Hot water cornbread is disappearing. Despite Nashville being hailed as a Mecca of meat and threes by the Southern Foodways Alliance’s John T. Edge, those remaining meat and threes that have hot water cornbread are fewer and further between. I lived in Nashville for 4 years, and became well acquainted with many of them. I came to know the neighborhoods, the smells and the cooks working the line.
To the uninitiated, a meat & three is the home of the Southern working man’s lunch, borne of our common agricultural background. The guest is presented with choices of mains (the “meat”) and vegetable sides (pick three.)
I became enamored of hot water cornbread at Murfreesboro, TN’s Kleer-Vu Lunchroom on a trip down to Manchester for my annual Bonnaroo outing back in 2006 (Radiohead!). While I loved the diversity of restaurants in Minneapolis, where I lived and worked at the time, anywhere hailed as “Southern” or “Soul Food” fell wide of the mark. Real wide. And so, I did some digging on local meat and threes, to eat my history as a displaced Southerner. At Kleer-Vu, I had an epiphany.
Basically, the cornmeal is mixed with boiling water to form a dough, then fried. The result, when made properly, is light, crispy and slightly chewy at the same time, with a fluffy interior. It’s great dipped in pinto or crowder peas, used to soak up potlikker from your greens or I’d even imagine dipped in a glass of some ice cold Cruze Dairy buttermilk.
When I transitioned down to Nashville in 2007, I made a regular habit of hitting up meat and threes on my day off. Lots of older folks seemed to know about it, but the kids didn’t. My friend Stanette hailed from Alabama, and said regularly that she hated hot water cornbread as it was lazy folks’ cornbread. “It’s what my momma made when she didn’t feel like makin’ it right.” Stanette was from Tuscaloosa.
But I disagreed then, and I still do now. That it became harder to find just made it cooler in my mind. I did some digging around, asking folks I knew about it. Joe Dabney, who has spent a significant chunk of time researching and publishing on foodways from Appalachia and the SC Lowcountry said “never heard of it.” and directed me to the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburgh, TN.
John Egerton said this when I asked him:
So I’m not an anthropologist, but I seem to feel as though hot water cornbread is more or less local to middle / western TN, Northern AL, eastern MS and perhaps AR and maybe central – southern KY. I guess this would make sense. In and around Nashville, the three places I’ve found to still have it are of course the Kleer-Vu Lunchroom, The Sands (or The Silver Sands if you’re old school) and Southern Bred. I’m now back in my adopted home of Charleston, SC. We have some really killer meat and threes here, but no one has ever seen or heard of hot water cornbread.
If you should find yourself in the neighborhood of Murfreesboro, do yourself a favor and make that trip over to Kleer-Vu, just a couple blocks off the old town square, and park under that great big tree in the gravel parking lot. Check out the articles on Alex Haley hanging on the wall as you move through the line. Get some chicken and some fried corn, and say “Hey” to Miss Anita at the register. It’s a special place. You see, they have hot water cornbread.