North Carolina Corn Pone
All over world there's people trying bring traditional Italian country fare to the public. Much of it is romanticized farce. Are you imagining duck egg yolk pastas handmade with a shower of graden vegetables? Long simmered meats heartily piled on a family platters? Nope didn't exist. They might have existed for Counts and Papal vassals but for the most part life for country folk sucked. In fact, what's very striking is that a core staple of country life - the chestnut polenta - has completely disappeared from menus. Now you might have an oddball here or there that will roid the dish up with rich ragus, perhaps some aged cheeses or even truffles. The fundamental fact is the dish sucks. It's dry, chalky, and looks like explosive diarrhea. Hence why no one really serves it anymore.
Like the much discarded chestnut polenta, cornpone really isn't found anywhere anymore. It's caveman primitive in its construction. Grind a grain, add water and lube it up with grease so that we don't break our teeth on it. There's no leavening agent to make it nice and fluffy, no yeasty aromas to trigger our brain's ancient lust for bread.
Cornpone is not the same as hot water cornbread. A dish universally reviled by Northerners and used by Southerners as a credo of culinary orthodoxy.
As you can see above from my photo at the Skylight Inn, it really isn't that attractive either.
So why a post on the dull antiquated cornpone? Well for one, there's a possibility at the joint I'm opening featuring North Carolina BBQ, there won't be any access to a kitchen hood - hence no frying. No frying = no hushpuppies/cornsticks. To not have a corn bread element would be to eliminate 1/3 of the glorious Carolina triad - Hog + Slaw + Puppies.
So my mind back to the humble cornpone. How can we make this utilitarian dish into something worth serving at the finest of breadbaskets?
The cornpone does have something going for it - LARD. Yes indeed, when you're cooking that much hog you're bound to be left with a lot of extra lard. Because modern pigs are a bit leaner, pitmasters have had to supplement commercial lard. This helps contribute to it's blandness. There's a difference between lard which have been boiled out of meats to one that's been roasted out of hogs. It's the same as why clarified butter is fairly bland but brown butter offers that deep toasty butter goodness we all love.
So step one is to use long cooked rendered pigs fat and perhaps even chop some of resulting cracklin' into the mix. This will enhance the meaty flavor that this bread is supposed to have.
Step two is figure out a way to throw in a few more contrast flavor notes to offset the uniform blandness. I have two items in mind which I'm still working on. More to come later.
Step 3 is to hold fast to tradition i.e. no sugar. It's strong temptation to appease a Northern's palate by offering a cake-like corn bread. Now for most other styles of BBQ I don't see a contradiction. If we're going to be faithful to the Carolina profile, a sweet baked corn bread just doesn't seem right with hog.
It's too bad we might not be able to offer hush puppies. But with some tweaks, going back to roasted fats, rendered crackings, and textural contrasts, this long discarded old maid of hog cooking can become the hot sexy slut we all crave. Stay tuned.