The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 3, 2014

Cornbread is just a taste of grandparents' influence

POINT BLANK: John Blankenship

— Few things in the world are as wonderful as a pan (sometimes referred to as ‘pone’) of cornbread and a night spent with grandparents. I loved the nights when a bedtime snack was cornbread and milk: crisp cornbread dropped into my glass of cold milk and eaten with a spoon.

A good cornbread should be light, crumbly and just a tad sweet. My grandmother and great-grandmother knew how to bake cornbread — in an iron skillet.

Grandmother Rosa would pull a hot skillet out of her kitchen stove and call out, “Cornbread’s ready! You’d better get it while the getting’s good!” That is to say, if we didn’t hurry, we might not get any.

When Ma (as we called her) served her cornbread up hot, I loved to put a lump of butter on it and watch it soak into the corny goodness. You wanted to eat it right at that particular moment before it cooled off.

My granddad Albert liked to have his cornbread and “sweet milk” before he went off to bed. He could crumble the bread into a glass of milk and drink it. Then he’d scrape the bread crumbs from the bottom of the glass with a spoon.

That’s how my uncle Bill, a World War II veteran, taught me how to eat it.


Years later, when my nephews Adam and Ryan Wood spent the night at our house, we usually had a glass of milk and cornbread before we hit the hay. I didn’t have to coax them into eating milk and bread — their granddad, the late Wilson “Papaw” Wood, taught them how to do that when they stayed at his house.

Papaw was renowned for his cornbread. He ate it with his vittles of beef stew, vegetable soup, homemade chili and chicken and dumplings. If you stopped by his and Aunt Ursula’s house in Daniels in the afternoon, you always left with a full stomach.

Papaw liked to cook, and he grew practically everything he needed for his supper table in his own garden in back of his house.

And when you sat down at his table for a bowl of pinto beans, white beans, bird-eye beans or green beans, you naturally reached into the bread pan for a slice of hot cornbread to go with it. A few green onions from his garden topped off a country-style cuisine that had no equal in the community.


A colleague and fellow educator in Raleigh County told me that he liked his milk and bread with a few onions diced up in the bottom of the glass. I had not heard of that before, so I asked my cousin Russell Rice, with whom I grew up, and he told me that our grandfather on my mother’s side of the family, the late Sidney Stanton Rice, a native of Bon Air, Tenn., used to do the same thing.

So I guess it must be a Southern tradition to add a few onions to milk and cornbread. I am going to try that myself one day. I think I’d prefer small green onions fresh from the garden, though.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: I wonder if grandparents ever realize the powerful influence they have on the lives of their grandchildren — even if it’s something as simple as eating milk and bread before bedtime.

Perhaps the greatest moral force in the life of most kids is a grandparent. Even if kids today don’t trust their parents, they more than likely trust their grandparents.

I’ve always considered myself lucky that I grew up with grandparents who were active, energetic and several decades away from life-threatening weakness.

Grandparents certainly are important in giving children a sense of stability and safety. And though I had my grandparents around for more years than many of my friends had their forebears, it still wasn’t long enough.

Sometimes I drift off and catch a few winks in the afternoon the way I did when I was a boy growing up. When I wake up, I can still hear Ma’s musical Lockhart voice as her memory comes flooding back to me: “You’d better get it while the getting’s good!”

And I realize that she wasn’t only talking about the cornbread.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: