All of these years on, Nigella Bites is still one of my favourite cookbooks. Though many of the recipes would be considered simple or kitsch, that cookbook taught me that it’s OK to take shortcuts and helped me hone my skills at adapting and modifying to suit local conditions. The 12 hour leg of lamb is still a catering stalwart for parties. Though Nigella taught me to be a free spirit and that sometimes near enough is good enough in the kitchen, there is one concept in the book that I have been a slave to for the last dozen years. Cornbread irons. Nigella provides a recipe for cornbread and suggests casually that if you can pick up some cast iron cornbread pans on your next trip to the US, it will make the meal all the more fun. I was bitten. I had to have some of those irons.
Fast forward to late 2014 when we were visiting the US for several weeks. We had a list of amazing sights to see, places to visit and regional dishes we wanted to try. I also had a list of must buy items with cornbread irons at the top. The desire for those irons had been slowly burning in my heart. Organising the trip had fanned the flames so by the time I hopped off the plane, a bushfire was raging. I planned to pick up a number of irons in the many second-hand shops that filled the one horse towns we were to drive through. As we did a loop through the Midwest, we stopped at many vintage and second-hand stores. In Rapid City, an antique shop had the most spectacular pair of vintage ceramic coated irons in perfect gleaming condition. They were over $100 each but were so beautiful, I briefly toyed with the idea of purchasing before taking a photo for posterity and moving on. They were aspirational and encouraged me to think that my pans would be just around the corner.
In Cody, I spied some irons in an antique mall. They were going for $40 a pop but I thought ‘You’re not going to be back any time soon.’ There was no negotiation at all on the price so they had to stay. The seller did give me a tip though. She told me that if I was only interested in the irons as cooking rather than for their vintage collectability, new versions were generally available at the Ace hardware chains dotted throughout the Midwest. Of course, hardware stores. The ‘go to’ for cooking equipment in middle America. The search was on, stopping in at hardware stores near and far. What were the people of Chinle, Cortez and Hot Springs thinking by not stocking stacks of cornbread irons in their hardware stores? Who cared about hammers and snow chains? Didn’t they realise I was on a mission?
It was Billings, Montana that threw me a corn cob on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. Downtown Billings is a fairly depressed area that doesn’t have a lot going for it but, it does have a massive thrift store. Of warehouse proportions, I pottered happily through the china and kitchenware sections and on to books, wishing I could take it all home. Beautiful Cornflower CorningWare for a few dollars, cookbooks for 50c and a spectacular olive green Sunbeam Mixmaster for a mere $20. It broke my heart to leave it all behind and I had to content myself with a Prairie Homesteader cookbook. As I headed towards the door, I took a quick detour through the seasonal section, featuring a heady theme of Thanksgiving and Hunting Season. There, beside the plastic pumpkins and camouflage jackets were a pair of cornbread irons. The cast iron pan was a very respectable $12.50, the aluminium pan a tiny $2.50. At last, I had my irons.
Wrapped in newspaper and safely stowed in my suitcase, the irons were carted back and forth across the States. Often stored in hand luggage because of their weight, they certainly drew some quizzical looks and additional x-raying by airport security. The cornbread irons are now packed in a box with the other baking equipment, awaiting completion of my kitchen renovation. I’m so looking forward to breaking out the irons and making a big batch of cornbread sticks to enjoy at our housewarming and sharing their story. The thrill of the chase!