Written May 7, 2012.
With Mother’s Day on my mind, I become more and more amazed each year at my own mom’s feat of raising a baker’s dozen. Growing up, I didn’t give much thought to the enormous challenge of raising all of us, but now as a busy mother of four, it is all the more impressive to me to think of being pregnant with and raising triple the number of kids that I currently have. Wow.
My mom did it all with a lot of hard work and plenty of on-the-fly creative innovation. This week’s column is inspired by one of those ideas. Back in the day, my mom did something that amazed the ladies in her Homemakers’ Club. During a meeting at our house when all the ladies in the neighborhood got together, one of those times that we tried to have our house looking like everything is beautifully in order and always clean, my mom deliberately made a big mess on her kitchen island.
Taking the container of cornmeal, my mom dumped a pile out on the counter, pulled up a little stool, and gave my then preschool age younger brother a selection of little tractors. While she bustled around the kitchen getting ready for her gathering of ladies, my brother happily farmed the cornmeal, plowing rows, scooping it into wagons, and dumping it into piles.
A pile of cornmeal became a staple on our kitchen island for years. Sometimes we swept the cornmeal and tractor collection into a little plastic container that lived on the island, but much of the time a generous cornmeal pile resided on display on the counter top with tractors in various states of farming and it made a ready play spot that attracted all ages. We all loved “doing cornmeal,” and even adults in the family absent-mindedly smoothed the cornmeal into piles or steered a tractor through a pile while we mingled around the kitchen island during a Sunday noon conversation.
Growing up, my mom let us “do cornmeal” in the least restricted way, as an uncontained pile on the counter. Today, kids in our family still play with free spreading piles of cornmeal on Sundays at grandma’s (my mom’s) house under the helpful supervision of my older brother. He’s an always willing uncle who holds little kids on his lap and helps them with their cornmeal farming (and keeps the pile of cornmeal from dumping all over grandma’s carpet).
As for me, I usually contain the piles in 9 x 13 cake pans when we play with cornmeal at our house. Giving each kiddo their own pan and pile prevents jurisdictional disputes, and the Ziploc labeled “Kid Cornmeal” always gets plenty of use at our house.
Cornmeal as a toy has undeniable appeal. It’s cheap, versatile, the grainy, smooth texture of cornmeal sifting through hands is irresistibly satisfying, and it feels just slightly naughty to get to play in a mess. In the middle of the winter, a pile of cornmeal becomes an indoor sandbox. Tractors pulling mini chisel plows and discs make beautiful little trails in the cornmeal, and little skid steers can scoop it up and fill any number of things. Add a few measuring cups and spoons, and a cornmeal pile becomes a pretend kitchen. I really don’t need to over explain it. Dump out a pile in front of a kid. Add a few play things. They will be happy for a long time.
And as much as we love to play with cornmeal, we also love to eat it as cornbread. Cornbread is one of those foods done poorly way too often. You know the kind, perhaps when you sink your teeth into cornbread, it reminds you of the spray foam insulation you used to seal up your attic. Or maybe when you take a bite, your mind travels back in time to the Civil War, and you wonder if perhaps the soldiers’ rations tasted about like this: a dry, tasteless, grainy belly-filler that could remain in the same miserable state for weeks and still taste just the same.
If you’ve spent a life eating cornbread that shatters in your mouth instead of crumbles, or think it is only an acceptable food product once it has been liberally slathered with a layer of butter and honey, today is the day to try something new. I have a cornbread recipe that is sweet and moist, and so good that you don’t even need to coat it with butter or honey (although that certainly is not against the rules).
I found this recipe on the back of the Albers Cornmeal box. Since discovering it ten years ago, this is the only recipe I use for cornbread. The recipe claims 12 servings, but our family of six (four of which are six and under) eats most of the pan in one sitting.
Sweet Corn Bread
(Makes 12 servings)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup corn meal
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 Tbsp butter or margarine, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 8-inch square baking pan.
Combine flour, sugar, corn meal, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Combine milk, eggs, vegetable oil and butter in small bowl; mix well. Add to flour mixture; stir just until blended. Pour into prepared baking pan. Bake for 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm.
So, it’s time to take that box of cornmeal out of the back of the cupboard. You know the one. You bought it out of a sense of obligation, feeling like you should have cornmeal on hand because that is the proper thing to do as an adult, because your mom always has some.
Then you stuck the cornmeal in your cupboard, and it slowly worked itself to the back where it still sits today, probably years after you first bought it. There is a good chance that the plastic on top is still intact. And there is also a good chance that even if it has been long neglected, that cornmeal is probably just fine.
Blow the dust off the top of your cornmeal box. Give a pile to your kids to play with, and while they are busy, make a batch of corn bread. No need to feel guilty if you eat four of the twelve servings. You can work it off by sweeping up any cornmeal your kids spill on the floor.
Cornmeal + Ants = “Cornage”
Or, better yet, don’t sweep the cornmeal. Most fabulously of all, a little known value of spilled cornmeal is that it is a natural pesticide for ants. Ants take the food back to the nest, but cannot digest it. The cornmeal swells in their stomach until they burst. KERPOW! Goodbye, ant problem. Now, don’t you love cornmeal even more?
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!