“The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread, and fried chicken.”
— Maya Angelou
The plate described by Maya Angelou, one of the greatest American poets who ever lived, is country goodness, through and through. It is a staple plate of Southern cooking — and has been for long time, certainly throughout my living memory and, I’m sure, far beyond it.
Southern cookbooks and recipe websites reveal dozens of recipes for cooking each part of Ms. Angelou’s comfort-food triumvirate. What matters to me isn’t so much the recipe you choose: Good neighbors may argue good-naturedly and put their mama’s collards recipe up against your grandmama’s recipe, and we’re all the better for the discussions. It’s all bound up in the neighborliness that the food on our table represents.
What matters more to me is the memories these three foods bring back. They’ve been with me all my life, put on the table first by my own Mama before she passed away when I was 11 and then by the dozen-plus aunts whose cooking I was so fortunate to eat afterward.
I always loved two of them — fried chicken and cornbread — but when I was a kid, no one could persuade me to eat a mess of greens.
Here in the South, the turnip greens or collards or mustard greens are stewed. I just saw a big, slimy-looking, wilted mess of leaves on my plate, and I had no interest whatsoever. And like most kids who had such labors of love put on the table before them, I had no appreciation for the work that went into cooking them, the laborious washing of the greens, the need to wilt them down in the pot a few handfuls at a time, the choice of the meat that would season them.
Only when I approached adulthood did I become willing to dive into the greens, and I followed my Daddy’s lead. I began to taste the magic that happened as the greens stewed slowly with some smoked pork, ideally a ham hock. I began to discover the magic in the little bottle of pepper sauce that was a big part of Daddy’s greens-eating ritual. My father ate them voraciously, always with that pepper sauce, the store-bought kind typically — little bottles filled with tiny green chile peppers soaking in vinegar. Open the plastic cap on a bottle, and you’d find a little round spout, from which you could sprinkle — or douse — your greens to spice them up.
I began to appreciate how much magic there was in the whole assembly — that I could actually eat my vegetables while enjoying the irresistible lure of smoked pork and the spice of that pepper sauce.
The beauty of the cornbread in lies in its simplicity. Cornbread is not as labor-intensive as the other two dishes in Ms. Angelou’s triumvirate. Again, you can find countless recipes for cornbread that involve all sorts of complexities, but country women don’t have time for all that. So, in our house, we keep it simple.
You start a good quality cornmeal mix. White Lily or Martha White will do just fine, because almost everything you need is in there: the cornmeal, the flour, the baking power, and the baking soda. Add just enough buttermilk and a dollop of oil to make a batter.
Then you take a cast-iron skillet and heat it up in your oven until it’s nice and hot and grease it with some oil or shortening or better yet some bacon grease. Pour the batter in the skillet and bake it in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, until it’s golden on the top and brown and crusty on the bottom and the sides.
Slice it up and butter it. Or you can do like my Daddy did and crumble it up in a glass of buttermilk or just regular milk and eat it up with a spoon, like cereal. You can even cut the leftovers into chunks and toast them in the oven, and voila, amazingly tasty croutons for your next salad.
But most importantly, no matter what you do with it, cornbread will comfort you. It warms the soul and the heart. It brings back precious memories. As we continue to weather this never-ending pandemic, a fresh cake of cornbread is balm to the soul.
As for the final piece of Ms. Angelou’s trio, fried chicken, I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. But I never really appreciated, until I was older, the amount of labor that went into it. The dredging in seasoned flour isn’t that hard, but regulating the temperature of the hot grease requires something akin to magic. And it’s a trick I’ve never mastered.
Back in the 1980, I was a young man living in New York and I began to crave the foods of my home, particularly fried chicken. Eating out offered few options. I did find a restaurant in my neighborhood run by a Texan, the Yellow Rose Cafe. It did have pretty good fried chicken, but not what I was used to, not what I craved. Its breading was so thick it reminded me of KFC’s extra crispy variety, of which I had never been a fan.
Thus, I began calling various aunts back home in Georgia, asking them how to make fried chicken. They tried their best to instruct me on the phone, but I don’t think you can teach somebody magic over the phone. I might get the crust right only to find the meat inside still bloody and unsafe to eat. Or I might get the meat inside cooked through, but the crust was black and leathery. I never could get it right. And I still can’t.
When I met my wife Stacy, she told me she was pretty good at cooking fried chicken. When I ate it, I learned she was being modest. She had the magic. I’d never say her fried chicken was what caused me to put a ring on her finger, but I can say that it deepened my knowledge that she was a magical woman in all sorts of ways.
Her biscuits are amazing, too, but I won’t stray into that, lest it take me away from Ms. Angelou’s definition of the best comfort food, which is what I came here to write about. The great poet herself once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Food makes us feel, and foods like the three Maya Angelou described as her favorite comfort foods make us feel loved. They give us memories of the people who prepared those foods for us, echos of good times that never go away. They give us the feeling that we can hold on, that we can stay in the boat no matter how stormy the seas.