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Simply the Best: Tina Turner’s Cornbread - No. 218
Better than all the rest…With crumbled bacon and fresh sweet corn, it’s a tribute to Tina and summer.
WHEN I HEARD THAT TINA TURNER had died, I pulled out her recipe for cornbread.
And with What’s Love Got to Do With It playing in the background, I reached for the buttermilk at the back of the fridge. Tina was born in west Tennessee. She must have loved cornbread and known its natural attraction to beans and greens, barbecue, and summer’s sliced tomatoes.
She must have known how cornbread fits in anywhere. It may look poverty square in the eye, but it’s been baked at the White House, too. You can drag a slice of cornbread through what’s left on your plate or make a meal of it. Old timers used to crumble it into a tall glass of buttermilk.
I used to think—just like a lot of people—that cornbread had to be made a certain way. But it really doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be white or yellow or sweet or unsweet. It can be personal. It can be you.
Cornbread from a motel room hot plate
I stumbled upon the story of Robbie Montgomery, one of the Ikettes with whom Tina Turner and her ex-husband Ike would perform and travel in the 1960s. Once they had played Proud Mary and all those songs in the rousing last set, they’d head back to their motel room, Robbie says, because with Jim Crow laws, Blacks couldn’t dine just anywhere in the South and Midwest. Robbie would stir up cornbread batter and plug an electric hot plate into the wall.
‘’I'd pour the batter in the hot skillet, cook it for a bit, put a plate on top of it, and then turn it over onto the plate. Then I'd slide that cornbread back into the skillet real gentle so the other side could finish browning up. Once it was done and you tasted a slice, boy, you could die!" - Robbie Montgomery in her Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook.
I tried this method once, and it’s doable if you get the hot plate under the iron skillet very hot or use an electric skillet set at 350ºF, and then flip the cornbread like a big pancake so it browns on both sides.
Tina’s cornbread is rich with bacon and sweet with corn
Even if you don’t know Tina Turner’s story you might be touched by her rags to riches life, surviving discrimination in the 1960s’ South and then an abusive marriage. Tina was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee, and raised in the small community of Nutbush nearby. It was cotton country where you got rich if you owned the land and stayed poor if you didn’t.
She was distanced from her mother. ‘’She never believed in me,” Tina Turner told Oprah Winfrey. “She never wanted this child and when this child grew up to be successful and creative, she didn’t accept it because it was something she didn’t want. Why would she want it? Maybe jealousy. Is there such a thing as a mother’s jealousy? I don’t know. Obviously that must’ve been the case because it never went away.”
After being dropped by Capitol Records and her life imploding, David Bowie helped her get re-signed to the record label, and what followed was the bestselling Private Dancer album, which featured the Grammy-winning 1984 song playing in my kitchen as I baked her cornbread. Tina would leave the United States, marry a longtime love, and move to Switzerland. Movies have been made about her. She packed stadiums and gained a loyal following and created a life in Europe that she sadly could have never found in America.
Everyone’s cornbread has a story
In the fall of 2019 I helped stage a Taste of Nashville event at the Tennessee State Museum for a Les Dames d’Escoffier conference. A handful of food writers like myself —Jennifer Justus, Nancy Vienneau, Alice Randall, and Mindy Merrell—researched the books and archives of The Country Music Hall of Fame. Our objective was to create a menu that would speak to famous women in music in Tennessee in addition to Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy.
This cornbread recipe I share today was on the menu.
To me, sweet corn in the title says freshly shaved corn off the cob. Tina’s recipe called for yellow cornmeal, too, and this is typical of west Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas, whereas in other parts of the South, cornbread is often made with white cornmeal. I had some white hickory king cornmeal from Sunflower Sundries in Mt. Olivet, Kentucky, in my freezer. Substack writer Rona Roberts had told me about it, and it tastes of fresh corn. You can use white or yellow cornmeal in this recipe, and you can use stone-ground or more finely milled cornmeal as well.
Many people have added a little flour and an egg to make cornbread more cakey. Just as many have folded in pork cracklins’ or crumbled bacon to give cornbread more sustenance. Some of us were raised heating vegetable oil in the skillet before we pour in the cornbread batter, while others have used lard, bacon grease, or butter.
We all make cornbread differently, which is what makes it interesting. Cornbread is one of those recipes we never tire of, and I think Tina Turner would want us to make cornbread our own way. But today, this week, this summer, I’m baking it her way.
Do you love Tina Turner? Love cornbread?
Have a great week!
- xo, Anne
A little housekeeping & what’s coming Thursday for Paid Subscribers
Welcome to all the newcomers! Today’s Tuesday post with recipe is accessible to everyone. It is free. On Thursdays, I offer a second post a week for my paid readers who want more and who want to support Between the Layers and the work I do here. This Thursday, I peek inside my summer pantry, share a favorite potato salad recipe, and give an overview of what you’ll be reading in Between the Layers this summer. I just need to keep reminding myself that summer is here!
Tina Turner’s Sweet Corn and Bacon Cornbread
You’ll need a 10-inch cast iron skillet and the cornmeal of your choice. If you don’t have buttermilk, use plain yogurt instead. It’s important when making cornbread to have enough liquid to offset the cornmeal and flour so the batter is loose, which will bake up into a moist cornbread. So, if using yogurt and the batter seems thick, thin it with a little water. Absolutely add 2 tablespoons minced jalapeño or Serrano pepper and/or 1/4 cup minced green onion. And yes, you can add 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese as well!
Prep: 10 to 15 minutes
Bake: 23 to 27 minutes
6 slices bacon
1 cup (5 ounces) yellow or white cornmeal
1 cup (4.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or reserved bacon grease
1 cup fresh corn kernels
Oil or grease for heating the skillet
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Cut the bacon strips in half and fry in a 10-inch cast iron skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels and crumble—you need about 1/2 cup. Pour the bacon grease out of the skillet and reserve.
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and stir in the buttermilk and egg. Add the oil or 2 tablespoons of the reserved bacon grease. Stir to combine, but do not over mix. Fold in the crumbled bacon and corn.
Add about 1 tablespoon oil or bacon grease back to the skillet. Heat over medium until hot. Pour in the batter—it should sizzle—and place the skillet in the oven.
Bake until firm to the touch and lightly browned, about 23 to 27 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edges of the pan, and invert onto a board to slice into wedges and serve.