In 1888, my Pappy Barnett and his bride crossed the ridge into Roan Mountain, Tennessee, from Yancey County, North Carolina. They settled in Cove Creek, in the shadows of the Balds of the Roan. There the rich black soil proved to be fertile, both in human and agricultural terms. To their union were born four children, the youngest of whom was my grandfather, born in 1908.
It seems that no one knows the exact origins of gritty bread. Perhaps it came from the necessity to use every available resource in the garden, and as the field corn became ripe in late summer, it was used to feed both animals and people. Field corn was the only type available, although it was tougher and more difficult to eat. Grating the corn made it more palatable and easier to cook.
My mother has vivid memories of making gritty bread. Her grandfather would instruct her and her middle brother to go to the edge of the woods and pick out a strong limb. Pappy would poke holes in a piece of tin with a nail and wrap the metal around the limb. This primitive tool would only be used once, since it couldn’t be thoroughly cleaned and would easily rust.
As the years went by, my grandfather took over the grinding. The handmade tool was replaced with a “modern” steel grinder. A carpenter by trade, he constructed a special green bench and mounted the grinder on it.
I remember gritty bread time each year as a celebration of harvest and family. Tasks were assigned by gender and never deviated. Young men shucked the corn, women cut it off the ears, men ground the corn, and then it was back to the women waiting the kitchen. Dishwashing was reserved for the young ladies.
As a tiny child, I would stand at my grandfather’s shoulder as he ground the corn. He never used a measuring tool, only the cup of his hand—“Jist enough,” he used to say. The batter would plop into the milk bucket waiting below, and then it was whisked away to the kitchen, where my grandmother and mother would add the magic. Gritty bread could only be baked in the special black pan my grandmother had ordered made in the village of Roan Mountain. After a few minutes, the perfectly-browned delight would plop onto the table, accompanied only by sweet butter from our own cows. This was repeated eight or nine times.
My bread today is a pitiful reproduction of that glorious repast in the Cove. I don’t have the iron pan or the field corn fresh from the garden. I do, however, have the grinder. When my grandfather passed away a few years ago at age 98, my uncle seized the home place and everything in it. Once he had cleaned it out, I, as the oldest grandchild and ultimate packrat, went through the boxes destined for the dump. There, in the bottom, lay the grinder, the purveyor of childhood delight. Today, it is not used but stored in the sack my grandmother made for it, probably in the 1970s, judging by the fabric.
When I smell fresh corn now, I am transported again to that time and place where I churned butter, washed dishes, and ate to my heart’s content.
5 ears corn (about 3 cups cut)
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole buttermilk
Grind corn or pulverize in blender. Add all other ingredients and blend thoroughly. Pour into a heavily greased baking pan or black iron skillet. Bread should be thin, almost two crusts with nothing in between. Bake in a hot oven, about 450 degrees, for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately with lots of fresh butter.