and to see what else is there.
Talking with a friend this week while he was in his kitchen peeling chiles, he shared with me his perspective. To Walter Whitewater, a Navajo, “Corn is our offering and our food. It’s not only the white corn or blue corn. There is pink corn, purple corn, black corn. We are all the corn of Mother Earth. For Native people, it is our art, our song, our healing, our story of creation.
“In the mornings, I go outside, face east and sprinkle corn as an offering, to share with the black ants, birds and insects. I remember from my childhood the stories and work that went into growing corn. Where does it come from? Where does the water come from? How much work has gone into planting, protecting the crop and saving seeds for the springtime? This is what I think about, and it’s an everyday way of life. Food, like corn, is our medicine. It’s not only about us. It is to be shared as an offering to the earth and with each other. In the winter after the harvest, we tell the stories of corn, to pass this way of life and respect for Mother Earth to future generations. It doesn’t matter what color you are, corn is for everyone.”
In her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (available at redmesacuisine.com), Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa) speaks of the history, miracle and sacred role corn has held for thousands of years: “The miracle of corn is that it grows at all in the Southwestern desert, particularly on some of the arid mesas. Corn has sustained life here for centuries. Corn is the staple of life. It, with a history going back thousands of years, has enabled the Indigenous peoples of the Southwest to sustain life, and evolve as individual cultures. Corn is Mother. The corn plant itself represents the life process of the human being. It begins from the planting of the seed to the growing process of a seedling, to an adult and then to death, like the cornstalk that dries in the fields, leaving behind new kernels, new seeds of life for future generations to continue the cycle. Corn in the Southwest is the essence of life.”
Thanks to generous teachers like Lois and Walter, the way I think about corn has forever changed. When I buy it, measure it, mix it to make this bread or any other corn dish, I am thinking about the people who cultivated it, the work that goes into growing it, the stewardship and perseverance that has gone into saving seeds. This simple recipe, using local cornmeal whenever I can find it, is no longer just a side dish, it is a gift to be cherished. And whenever I make this version, with tangy buttermilk and a pot of poblano butter on the side, it is always the star of the show, no matter what I serve with it.
Buttermilk Cornbread with Poblano Honey Butter
Total time: 45 minutes;
makes: 8 servings
For the cornbread:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, for pan
1 cup finely ground cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, warm and melted
1 large egg
11/3 cup buttermilk
½ cup brown sugar, packed
For the poblano honey butter:
8 tablespoons salted butter, room temperature
¼ cup honey
1 fire-roasted poblano, peeled, seeded and diced
Preparation: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. You can use a 9- to 10-inch square baking dish or a round cake pan or cast-iron skillet. Place 2 tablespoons of butter in the pan and keep this to the side until you’re ready to heat the pan.
Now let’s make the batter. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the warm melted butter, egg, buttermilk and brown sugar. With a rubber spatula or wooden spoon mix the wet ingredients into the dry.
Place your skillet, pan or baking dish with the 2 tablespoons of butter in the oven for 3 minutes until it’s melted. Transfer the batter to the hot buttery pan and bake the cornbread for around 25 minutes or until a knife inserted into the bread comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
To make the poblano, fold together the butter, honey and poblano pepper. You can do this by hand or using a food processor. Serve the butter at room temperature and then store in the fridge for up to a week.
Marianne Sundquist is a chef and writer who in 2020 co-founded Stokli, an online general store. Find her on Instagram @chefmariannesundquist, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.