Unless you are from the South, you have probably never heard of spoon bread. I know this because I've been asking people, "Have you ever heard of spoon bread?"
The answer is not just "no," but "no!" with a certain quizzical tone that suggests I must be some kind of a dadaist provocateur. For the record, a lot of my friends from the South have never heard of it either.
An imperfect explanation of spoon bread is that it's hillbilly polenta. Like polenta, it's made out of cornmeal, it's soft and it's one of those comfort foods that probably arose out of scarcity.
In other respects the correlation between the two dishes doesn't quite fly. Unlike polenta, spoon bread is made with eggs and, depending on the version, is usually quite a bit lighter. The style I remember from my childhood is essentially a cornmeal souffle, airy and slightly sweet, but with a gossamer crust. You could smell its goodness the moment it came out of the oven.
It was not something you had at home but ate in restaurants, where it was served as a side dish. Even 30-odd years ago, it had receded sufficiently into history that it was considered strangely elegant. I remember having it in two places. One was a local restaurant in my hometown of Frankfort, Ky., and the other was the Boone Tavern in Berea, Ky. It was a kind of value-added thing; you didn't order it. The waitress would come around toting a rather large kettle swathed in white linens, doling out spoon bread as she passed from table to table, its voluptuously sweet aroma curling around the room.
It's an old dish whose origins can be traced a way back. It was, for example, a staple in Thomas Jefferson's household, where it was served at three meals a day. It's thought to be a descendant of suppawn, a Native American pudding of cornmeal and milk. Virginians are credited by Joseph E. Dabney, author of "Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine," with adding the whipped, separated egg yolks and whites that give it a fine brown crust and the velvety texture that beckons one to eat it with a spoon.
And it's versatile. Locally, at Reign in Beverly Hills, Chef Richard Petty has concocted a fine rendition, with lobster meat folded into the cornmeal. The bread is then baked in a ramekin and unmolded onto a bed of julienned beets, encircled by caramelized apples, topped with two lobster claws and doused with lobster bisque. Although a native of Detroit, Petty grew up on the spoon bread prepared by an aunt raised in Mississippi. It was during his tenure at One West in San Francisco that he started working with it as an entree.
Whether served as the centerpiece, or as a simpler side dish standing in for bread or potatoes, spoon bread is long overdue for resurrection.
2 cups milk
3/4 cup sifted meal
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
3 eggs (separated)
Heat milk in double boiler until steaming. Add meal slowly. Stir and cook until mixture begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add salt and butter. Beat egg yolks, stir in a little of the hot mixture to temper, and then pour egg mixture into cornmeal mixture. Allow to cool slightly. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into mixture. Pour into buttered 8-inch-square baking dish and bake in 375-degree oven until puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Serve hot with butter and black pepper.
Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about Niman Ranch.