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A Life-Changing (Yes, Really) Buttermilk Cornbread Soup

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My very favorite restaurant as a kid was Magic Moments in Siesta Key, Florida. I wanted to go every time I visited my snowbird grandparents at their winter home because, as a young child, it truly was magical. When you stepped inside the doors, it was as if you’d, in fact, stepped outside: The first room was filled with trees and plants, and there was a meandering path (I distinctly remember a small bridge going over a stream) that led you to two large wooden doors—that didn’t have handles. You had to figure out (or get a hint from a nearby host/hostess) that you needed to press down on a statue wizard’s crystal ball and the doors would open. Magic!

I couldn’t tell you anything about what I ate there, but the unique entry and the magicians who would come around to the tables, performing tricks and making balloon animals, gave it a permanent spot of delight in my mind. I’m not sure what sparked the memory, but I was prompted to tell my five-year-old daughter about it this week, and I could clearly see the wonder in her eyes. I almost didn’t want to tell her it closed long ago, because I could see something changed for her: The meaning of the word “restaurant” shifted, and it was as if a whole new realm of possibilities opened up.

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(If you’ve been to Magic Moments and my memory has inaccurately recalled any of this, please do not tell me in the comments and shatter my rose-colored glasses.)

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Those moments, the ones where a world of possibilities opens up, can happen with anything: A shared memory, a new experience, or as was the case for Sean Brock, author of Heritage, with a taste of a new dish. In this case, soup. Of this soup, Brock says it “changed my life, the way I thought about what I could do.”

What soup contains this level of power? Buttermilk Cornbread Soup.

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Photo by James Ransom

The life-changing soup is found within Ronni Lundy’s cookbook, Victuals, which explores the people, places, and food of Appalachia. The recipe itself is the brainchild of chef John Fleer, a Piedmont native, who Lundy says “shaped a distinctively mountain-flavored menu” at Blackberry Farm, the luxurious resort in the Smoky Mountains near Walland, Tennessee. He was “the first to win fine-dining recognition for the products and traditions of the southern Appalachians,” and also influenced young chefs like Sean Brock.

If you visit Fleer's latest restaurant, Rhubarb, in Asheville, North Carolina, you might luck out and see this soup on the menu—or you can make it at home. And if you're intimidated by what complicated techniques or ingredients must be involved in a soup of this caliber, take heart—it's “a simple riff on the hill tradition of eating crumbled cornbread in buttermilk from a tall glass.”

Photo by James Ransom

It makes sense: We use day-old bread to bulk up all manner of other soups, but I for one had not thought to use cornbread in the same manner. It thickens and gives body to this comforting soup that you’ll enjoy just as much hot in the winter as you will chilled come warmer weather. After making it, I said to fellow editor Ali Slagle, "This is far better than it has any right to be." Although it sounds like it, that wasn't intended to be a backhanded compliment. It's just that the soup has a relatively unremarkable ingredient list, but they somehow all add up to something special.

As is the case though for all recipes with short ingredient lists, the quality of ingredients matters, especially the buttermilk—the tang it lends is essential. When Fleer makes it, he likes to use buttermilk from Cruz Farm, but if you don't live in Tennessee, he recommends looking for whole milk buttermilk without stabilizers or additive, adding, "Smaller local dairies sometimes have such, and the organic buttermilk found in natural foods groceries is often good, too. As it’s written within Victuals, the soup recipe points you to a cornbread recipe within the book for the day-old stuff you’ll need, but any plain-ish variety will work.

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John Fleer's Buttermilk Cornbread Soup

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Serves 4
  • Peanut oil
  • 1/3 cup chopped leeks, white part only
  • 1/3 cup chopped celery
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2 1/4 cups chicken broth, plus extra if needed to thin the soup
  • 1/2 cup crumbled, day-old cornbread, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 cup whole buttermilk
  • 3 tablespoons heavy cream
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
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Know of a great recipe hiding in the Food52 archives that uses an overlooked kitchen scrap? Tell me about it! Send me an email ([email protected]) or tell all in the comments: I want to know how you're turning what would otherwise be trash into a dish to treasure! Thank you to Ali Slagle for this one!

Tags: cooking with scraps, cornbread