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Some joke that the AME—an acronym for the African Methodist Episcopal Church—actually stands for "Always Meet and Eat." So be it: The Black church has been an important source of physical and spiritual nourishment, from chattel slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the present day. In the first half of the 20th century, Black churches responded to the chronic hunger experienced by many African-Americans through free-food banks, church-affiliated restaurants featuring inexpensive meals, and glorious spreads for special occasions. This was a critical dining option in urban settings where poor Blacks lacked adequate cooking facilities and the space to grow their own food.
Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church ("Campbell"), my home church, has played that role in Denver, Colorado, for several decades, and my late mother, Johnetta Miller, was called upon many times to help cook food for those glorious spreads. Some members would check if my mother cooked something before they served themselves a generous helping.
But my mom wasn't the only culinary star in my church's firmament. All that I've written about my mother applies to Minnie Utsey, one of my many "second mothers" at Campbell. Minnie Utsey came to Campbell in the 1950s, six months after her husband, Archie Utsey, moved from rural Arkansas to Denver. Archie Utsey, a lifetime AME member, scouted worship places in his new home city for a few months before he ultimately chose Campbell. He soon moved his young family to Denver—three daughters (Delessia, Wherda, and Cynthia) and one son, John. Many of the Utsey children remain faithful members of Campbell.
In 2009, during the early stages of researching and writing my book on the history of soul food, I reached out to many church mothers to assess the past and current. My mother and Minnie were friends, two of the more involved members of the church, and two of my church’s more renowned cooks. Minnie was active in Campbell’s hospitality club, so when they decided to publish a cookbook in 1984, it featured a liberal sprinkling of Minnie’s and Johnetta’s recipes. In addition to the cornbread recipe below, the cookbook included Minnie’s recipes for Cauliflower Savory Stew, Spoon Bread (a cornbread souffle), Sweet Potato Pie, and Salt Substitute (a mixture of various spices). One recipe that didn’t appear in the book was something she called “Upside Down Cornbread,” where cornbread was baked on top of a medley of vegetables. I tried for years to get that recipe, only for Minnie to tell me that she really didn’t remember because she didn’t follow a recipe. She did admit that it might have based on a recipe that she once saw in a healthy soul food cooking pamphlet, but finding that document proved just as elusive.
Like my mother, Minnie was very supportive and happy to answer my repeated, annoying questions about soul food. I learned that cornbread was an everyday staple in the Utsey household, especially for dinner. Minnie usually served some type of greens or field peas for family meals, and cornbread was always a necessary accompaniment. Archie also loved to snack on buttermilk and cornbread. The primary place that cornbread had in the Utsey household reflected the food habits of Blacks living in the rural South. In some instances, cornbread was the "glue" that held stewed vegetables together so that diners who couldn't afford utensils could eat with their fingers. On some occasions, Archie would crumble that cornbread in some buttermilk and drink it—a real throwback to country living.
When Campbell’s members feast, the grandest occasion is something we call “The Harvest Rally.” Church lore states that this annual event began in the 1930s as a fundraiser to help the church cover anticipated heating expenses during Colorado winters, and still happens the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This festive meal has always been held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, with members encouraged to bring canned goods, family and friends, and a generous offering. After church, a big meal prepared by a team of several cooks took place. The members formed a long line, and methodically made their way through the base meal of roast turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry jelly. Just to make there was enough to go around, the church mothers served the guests controlled portions. Once past that table, diners turned to their left to peruse the choices on the next long table which was pure potluck items, savory and dessert. Though the selection varied, soul food favorites reliably rounded out the meal: golden fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pies, peach cobbler, pound cake, and some sort of red-colored drink to wash it all down. And, of course, a number of cornbreads.
The cornbreads had various hues (from light yellow to a deep golden brown), shapes (circles, squares and triangles), and textures (gummy to crumbly). Yet Minnie Utsey's cornbread stood out from the rest. It follows a classic soul food formula, particularly with the use of yellow cornmeal and sugar. For many white southerners, the latter is sacrilege, for they believe that cornbread should be completely savory—otherwise, it's cake. Vive la difference! The slightly sweet taste, not as pronounced as with so many of today’s commercial mixes, contrasted with the savory cornmeal. Her recipe is also versatile (it bakes well in a cast iron skillet, muffin tin, or corn stick mold), and so proven (it’s not called “no-fail” for nothing). I thought it would be so perfect for cooks unfamiliar with soul food that I had to have it in my book’s recipe collection.
Unfortunately, Minnie Utsey died in 2010, so never got to see my book. So many of my church mothers have “gone on to Glory,” but I’m glad they left us their recipes. Minnie’s daughters do a lot to carry on the Utsey tradition of serving our church and serving up good food when the occasion calls for it. I honor Minnie’s loving memory, and shining example, with this cornbread that lives up to its title.