by Malinda Dunlap Fillingim
A big pot of pinto beans lived at Mama Dunlap’s Stokes County home. Her cast iron frying pan held golden cracklin’ corn bread she made each morning before the sun woke up. When her oven got hot enough to melt the unmeasured lard, she put the cornbread batter in, telling me to keep an eye on it, lest it burn. Her large, heavy iron pinto pot never held anything else. She’d shake seasonings and fat back in it freely, knowing just the right combination. No matter the day, no matter the weather, no matter what else was happening in the world, I was sure of this: cracklin’ cornbread and pinto beans with fat back could always be found in her home.
She was not a wealthy woman by today’s standards. The wife of a tobacco farmer, she was born in the late 1800’s, priming tobacco herself before her six children came. I was her step-granddaughter but she let me know right from the start that the only steps she knew about were the ones that went to her backdoor. Her large heart had room enough for everyone, including a little girl who had never known the pleasures of a simmering pinto pot and the taste of crackling cornbread.
I asked her once why she always cooked the same thing every day; soaking beans at night, bedding down the cast iron pan with seasoning. She told me the people who stopped by her house needed more than something to eat. They needed a place to belong, a place to visit, and a place where they’d be welcome. People did come, all sorts of people from all walks of life. They came every day, sometimes new faces, and sometimes the same old faces with the same old stories to tell and fat to chew. They came hungry and left full. She never turned anyone away and I soon learned the gift of hospitality walks on a two way street. Her blue eyes lit up with each visitor, each dirty plate; each bite of her country ambrosia.
Fifty years later I still find it comforting to put on a pot of beans, heat up the oven real high to cook cornbread that even God would find amazing. I carry with me the memories of a scented kitchen alive with conversation of men and women who had known hard times but who found solace with one another in the small back kitchen of my grandmother.
I was at a funeral not too long ago and when the man heard I was related to Mary Dunlap, he laughed and said we had sat at her kitchen table as children eating lunch together years ago when his family had run out of money. “Cornbread and pintos, right?” I asked.
“Right,” he answered, knowing the menu and her love never changed.
Get a large spoon of lard (or butter if you want, but lard is better) and put it in the iron pan (skillet). Melt it in a hot oven, about 450 degrees, and take it out when the lard is melted (maybe 3 minutes. ) Keep the oven on.
While it is melting do this:
Put 2 good cups self rising cornmeal and a tad more than a half cup of plain flour together; mix up. In another bowl, mix up 2 large eggs that have been sitting out a while, not cold. Add 2 to 2 1/2 cups buttermilk to the eggs. Eye ball it. Try to get the lumps out, but don’t beat it hard. Then make a hole in the dry bowl and slowly work in liquid with the large spoon you used for the lard. Right before you pour it into the iron pan, put crumbled up cracklin to the mixture, whatever amount you like, about a good handful, folding it slowly. Then pour into the pan and cook until it is light brown on top. It might crack. but that’s ok
As I recall, she fried up a lot of cracklin and used it for the next couple of days.
The only place I can find fat back to buy now is Piggly Wiggly. Since my children have left, my step-father (her son) has died, and my husband and I have stomachs that are sensitive to anything not bland, I don’t make it much anymore, although I still make a pot of pintos weekly.
I made it for my step-dad a few months before he died though. It was one of the last things he ate. When he came home from Vietnam the second time, I made it for him then too. It was the first time I made it alone without her watching me. It was really horrible, but he ate it like it was ambrosia. Which, I suppose for him it was. My mother was citified, and she thought cracklin was crude, so she wouldn’t make it.
I made the cornbread for my step-dad when I got to be a teen. However, the recipe was never written down until I got older. I wrote down the recipes like I was a journalist, watching her every move. I just watched her as a child to learn. She used her hands to measure the dry ingredients and an old coffee cup for the wet stuff. My other grandmother was very proper with her cooking, so Mama Dunlap amazed me with her cuisine style. Nothing we ate at her house came from a box and nobody left with an empty stomach or an empty heart.
Malinda Dunlap Fillingim had the good fortune to move to her step-father’s hometown, Walnut Cove, NC when she was in eighth grade. Curious by nature, Malinda asked Mama Dunlap so many questions about her cooking that she finally gave up some of the old recipes she carried in her head. Malinda is an ESL teacher at Cape Fear Community College and lives in Leland with her husband.