I promise not to wax so poetic on future recipe posts, but it seems important to start out with a foodstuff that I find very bound up in my religion and, before I write more recipes exploring other sacred food adventures, it might be beneficial to start with a bit of background on the topic.
Cornbread is ridiculously easy to make. It’s not a ton of ingredients and it’s very forgiving if you’re, like me, someone who tends to over-fuss and stir too much or just poke at things in general when they don’t need to. There’s no complicated “only use egg whites” or “fold in” such and such ingredient which will usually trip me up unless I can recruit my fiance to help me. Cornbread is basic, simple, and nothing special.
It’s also supremely holy.
Corn itself is a crop that is distinctly of the America’s. I don’t think ancient Scandinavians had much, if any, access to it. I’m not sure if my super Slavic ancestors had much access to it either. But generations of my family have lived in America now. I can’t deny that roots are laid pretty deep here. Plus, I live in the Midwest, so corn is just a fact of life. Corn is life for a lot of folks who rely on this industry to feed their families. Corn is a part of this land, weaved into the spirit of the landvættir as much as the spirits of the Great Lakes or of the trees that spurred on the lumber trade and Michigan’s big furniture economy. Michigan is this powerful spiritual engine of water and trees, and corn somehow found it’s way as the icing on top.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many Native and indigenous cultures revere corn as a sacred plant. As I’m not a part of any of these cultures, I don’t think I can speak too deeply to it, but look into the sacred context of maize and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. What I can speak to, however, is my own connection to the plant and how it’s shaped and informed by my heathen worldview.
Just as I see it with any other hardy crop, I see Sif’s power working through corn. Sif, to me, is the Broad-Shouldered One, the Lady of the Yoke. I see Her as being intimately tied with the way in which humans domesticate the wild, with our planted fields and our livestock. She has the callused hands of farmers as well as the Uruz energy of the ox and cow. The sagas describe Her hair as golden, and contrasted with the metallic gold of Freya, Sif’s gold strikes me as the gold of corn and wheat. Upon getting ground into cornmeal and entering the home, Sif’s fecund energy is transferred to Frigga, the Guardian of the Hearth. In this way, both Goddesses are alive and present in this recipe.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another group of players important in this creation: the ancestors, particularly the dísir. Neither my mother nor my father are particularly skilled in the kitchen. If it didn’t come with a recipe on the box, they usually steer clear of it. But my grandparents, while also not kitchen aficionados, had a deeper connection to cooking. As you travel further and further back along my family line, life becomes bound up with food. Cornbread feels so sacred because it’s such a classic thing. Its smell and taste is of the halls of my ancestors. My mother, my mother’s mother, my mother’s mother’s mother, onward ad nauseum did the work necessary and fed their families with this recipe. When I cook, I’m invoking all that line of ancestors and inviting them into the kitchen with me. I’m attuning myself to their presence. I can feel my grandmother’s love in the heat of the oven.
I read once in a book of Appalachian folk magick that, if you want to keep things running smoothly in the home, cornmeal must always be available to the house spirits. This seemed so intuitively right to me. The house wights are the spirit, the very essence of the home, and what better offering to symbolize that than cornmeal? I make an offering to my house wights every Friday (Frigg’s Day and therefore bound up in ideas of the hearth, for me) of cornmeal and leave it on the altar for a week before swapping it for the new offering. Pairing this with consistent cleaning and cleansing, and the presence of 2 happy cats (not to mention a couple garden snails and a turtle), the energy of the one-bedroom apartment I share with my fiance is well-maintained and cared for.
So what has this got to do with fitness? After all, cornbread is packed with calories and it just wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t slathered with butter, honey, or maple syrup. As obsessed as we are with lean meats, veggies, and working out to within an inch of our life, it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is. Lately I keep coming back to the idea that this is a religion of joy. It’s meant to be lived, to revolve around celebrations, to be fun. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t also time to be serious or to lean in to the solemnity of the sacred, but it means that, by and large, we’re here for a good time. Moderation in all things, including moderation. Be sensible and mindful most of the time, but don’t be afraid to go ham every so often. As long as it’s not every day, or even every week. There’s a reason that our ancient forefathers devised festivals wherein they embraced the topsy turvy. These celebrations were pressure valves for the psyche. So too do you need a day of maintenance in your diet, instead of always focusing on a calorie deficit. So too does “treating yourself” become a pressure valve. Again, this is not license to throw everything out the window and do what you want, but it is permission to every so often bake cornbread with your ancestors and eat it with your Gods.
Food is a powerful thing. There’s a reason most of the offerings we make, to Gods, ancestors, or spirits, is foodstuffs. It literally represents life as it sustains us all. No one can live long without food. When we open our pantries, ovens, and cupboards to the Gods and spirits in our world, we are caring for Them. Feeding Them. Do the Gods actually need food in the same way we do? Probably not. But They want our offerings. They want to engage in the gift-cycle with us. I don’t think it’s about the actuality of the offering, but what it represents. When you make something in the kitchen, you’re mixing the raw meaning of all the ingredients together and adding heat and love and the presence of the ancients and everyone who made this recipe before you. You’re making something comforting and sustaining. So when you make an offering of such food, you’re offering comfort and care and sustenance.
Ultimately, food cares for your body and when you’re looking to get fit, you have to look at food. Your relationship with food is an integral part of your fitness journey. When you start viewing food as sacred substance, it can definitely help change the perspective on dieting and what dieting means in relation to being healthy.
So that’s where I’m starting from. These are the topics swirling in the background in any future recipe post or post about food/dieting. In summary: food is good, offerings are good, cooking is ancestor worship, corn is a powerfully wonderful plant, and moderation in all things, including moderation.
But enough preamble. I got the following recipe out of The Wild and Weedy Apothecary by Doreen Shababy. My typical cornbread uses flour as well as cornmeal (this recipe does not) and turns out more like a cake, which I personally like. The secret to the cornbread I usually make is to add in vanilla. Also put a dash of vanilla into all your sweet baked goods. That’s my motto. Vanilla in everything. This recipe, however doesn’t use flour, just the cornmeal, so it’s a little more gritty than I’m used to, but also a bit more traditional.
Wheat-Free Maple Cornbread
- 2 cups yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 cup milk
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup oil, such as sunflower
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Generously butter a 9 by 9 inch glass baking dish. Stir the cornmeal and baking powder together in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, blend syrup, milk, eggs, and oil until smooth. Add dry ingredients to moist and stir just until mixed. Pour into dish and bake 25 minutes or until done. Cool slightly before serving.
I hope, like me, cornbread invokes the essence of home to you, and the presence of your ancestors. If not, at least you get a tasty snack out of it.
Until next time, my health heathens: