How I Got Over Being a
Radical Foodie Southern Health Nut
plus a Recipe for Dennis' Re-Sanctified Cornbread
by Joanna ES Campbell
Dennis’ Re-Sanctified Cornbread Recipe
2 cups Stoneground Cornmeal
1 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 tsp Salt
3 large Eggs
2 cups of Buttermilk
3 Tbs Sriracha sauce
1 can of Rotel
1 Tbs minced Garlic
1 cup Vidalia Onions
8 oz Smoked Bacon Bits and Ends
2 Tbs Bacon grease
Pre-Heat Cast-Iron Skillet and Oven at 450 degrees
Mix Cornmeal, Baking Powder, Baking Soda and Salt
Blend Buttermilk with Sriracha sauce
Saute onions and Garlic
Cook and then crumble Bacon
Mix everything together including bacon grease
Oil pan with Bacon grease
Pour complete mixture into pre-heated skillet
Bake for approximately 25 minutes
Eat three slices and you will be re-sanctified, eat six and you'll never backslide again.
One of my vexing habits is collecting ideas on what I believe is right and true. Friends are patient with these declarations, and in their gentle ways, try to teach me the difference between wisdom and dogma. I’m still learning how to discern between life-giving and more narrow ways of thinking. I’ve gathered bits of knowledge that form my list of truths. Here is an example:
This last bit, “Food is medicine,” is something I tangibly experienced on my first trip to China. Countless meals involved foods my Chinese friends did not know the English word for. The only translation they could offer was medicine. Sometimes I could tell the food was some kind of fungi or the obvious shape of garlic and ginger. These edibles are a staple in most Chinese dishes. I haven’t formally researched the Chinese concept of health and medicine; I only know my experience of eating with people in multiple provinces where each meal is a medicinal feast. Whether being treated to an elaborate banquet in a fancy hotel or huddling around a rickety table high up in the mountains, I experienced each meal with sensory delight and chock full of ingredients they called medicine. It was delicious, flavorful food.
The rare occasions where I stayed in a western hotel in China and was served western food felt like culinary torture. I didn’t want the yucky white flour soupy pancakes. I wanted my bubbling dish of spicy peppers, heaps of garlic, and roasted chicken. Give me lotus roots and wasp larvae any day over mushy pasta.
My month of eating medicine each day changed my food paradigm and my body. My clothes loosened, which was a mystery because I had filled my belly every day of my trip. I learned that each time I said the Mandarin word for “delicious” more food miraculously appeared. I ate and ate and drank pints of earthy green tea. I realized that I hadn’t been eating my southern staples of refined sugar, coffee, white flour, and processed foods. I wondered what it would be like to continue eating as if I were in China. This birthed what became known in my family as the China Diet. I don’t like the word, diet, because it connotes making a significant change only for a short period of time. It feels like a false promise glorified by a short-term band-aid. Instead, my direct experience was changing the way I looked at food and food choices over time. I cut out alcohol, caffeine, all processed foods, white flour, most dairy, and refined sugar. I lost more weight and felt like I had finally discovered a sustainable way of eating and being healthy. Plus, I enjoyed sharing this story with anyone who would listen. Come hear the gospel according to Joanna.
On one occasion I was at a local food banquet in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had driven a dozen of the AmeriCorps members serving at the nonprofit I was working for on Petit Jean Mountain just outside Little Rock. We were attending a well known southern sustainable agriculture conference and soaking up all of the workshops, stories, and emerging social networks. It’s an exciting time to be a sustainable farmer in the South. At the banquet, a striking young woman from Brazil joined our table. Our conversation eventually led to food, and I shared with her my experience in China and the radical shift I made in how I think of food and how I eat. She listened intently, then pausing for a few seconds, she responded, “You know, I don’t think I could do what you’re doing. I would feel sadness in my heart. I would miss the foods from my family traditions and my culture. It would hurt too much to give up these experiences.”
Her words hit me like a shock wave. Wow. Family traditions. Cultural foods. Feeling a heart connection to these foods and a longing. Wow. What are the cultural foods from my family? My mom stopped cooking in 1982, said it was the best decision she ever made, so I grew up knowing diddly squat about how to combine ingredients much less feel a connection between the meal, the place, and the people. Does Western Sizzlin’ count? Red Lobster? Holidays became our landmarks for creating special meals together at home. I treasure these memories of rockfish, pecan pie, and my brother’s lentil soup. My Brazilian dinner companion described a different world, shedding light on a curious culinary landscape. It wasn’t just about food and sustenance. Every meal was a celebration of her family and traditions, sharing in something special together each day, not just on special occasions. I carried her words with me for a few more years, continuing on with my China outlook and not entirely sure of how to integrate her wisdom into my own place in the southern United States. I wasn’t prepared to start eating fried chicken and hushpuppies, both iconic southern foods. And, what good role models do us food-weary southerners have for ways of cooking? Paula Dean? I dare not tread down that road.
All of my well-crafted righteous ways of living came crashing to a halt the day my husband showed up in my life. Dennis comes from a small town in eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi delta. His grandparents were sharecroppers. Alongside the cotton and soybeans grew a vegetable garden that Dennis’ grandfather cast prayers over each season. Dennis was raised on collard greens, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and cornbread alongside sun-ripened peaches, sweet corn, and okra. He knew the world of heirloom tomatoes before tomato-tasting festivals were hip, and he makes the best cornbread I have ever tasted. One of the results of marrying him is that I’ve turned into a cornbread snob. I admit it, even turning my nose up at restaurants claiming to serve Southern food. You don’t add sugar and white flour to cornmeal. You just don’t. I now know what good cornbread tastes like.
To say that Dennis loves food and loves to cook is an understatement. Before we’ve finished lunch, he’s asking me what I want for dinner. With a fridge full of prepared food, he begins cooking more meals because, as he says, “I just need to cook something.” On a bad day, he says, “I need to cook something.” On a good day, he says, “Honey, I need to cook something.” Picture Mark Twain with darker hair.
My introverted self watches in amazement. There must be a cooking gene, and he’s got it etched firmly in his genetic code. When we moved in together, I wondered how my China Diet would fit with Dennis’ ways. Should I insist on only local, organic, shade grown, non-processed, no sugar, no caffeine, fair trade, bird friendly, and so on?
As if God whispered directly in my ear, I heard the words, “Good Lord, girl, if you want your marriage to be good and have fun, you’ve gotta lighten up.”
“You gotta taste this,” Dennis says as he hands me a wooden spoon steaming with homemade gumbo. It is perfection. “The secret to good gumbo is a good roux,” he says, “It’s got to look like a dirty copper penny.” As Dennis shells the Gulf Coast shrimp for the pot, he grins and exclaims, “I’m so good at this, I can’t stop!” Lucky for me.
Once I tasted Dennis’ cornbread, I felt a pull in my body. My heart traveled from China to a territory traced by delighting in cultural traditions my own family lost track of before I was born. Traditions close to the land I call home. Traditions rooted in generations farming dark loamy soil. Of ceramic bowls holding succulent strawberries and sweet, raw onion on my tongue. Of pickled peppers on beans and tomato gravy on biscuits. The Chinese call it medicine. Dennis’ family calls it good food. While I still care about where my food comes from, I’m also learning the value of not fussing so much about how healthy I’m being, of savoring the incredible foods my southern river delta husband prepares. I can’t imagine my world without his cooking. There would be sadness in my heart. It would hurt too much.