Out of the Frying Pan
Cornbread suppers turn strangers into communities
Rona Roberts and her husband Steve Kay’s cornbread suppers are a Monday night beacon with good food where their Campsie Place home near downtown Lexington becomes a showroom of what conviviality, conversation and connection really mean.
The cornbread supper idea came from a 2008 column by Judy Walker in New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune. Walker had revived the idea of cornbread suppers as community gatherings when prompted by a woman in the audience at a lecture she gave at LSU.
The woman recalled an earlier time when neighbors regularly came together around the kitchen table to chat and enjoy a simple supper. Everyone would bring a cornbread and jugs of pure cane syrup, chunks of butter and jars of fig or pear preserves. Hot coffee, milk and sometimes links of pork sausage completed the meal. Rona and Steve were intrigued by the concept, especially as they learned more about how well cornbread and Kentucky fit together.
“For a long time,” Rona explains, “we had wanted to host a weekly gathering for friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Steve hosted a weekly potluck and music gathering back when he and I met nearly four decades ago. I liked that gathering, the music and the openness of the hospitality very much, so in the spring of 2009 we got out the cast-iron skillets, turned on the oven and began to open our front door every Monday night, holidays included.” Steve and Rona offer a standing option to make at least one weeknight meal convivial, a no-agenda gathering where the people behind all manner of good projects and ideas can connect and converse, lighten burdens and add joy while nourishing body, mind and spirit.
They don’t worry about making everything perfect. Cornbread suppers are comfortable and the rules are simple.
“If you don’t have time,” Rona instructs in a weekly post, “you can count on us each week to serve a hearty dish of some variation of simple corn-based nourishment that will get you through. So if you want to come, please come with or without a food contribution.”
Cornbread supper culture creates lots of freedom of choice. Most who come bring dishes or bottles of wine or juice most of the time, but know they can simply show up empty-handed when they want. They will find plenty on the table. Co-hosts are welcome and it’s great when people pitch in. There have been times when the suppers move around to other houses, even farms and community gardens. Sometimes there are a dozen in attendance, sometimes 50. Sometimes the group concludes a supper by walking en masse to another community event.
People come and go. Part of the fun is the rotating cast of characters. Some are regulars. Some are new. Some are old friends, internet friends, friends of friends, neighbors, travelers or family members passing through.
The mix is always different: people of all ages, ethnicities and lifestyles, intergenerational and kid-friendly. People from one sphere of life mix with people from another, bringing together all sorts of connections. This is social networking of the best kind.
Earlier this fall my husband and I made our way from our farm in Mercer County to Rona and Steve’s to experience cornbread suppers first hand.
People drifted in. First, a grandmother and a grandchild with only 45 minutes till her music lesson, a bowl of fruit in hand. Soon others arrived, bringing potluck dishes, bottles of wine and other beverages.
The big dining room table became laden with a buffet of root vegetable tartine, a casserole of penne and chard, another of zucchini, some roast chicken, five-pepper jam, baked butternut squash, assorted salads including a masterful toss of crisp slices of turnip and fennel with fall greens. Most of the dishes were made of locally and seasonally sourced ingredients, all anchored by pan after pan of Rona’s Black Skillet Cornbread.
Desserts were aplenty, including cookies for the kids, a cranberry apple bake with a crumble crust and a blackberry buckle alongside a plum buckle made with plums from a nearby community garden. Soon the buzz began, as more than 40 seats lining the spacious living room and hallway were filled. It was a warm late-October evening and some folks spilled out onto the porch and front steps.
The youngsters gravitated into a room together where there was a lively debate over the color and consistency of the Jell-O Brain Salad on the buffet, apparently a cornbread supper Halloween staple.
There’s something magical about the glow of conversation over good food that encourages people to relax and share their stories. Overheard were exchanges about music, movies, books, community events, opportunities to find local fall greens, the benefits of grass-fed versus conventional beef and, of course, politics.
Looking about, one was struck by the diversity of the gathering: skinny-jean hipster teenagers, a former mayor, community activists, locavores, tweed-jacketed businessmen, young tech professionals, young parents, a father with his 5-monthold daughter bundled to his chest. Some had walked; others had driven all the way across town.
Rona and Steve are studious in their passion for connectivity around good food. Both are soft-spoken self-styled community action pioneers who lead with their vision for sharing.
Rona is a qualitative researcher and writer in her professional life whose Savoring Kentucky blog (perhaps autobiographical of her rural childhood in Wayne County, Kentucky) celebrates the goodness of local and seasonal food. She is the kind of person you want to sit down and “talk food” with for hours. She uses social media and her blog to invite folks to the cornbread suppers, pleased that technology is the tool that calls the group together.
Steve, an engaged and thoughtful, motivating and inspiring presence for many years in the local civic scene, is currently vice mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.
Breaking bread together is not a new idea. Sharing food has long been an act and symbol of cross-cultural exchange and relationship-building. Church suppers, community meals, Sunday dinners, barn raisers and the like are cherished all over the world.
In this day and time when so many just collapse in front of the television or iPad at the end of the day, when family members can hardly put down their smart phones during a meal, when we rarely see friends and barely even talk to neighbors, this couple’s cooking up a batch of cornbread to bring people together to share in real life is powerful.
Call it the magic of cornbread. There’s comfort and hope to be derived from the steadfastness of a gathering that brings people together over a shared meal. I didn’t see a smart phone in the place.
Lois Mateus is chair of the advisory board at the University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and also sits on the boards of The Berry Center and the Kentucky State Fair.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Edible hopes Rona and Steve’s cornbread suppers can be an inspiration for more such shared meals across the Commonwealth. For more information and to attend a cornbread supper, visit CornbreadSuppers.com or Facebook.com/groups/cornbreadsupper