Kathern’s Cornbread recipe
Updated: Sep 12
I met Kathern Dunn (Sue Smith) on a sunny day as I returned from tubing down the gentle meadow creek river. You couldn't miss her; she was a huge presence atop her red four-wheeler, coming toward me and my friends with a big friendly smile!
Hi! We all said, enchanted by her.
A great day, she said. I hope you had a good time going down the river. Not a summer day goes by without me going for a swim.
The six of us had gone down the river with a guide, pulling off next to an eddy to have lunch midway. Our guide had asked a friend to drive our car and park down the river, which he had. He left the key in the space behind the door to the gas gasket. That door to our friend’s new Mercedes SUV could only be opened from inside. The car was locked!
Sue drove towards us amused at our dilemma. As a few tried to pry open the cover to the gas tank without damaging the shiny finish of the car, I chatted with Sue. What does one do in such a faraway place, I wondered.
There was a gas station and a convenience store there, but nothing else that I could see other than a few dilapidated buildings.
That was my restaurant there by the railroad tracks, she pointed to a square building. Now, it’s a bank.
What happened to the restaurant? I asked.
When John died, I sold the place. We were married for 56 years.
Father traveled for his job. He was a U.S. Army vet; he was a coal miner, a railroad brakeman. And wherever his jobs took him, I followed him.
It took me a while to figure out that she was talking about her husband, and not her father.
Kathern and John finally settled in Meadow Creek and opened a grocery store and restaurant.
Father and I loved playing the banjo and singing gospel and bluegrass. We went to Galax every year.
Now that he is gone, I can’t think of taking another lover. He was my man and I miss him a lot. So, I come here to swim. It calmed me down.
What was your favorite dish to make at the restaurant?
Oh, cornbread! The customers ate them as fast as I could make them.
Father cut the jalapeños for the cornbread. I couldn’t handle them.
You have to make it in an iron skillet. I just used cornbread mix, she said.
Our friends finally managed to open the gas tank cover using a metal rod wrapped in cloth. We were leaving. But Sue had not finished her story, and I needed to hear them.
I called her a few months later to see if she could forward one of her songs, or at least a photograph of posters that promoted her and her husband’s music. She didn’t know how to do that. I will need to head back to West Virginia for another interview.
Meadow Creek, West Virginia has a Facebook page. I managed to get most of these pictures from the page.
The recipe, however, was elusive. Like many good cooks, Kathern couldn't give me a complete recipe. At the end it took a village to figure out a recipe that could be close to hers.
My friends Sally and Francine agreed that cornbread has to be made in a cast iron pan. Following Kathern's advice, I tried many different cornbread mixes. They were mostly very dry. My friends told me that the secret was to add enough liquid, milk or buttermilk, as Kathern had suggested, for the mixture to be runny.
1 box (15 oz) of your favorite cornbread mix
2 Eggs, room temperature
2/3 cup milk or buttermilk, add more if needed until it is runny
4-ounces diced Jalapeños (optional)
1/3 cup melted butter plus 1/4 cup to grease the pan
Preheat oven to 400F
Put 1/4 cup butter in the skillet and let it melt. This must be hot but not burned.
In a large bowl mix the cornbread mix, melted butter, buttermilk and Jalapeños
Pour the mixture in the heated pan.
Bake for 25 min. Check with a toothpick, if still wet, add another 5 minutes until the top is golden brown.
You may follow the recipe on the cornbread box but make sure to add enough liquid to make it soupy.
Use the entire content of the box or even two boxes for thicker cornbread, or use less for pancake-like cornbread. The thinner ones can be reheated in a toaster oven, as Francine showed me.