The family story is somewhat apocryphal. My paternal grandfather and mother lived in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Grandpa Young was an electrician; Grandma Young, also called Grandma Tutu, ran a beauty salon. One evening, Grandma was too tired to fix anything for supper. She put out what she had on hand, which was some slices of cornbread and a glass of milk, in front of Grandpa. He complained about the poor meal. Grandma didn’t say a word, but for the next six meals after that, she put out nothing but cornbread and milk. Grandpa didn’t complain about her table again.
When I first moved to Korea, the only breads the bakeries there sold were either loaves of white bread so insubstantial and over-sweetened they were like a wheat version of cotton candy spun in a rectangular frame, or “chestnut bread” which was the same but with embedded chunks of steamed chestnut. Gradually, multi-grain breads, “rice” breads, and even artesian breads in the big cities appeared, but for that first year the only bread I could find that came close to appetizing was cornbread. The small, flat, patty-shaped loaves were dry with a thin glazed crust. They never stirred the baking powder in properly, so while I ate I would wince at the sudden grab-drying taste of powder pockets bursting in my mouth. That cornbread was also too sweet; but it was, in a foreign country and a small rural town that didn’t even sell real coffee, not bad.
Kitchens in Korea don’t have ovens. They steam their “traditional” breads, their stuffed buns and their rice-cakes. No leavening, no yeast; no ovens. In the nearly nine years I lived there, I ached for ovens and the food that comes from them. Not just breads and cakes, but casseroles, baked potatoes with crispy skins, vegetables roasted with herbs and oil. It wasn’t that I had been a great or enthusiastic cook before Korea, it was simply that I realized only after it was gone how central the oven was to my understanding of and taste for food. I have had spells of infatuation with the oven, though. For awhile in elementary school I baked a lot of muffins. I even started to do cakes. I remember a particularly difficult chocolate bundt cake with fudge frosting. I had forgotten to grease the cake mold, and I had to scrape the cake out in chunks. Fortunately, fudge makes an excellent putty, and I managed to hide the Frankencake nature of the thing under generous layers of frosting.
In the temples I used to daydream about what I would replace the Korean-style altar offerings with, if I were doing ceremonies in America. Home-made cakes and cookies instead of steamed glutinous rice cake; bread instead of rice, overflowing bowls of fruit instead of the geometric pyramids and columns. Last weekend I baked cookies for lunar new year’s. I stacked the first three cookies out of the oven into a little pagoda and put it front of the Buddha, along with an acorn squash, a pile of apples, a hand of bananas, dried cranberries, and Tollhouse chocolate chips. If one aspect of sincere generosity is to give that which you yourself would enjoy, well: that was a moment of deep sincerity for me.
My sister sent me some recipes to try now that I’m back; one was a cornbread recipe. She warned me, “This isn’t health food! …But it’s so good.” The recipe called for sour cream and sugar, but at the last minute I decided to try blackstrap molasses as a sweetener instead. The batter seemed a little runny, so I also tossed in an extra handful of flour and cornmeal, and took the strangely heavy pan up to the oven on the Center’s second floor.
The bread that came out was dark gold and smelled sweet. I chewed my nails for the twenty minutes the bread was cooling, knowing I’d regret slicing into it early but also hungry, and curious. What bread had I made? When I did cut a slice, it was moist and thick, a little crumbly like cornbread should be. Despite all the dairy already in the bread, I loaded three gold-brown squares with butter and ate them with relish. The molasses has a slightly bitter taste, recalling the old bursts of soda from that Korean cornbread without the feeling of aversion that accompanied the latter. Eventually I got up and made greens and heated soup to round things out; but for a moment, eating the first bread I’ve baked in over a decade, I was completely full, with nothing else needed. I thought, I’d like to see a loaf of this on the altar next new moon. I thought, I’d like to take some to my classmates. All the lessons I learned in ritual and giving, in a country and culture as far removed from the tables of my Grandma and Mom as can be, are coming home in our recipes and manners. Baking brings me back, not just to the personal narrative of our family about bread, baking, and women, but also into the greater cultural sweep of America and the West. Lands That Bake! The People Who Bake Cornbread! The idea is hokey but also poignant to me as a returned expatriate, once marooned on the shores of The Lands Which Did Not Bake.
Cornbread didn’t make a meal in Grandpa’s eyes. It’s a funny story, saying less about cornbread than my grandma’s determination to make her point and my grandpa’s probably reluctant capitulation to it. I like how cornbread’s at the physical center of the story, though, and I wonder what Grandpa would have made of the many meals I ate in Korea consisting of poor cornbread and a cappuccino milk, eaten in haste between my first apartment and the small cram school I taught at. Those strange yellow loaves were little like the rich brown bread I made tonight, and perhaps it is only the contrast between the two that allows me to say that yes, it is meal enough. It is, in so many ways, meal enough.