My father loved crumbling cornbread into a tall glass, pouring cold buttermilk over it and slurping it out with a spoon. He seemed to enjoy the experience so much that one day, when I was 12 years old and particularly thirsty and hungry, I asked him to fix me a serving. After one spoonful, there was no doubt in my mind — I had never tasted anything quite so awful in all my life. (It was the raw buttermilk that got me, of course).
Why my father loved the concoction so much is probably rooted as much in psychology as in taste. My dad was born in the early 1920s and grew up on a briar patch of a farm in Leon County, Texas, in the midst of the Great Depression. Cornbread with buttermilk was one of several hard-time snacks that he and his five siblings enjoyed when money was scarce and lips were parched. He carried a love of this simple pleasure well into adulthood.
When I was growing up in Memphis, we were a lot better off financially than my father's family, but the frugal lessons of the Great Depression were still seared into my parents' collective consciousness.
My mother often served us black-eyed peas and cornbread with dinner. We crumbled the cornbread on the plate, then poured the peas, with plenty of juice, over the top. I could eat a whole plate of this unique delicacy and not be concerned that the meat accompaniment on the plate was a bit undersized.
It wasn't until I was in my teens when I invited a friend over for dinner that I discovered this wasn't the way the rest of the world consumed peas and cornbread.
Today, cornbread is poised to rise in popularity again — only this time in the most unlikely of countries. According to the U.S. Grains Council's Tokyo office, cornbread is growing into a new food trend in Japan.
The council, riding the wave of the cornbread craze in the Land of the Rising Sun, recently launched a marketing campaign using historical stories, movies, books and a Web site to educate more Japanese about cornbread's fine qualities.
At the same time, they hope to help Japanese corn millers remain in the food industry despite a shrinking market. Decreasing corn grit consumption in the beer and snack industries have contributed to this market change.
Japan's supermarkets currently do not carry bags or boxes of prepackaged cornbread mix, so the Web site introduces the characteristics of corn grits, meal and flour which Japanese millers are producing. This helps Japanese consumers find the right type of grits with the right particle size needed for cooking cornbread, according to the USGA.
The Web site includes cornbread recipes targeting Japanese audiences. For example, the site's recipes use conventional milk or plain yogurt as a substitute for buttermilk, an essential ingredient for baking Southern-style cornbread but a product not available in Japan.
Cornbread was a staple for hungry Americans during the Great Depression, has been a long-time delicacy for Southern country folk and perhaps soon the Japanese could know the pleasures of black-eyed peas over crumbled cornbread. Pass the chopsticks please.