Cornbread at Thanksgiving ... and on Joy Street

On the third Thursday of this month, I will be in beautiful Franklin, Tenn., attending the annual Swafford family Thanksgiving dinner.

I get to attend this wonderful dinner each November because thirty-one years ago I played a very small role in a wedding at the Holly Avenue Methodist Church in South Pittsburg, Tenn. I was the groom.

This meant that in order of importance, I ranked, at best, fifth behind:

  • My mother-in-law;
  • Claudia (my bride);
  • My father-in-law, Howard, who gave Claudia away on the promise that I would not bring her back to South Pittsburg, even if we ran out of fireworks; and
  • Mr. Cagle, the florist.

The Swaffords are a proud and hardy Tennessee clan that has more than its fair share of lawyers. My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, my bride, my brother-in-law, my niece, and numerous other members of the Swafford family are lawyers. There are in fact so many lawyers in the Swafford family that we get CLE credit for Thanksgiving dinner so long as my mother-in-law gives a brief law-related lecture while passing the cranberry sauce.

I absolutely love Thanksgiving. I thoroughly enjoy the entire day. I enjoy watching the Macy’s Day Parade on TV. I enjoy seeing my wife’s 418 uncles, aunts and cousins all arriving for Thanksgiving dinner toting hundreds of Tupperware containers full of turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce and Jell-O fruit salads and pumpkin pies and vegetable casseroles prepared from secret family recipes passed down by Swafford lawyers through the generations.

And, of course, what I love most is eating Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful for Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful for every morsel of it. It truly is a blessing, and perhaps the greatest blessing of the entire feast is cornbread.

My wife was born in South Pittsburg (not Pennsylvania, Tennessee), and make no mistake about it, South Pittsburg is the cornbread capital of the world. It is the site of the National Cornbread Festival held in the last weekend of April each year and sponsored by the Lodge Manufacturing Company, makers of the greatest cast iron skillets found in the universe.

And as I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year and spread some butter across a hot slice of cornbread, I’m going to be thinking about a great Tennessee lawyer who is not a Swafford, but we will claim him as family anyway. He is the legendary John Waters.

John lives and practices law in Sevierville, and he has had a fabulous legal career. He has served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, and in 1966, he made Tennessee political history when he managed the successful campaign of his good friend Howard Baker for the United States Senate. No Republican had ever been elected to the United States Senate from Tennessee, but Howard Baker and John Waters made it happen. Even old West Tennessee yeller dog Democrats have to respect that.

But John Waters’ legal and political achievements are not his greatest accomplishment. The greatest thing about John Waters is this. He is Tennessee’s leading authority on cornbread.

John has recently published Cornbread on Joy Street, a marvelous little tome that I believe is the quintessential work on the wonderful subject of cornbread.

John Waters was born some 83 years ago at 107 Joy Street in Sevierville. John grew up eating cornbread on Joy Street, and he is still there, and still cooking and eating cornbread. 107 Joy Street is now the site of his law office.

In Cornbread on Joy Street, John pays tribute to what he calls “honest cornbread.” As John explains, “Honest cornbread has neither flour nor sugar. Certain recipes for cornbread call for flour and/or sugar. This would be fine for spoon bread in some dessert type recipes, but really folks, we’re talking about bread, not cake. I like cake, but I don’t eat it with beans and onions.”

John is also insistent that cornbread should be made only with white cornmeal, not yellow corn. He recalls, “When I was growing up, Mother made the cornbread, but Dad had a lot of opinions on how he thought it ought to be made. Dad said that yellow corn was used to feed the animals, so we used only white cornmeal.”

John also insists that cornbread should not be cut with a knife. He earnestly believes that to do so does something adverse to the taste.

“You must break the bread into pieces,” explains John. “(My father) said that there were cutters and breakers. The Waters were breakers.”

John is also insistent that cornbread not contain sugar. He confesses, “If you put sugar in it, I get a little irritated, to tell you the truth.”

So this Thursday, Nov. 25, as I sit down for the annual Swafford Thanksgiving Bar Convention/Continuing Legal Education Program, I’m gonna break bread. Literally. And as I break, not cut, the Swafford cornbread hot out of a Lodge cast iron skillet, I’m going to remember my friend John Waters. I’m going to bow my head and recite a short prayer found at the beginning of the Gospel According to John (Waters), Cornbread on Joy Street:

In Luke 4:4, Jesus says, “It is written. Man cannot live by bread alone … unless it’s cornbread!”

Amen, Brother John! Amen!

(Don’t miss TBA President Jackie Dixon’s take on cornbread.)
 

John Waters’ Honest Cornbread

Image ©Lodge Manufacturing, South Pittsburg, Tenn.

 

1 cup white cornmeal mix (self-rising)
1 cup 2 percent milk or low fat buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup vegetable oil, preferably canola

Pour oil into iron skillet, put it in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Mix all ingredients. A little lumpy is good. Bake for 30 minutes. Photo courtesy none other than Lodge Manufacturing Co., with apologies to Mr. Waters that this cornbread is cut, not broken.

 


Jackie Dixon BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Mr. Haltom’s cast iron skillets courtesy of Lodge Manufacturing, South Pittsburg, Tenn.