When I left home in Texas for a job and apartment in New York, my Aunt Marcy gave me a binder with a starter handful of family recipes in it. Mostly, they were her recipes with a couple from my grandmother, who only cooked things with lots of sugar in them. My mother’s recipes were largely absent, I suspect because I don’t remember ever actually seeing her use a recipe.
She was an artist, and in a less culturally restrictive time, I doubt she’d have cooked much at all. (N.B., The photo above is one of her paintings. I have now decorated two kitchens around its colors.) But women in those days weren’t supposed to spend their time painting or building collages or working with mosaic tiles, so I suspect she was more than a little grateful for the advances in packaged food that made those activities possible. As a result, frozen TV dinners, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and instant mashed potatoes were regulars in our house. But when she decided to cook, she relied mostly on instinct; and her instincts, while not fancy, were good.
As with her art, my mother’s cooking was eclectic, and often involved mixing things up in a skillet until they tasted good. If the meal included shrimp, most of the time it became gumbo and was served over rice. Turkey morphed into tetrazzini, with mushrooms, cream sauce, and pasta; and chicken or pork evolved into chop suey served over those crunchy Chun King noodles.
But my favorite dish started with a pound of ground beef, which she turned into a simple chili that was topped with corn bread and went by the name of Corn Pone Pie. It is only as an adult that I’ve discovered that Corn Pone Pie appeared on other people’s tables, and in fact is about as common in the South as pimento cheese. Ok, maybe not that common, but pretty well known just the same.
I started early serving the dish to my little Yankee children, and they liked it as much as I ever did. Maybe it’s the name that makes it sound like such a friendly concoction, but I suspect the corn bread is what gets my sons.
The best thing about this recipe is that you only need to add a green salad for a complete meal.
Mumzy’s Corn Pone Pie
For the chili:
1 pound ground beef (can substitute turkey without loss of flavor)
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed (This would be the Texas version; in NJ, we say crushed.)
1 green pepper, diced (optional)
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon chili powder (more, if you like)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 dash Tabasco
1 16-ounce can kidney beans or pinto beans
salt and pepper to taste
For the corn bread:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup yellow corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup milk (at room temp)
⅓ cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 425º.
In a deep, oven-proof skillet, cook together on medium heat the ground beef, onion, garlic, and green pepper (if using), breaking up the meat with a spoon into bite-sized pieces, until the meat is fully cooked. Add the tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, Tabasco, beans, and salt and pepper to taste. [Kitchen Goddess note: As you may guess, there’s a lot of flexibility in this recipe, depending on how you like your chili. Feel free to experiment.] Simmer the mixture on top of the stove for 10-15 minutes, while you make the cornbread batter.
For the cornbread topping, sift together into a medium bowl the flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate, small bowl, beat the egg well with a fork, then stir in the milk and melted butter. Pour the liquid mixture all at once into the dry, stirring with a fork only until the flour is moistened. (It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy – the point is not to overstir.) Spoon the batter on top of the chili mixture. Bake 25-30 minutes until the corn bread is done. Serves 4-5.