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Three Sisters Cornbread

By Alison Steele

Winter squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes abound in November along with deep garnet Bloody Butcher heirloom and stout yellow popping corn. Drying beans corkscrew around the sunflower stalks that now serve as drying racks for herbs and flowers. Kept in the proper places throughout the house these native foods will keep for quite some time into the winter. A cool north facing room is perfect for storing pumpkins and winter squash like kabocha, acorn, and butternut. The corn and beans, however, like warm and dry ceiling spaces, above the stove perhaps or on a high shelf above the fire. The kids pop the kernels from the cob for the best popcorn ever. I grind some one cup at a time in the high speed blender for the freshest cornmeal around and can decide how coarse or fine I want it depending on what I’m making.

Cornbread is one of those foods that’s been around the kitchen table for as long as I can remember. Dried corn has been a part of Native American Foodways long before Europeans made their way here. Because corn crops were conducive to the small microregions of the mountains, easily dried, milled, and stored for fresh bread through the winter, it became an iconic southern staple. My mama always kept a few boxes of Jiffy Cornbread mix in the pantry growing up for us kids to cook skillet cakes on Saturday mornings or quick cornbread muffins during the week.

Corn is a fast growing plant with a surprisingly small root structure. It grows best in loose fertile soil and does require regular watering, but for the folks here who use irrigation and water sparingly, that’s easy! A big leafy squash or pumpkin plant nearby will also help to keep the water from evaporating. A nitrogen loving plant, ours is grown alongside beans with the occasional compost and fish emulsion boost through the growing season for long fully-seeded ears. 

Native Americans grew their primary crops in a Three Sisters formation. The corn was a trellis for the beans and provided nitrogen to the soil. The wide squash leaves prevented weed growth and evaporation of soil moisture. Also, these three foods eaten together provide sustenance for the body as a complete protein. | Photo by

There are all sorts of cornbread recipes out there from fluffy and cakelike to savory and crumbly. Arguments over whether cornbread should be sweetened or not, flour added or cornmeal only tend to be regional, but when it comes down to it, your ingredients really dictate whether or not your cornbread is gonna hit the spot. A good flavorful locally grown and milled corn from Pie Ranch along with the tanginess of a full fat buttermilk and sourcream from a local pastured dairy, homegrown eggs, and good bacon grease will layer all the favors needed to make this simple quickbread tasty!

Three Sisters Cornbread

1 c cornmeal 
1 c flour 
1 t baking soda
1 ½  t sea salt
2 T Sorghum Syrup or molasses 
1 egg, beaten
3 T bacon grease or butter
1 cup full fat sour cream
1/4 milk

Preheat the oven to 425° F. Melt bacon grease or butter in a 9 inch cast iron skillet while the stove is preheating. Sift cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt into a bowl. Add sorghum to the milk and sour cream. Stir in the beaten egg. Pour wet into dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Slowly drizzle almost all the fat from the skillet into the batter while stirring with a wooden spoon, reserving about a tablespoon for coating the skillet while baking. Return the skillet to the oven. Once the oven has preheated, move the skillet up onto the stovetop. Spread the batter evenly over the skillet and quickly slide it back into the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Enjoy fresh with a bowl of beans!

A native of Virginia, Alison Steele lives with her husband, two children, and cat in Boulder Creek where she raises quail, chickens, fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. Alison plays banjo and sings in Sugar by the Pound.

Photo by Alison Steele

Featured photo by Alison Steele: A Fall Favorite Three Sisters Cornbread

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