My mom had surgery two days ago, vertebrae-fusing back surgery that went very well (she was walking within four hours!). I wanted to bring her some breakfast yesterday. We all have our go-to recipes, right? Quick, easy, tried and true? One of mine is Johnny Cake, also known as Cornbread, also known historically as Journey Cake. I love my recipe. Last summer I added fresh summer sweet corn sliced right off the cob and made it into “corn muffins at their best.”
This morning I wanted to make it in my cast iron pan instead. The crust comes out so well this way. If you look carefully, you can see the steam rising from this piece I cut for my own breakfast.
Some things you stop seeing after a while, but when I looked at the recipe, I realized anew that it is called Johnny Cake. That’s how I knew it as a child. “Corn Bread” is parenthetical.
Somewhere along the line, “Journey Cake” morphed into “Johnny Cake.”
I’m glad it did. No way could my version rightly be called or even thought of as a cake you could make on a journey. Think covered wagon journey. Think doing-the-best-we-can-with-limited-supplies. On such a journey (at least in my 21st-century imagination) the chances of having flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, butter AND maple syrup at the same time, to say nothing of the proper pans and cooking fire/oven, seem super slim. Maybe they had a cow tied to the wagon (they would need her when they arrived in Oregon); maybe they had some laying hens, though I expect those became dinner when wild game was hard to find. But baking powder, maple syrup, white flour – no way. I expect they felt right grateful to have cornmeal, water (maybe milk), some salt and a little fat for frying the cakes (think cornmeal pancakes).
I for one am very glad to have all the ingredients at my fingertips.
I get to:
1. soften the butter in the microwave to the perfect melted-but-not-hot stage (30 seconds, then work the back of a spoon against any parts remotely still solid);
2. put the pan in the preheating oven with a pat of butter in it, let the butter melt, then tilt the pan this way and that to evenly distribute the hot, melted butter and feel the solidity of the pan, watch the different paths the butter takes, admire the ways the light glistens. (We all have our thrills, okay?)
3. look at the eight ingredients in a bowl, as yet unmixed, and anticipate their utter transformation;
4. blob the batter into the pan and think about what happens to it in the heat, how the batter finds the corners and changes consistency during baking (I do smooth it out a bit before putting it in the oven);
5. enjoy the lovely crust, buttery because of the butter I melted in the pan and as dark as I choose to let it become.
Step by step a thing takes form, simply becomes. It doesn’t matter if it’s the cornbread I’ve made for years or the Ligurian Lemon Cake I found on a found on a fellow blogger’s site recently (doesn’t that look good?!). It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendship or a project. Step by step we walk our unboring paths, touching and serving one another in ways we know and in ways we don’t know.
There were numerous high points with yesterday’s breakfast, including softening the butter, tilting the pan, blobbing the batter. Another was the steaming piece on my plate, fresh out of the oven, drizzled with honey. The best was packing up a basket to take with me to Mom at the hospital. Other people bring flowers – daffodils, begonias and a sweet pink rose adorn her room – but I bring food. How many chances like this do you get? To bring someone a piece of comfort, a taste of home?
I wish the person who wove my pie basket could see how its size and shape were perfect for a large square of my Johnny Cake/Journey Cake/Corn Bread (whatever you want to call it), a wedge of quiche, a couple of real and pretty plates, silverware wrapped in soft napkins, butter in a little dish, jam in a jar and a small cotton towel to serve as a tablecloth. “I feel like I’m in a hotel,” Mom said. My local hospital is great, but they have their limitations 😊.
For me, the journey part of Journey Cake – the journey part of anything – is the fascinating (if at times difficult and maddening) step-by-step that we experience every day. Any journey has something (or someone) about it that’s wondrous or intriguing or funny or satisfying or lovely. I do not want to overlook that something. The process gets you – if we may borrow images from our pioneer forebears – down the next path, across the next river, over the next mountain. I want to go today where I haven’t been before, do things I couldn’t do yesterday, learn something new, see something in a fresh way. I also want to relish the familiar, embrace those I love, hold onto what matters. Yesterday I got to bake something I’ve baked a thousand times before, enjoy the process, present it in a different setting and watch it work its same old magic – oh, yay and oh, yum!!
Mom is in the hospital after back surgery. She’s not overly comfortable but is facing the mountain in front of her like the champ she is. Each little part of her journey, each big challenge and each little victory, makes her stronger in some way, better equipped for the next step. Whatever I can do, each tiny way I get to serve her – these become steps in my journey, the very journey that I will one day walk through in my memory, like a movie of my life. I want to enjoy the show!