One of the distinctive characteristics of living in the New South, cookie-cutter suburban Atlanta, is that the Old South, the rural, hardscrabble life that James Agee and others wrote about is never far from view. Reminders can be as vivid as the tar paper shack I drive by on the carpool run – rusted refrigerators and livestock in the yard, enclosed with a barbed wire fence. Or it can be the cast iron skillet that I keep on my cooktop, ready to fry up a pan of corn the way my granddaddy did. Used to be every family had a cast iron skillet, just as dear and useful as a family bible.
I wish I could say that my seasoned cast iron skillet is an heirloom handed down through the generations. The truth is, as a newlywed 20 years ago, I paid $20 bucks at Wal-Mart for a Lodge chicken fryer skillet – it’s a little bit deeper than a standard skillet, seasoned to a midnight black patina. I keep it on the stovetop so it’s handy for vegetable sautes, tomato gravy, pineapple upside-down cakes and biscuits. (I save chicken frying for my enamel cast iron Dutch oven – less splatter.) And fried corn. This is not deep-fried corn, just the Southern term for fresh corn cooked in bacon fat, thickened with flour and seasoned with cracked black pepper.
Now, my family loves roasted ears of corn on the cob and I’ve been known to turn out a corn salad or two, but if I’m going to write about what’s true in my heart, I have to tell you that the best corn I ever ate and later learned to cook was the skillet fried corn turned out by my paternal grandfather in Alabama. I guess I can say that Granddaddy was an ornery old cuss – a grumpy old man who handed out Kennedy half dollars to his grandkids before settling in his recliner with a Bud in his hand, ready for an afternoon of Auburn football.
Well, that’s one memory, I do have another, better remembrance – Granddaddy cooking fried corn in his cast iron skillet. Each summer the extended family would gather for a meal in the dining room of the house in Birmingham, grateful to escape the Alabama heat and ready for a feast. The oval, cherrywood dining table would be covered in a white linen cloth and loaded with the platters and bowls of Grandmother’s bone china. The menu was the same for each gathering – sliced ham, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise, potato salad, devilled eggs (Hellmann’s mayonnaise being something of a religion in my family), green beans cooked with ham, and Granddaddy’s skillet fried corn. The corn, creamy white and rich with bacon fat, was pretty much my favorite thing on the plate. I remember once my mom asking Granddaddy how he made his fried corn and he smiled, actually smiled, and said you gotta use white corn, what folks called field corn, and a cast iron skillet.
When I eat my granddaddy’s skillet fried corn, I can’t help but think of the Gudger family in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” – the sharecropper family in rural southern Alabama in 1936. Their house smelled of “corn and lard” and when I fix my own version of this dish, I remember the families whose lives depended on corn, for their livestock and themselves. My grandfather wasn’t a sharecropper, but he came from humble beginnings, and I guess he knew a thing or two about putting together a belly-filling meal on the fly.
Skillet Fried Corn with Bacon
I make this in summer, and I try to use a variety of corn – yellow and white. Gardeners will tell you that Silver Queen is the best, so if you see it, be sure to bring it home.
4 slices bacon
6 ears corn, shucked
½ medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
Water, about a cup, maybe more
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a cast iron skillet, fry bacon until crispy. There are two ways to accomplish this: 1. Messy: on stovetop, fry for about 20 minutes. 2. Not so messy: in 350° oven for about 25 minutes. When bacon is crispy, set bacon strips on paper towels to drain and pour bacon grease into metal container.
2. While bacon is cooking, prepare corn. Remove the corn from the cob thusly – hold cob upright and with a sharp knife held parallel to the cutting board, cut the kernels off one “side.” Place cob horizontally with the flat, cut side on the cutting board and slice off kernels, rotating cob. Do not discard cobs – you will use them in a minute.
3. Place skillet over medium heat and add two tablespoons bacon grease to pan. Add onion and saute until softened. Add flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Toss corn kernels in pan and saute. Take each cob and hold upright in the center of skillet. With the back of your knife, scrape the corn “cream” into the pan. Now you can discard the cobs. Stir.
4. Add water slowly to pan while you stir, until you get the desired consistency. I prefer thicker but some may like it thinner, like a chunky gravy.
5. Crumble bacon and stir into pot or top individual servings.
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and published by Houghton Mifflin. It’s a challenging read (at least for me), but if you love the South and the English language and compelling photography, it will reward.