Today we honor the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley, on the anniversary of his death (August 16, 1977). What better way to celebrate the legacy of Elvis than by exploring the foods he enjoyed while he was alive? I’m always curious about the food that legends like Elvis grew up eating. Learning about it makes me feel like I know a private part of them, the part that makes them human… the part we can all relate to. Elvis was the King, but he was also a normal person who enjoyed eating, just like the rest of us. Boy, did he ever enjoy eating!
Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 in a two room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. He had a twin brother Jessie who was stillborn, but no other siblings. In 1948 his parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis would spend most of his life.
Elvis grew up listening to gospel music, country, and early Southern R & B. He began singing for Sun Records in 1954, then for RCA in 1955. By 1956 he’d become an international recording star. His sound was edgy for the time, and it ushered in a new era of American music. He became known as the King of Rock and Roll. But really, he was just a Southern boy at heart.
Now, when most people think about Elvis and food, the first thing that comes to mind is peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But the truth is, Elvis enjoyed a wide variety of rich Southern foods. He also acquired a taste for sauerkraut and sausage while stationed in Germany during the war. Here is a list of food items that had to be on hand for Elvis every day at Graceland (Source: “Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley” by David Adler):
GRACELAND KITCHEN STOCK LIST
Fresh, lean, unfrozen ground meat
One case regular Pepsi
One case orange drinks
Rolls (hot rolls – Brown ‘n’ Serve)
Cans of biscuits (at least six)
Potatoes and onions
Assorted fresh fruits
Cans of sauerkraut
At least three bottles of milk and 1/2 & 1/2 cream
Thin, lean bacon
Fresh, hand-squeezed cold orange juice
Banana pudding (to be made each night)
Ingredients for meat loaf and sauce
Brownies (to be made each night)
Ice cream – vanilla and chocolate
Gum (Spearmint, Doublemint, Juicy Fruit – three each)
Cigars (El Producto Diamond Tips & El Producto Altas)
Sucrets (antibiotic red box)
Matches (four to five books)
Rich, heavy, caloric foods… Elvis was known for having a very “kingly” appetite. Not healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but many of the foods he enjoyed were very, very tasty. Some of his favorite dishes included baked apple and sweet potato pudding, blackberry pie, breaded chicken livers, ham bone dumplings, potato cheese soup, banana pudding, and of course those infamous butter-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
When planning this blog, I got a copy of the cookbook “Fit for a King” by Elizabeth McKeon. Recipes in this book were supposedly sourced from Elvis’ longtime cook at Graceland, Alvena Roy. I thought it would be fun to try an authentically Southern dish in honor of Elvis. A recipe for “Sour Milk Cornbread” caught my eye. “Sour milk” is unpasteurized (raw) milk that has gone slightly sour. Raw sour milk is generally fine to cook with, but if it’s pasteurized forget it… sour pasteurized milk has turned bad, and can make you really sick. Since most of us drink pasteurized milk nowadays, buttermilk is a safe substitute that gives you the same flavor as sour milk without the danger of foodborne illness.
I gave the “Fit for a King” Sour Milk Cornbread recipe a try… oh boy, was it awful! I have a hard time believing that the bread was ever served to Elvis. It was certainly not “Fit for a King”… in fact, it’s barely fit for the squirrels in our back yard!
I was still intrigued by the idea of creating a Southern “sour milk” cornbread like Elvis would have eaten, so I called our family friend Lee in Alabama to ask her if she had a recipe. Lee told me that in the South, cornbread is usually made in a seasoned cast-iron skillet. She walked me through her family recipe, which used regular milk instead of buttermilk. Since Elvis grew up eating sour milk cornbread, I subbed buttermilk for the regular milk in Lee’s recipe, and I made a few other small tweaks as well. I ended up with a delicious buttermilk skillet cornbread that really was fit for a King. I used vegetable oil to grease the pan… to make it more authentic and flavorful, use bacon grease.
This is not a cake-style cornbread (translation– fluffy and very sweet), so if that’s what you’re used to, you might be surprised by the heavier/denser feeling of this cornbread. My family enjoyed its hardy texture and rich buttermilk flavor. Cooking it in the skillet gives it a wonderful brown crust. Personally, I like a little sweetness in my cornbread, but some people do not. If you prefer an unsweetened cornbread, feel free to leave the honey/sugar out… it won’t change the texture, and you can always sweeten it with honey to taste after it’s baked. The buttermilk adds a slight tang that plays really nicely with the cornmeal. It’s so simple to make, and can be whipped up on a moment’s notice. It would go great with a big bowl of chili or soup, or as a hardy accompaniment to a summer salad. It is a dairy bread, so if you’re keeping kosher you’ll want to serve it with a fish or vegetarian meal.
There’s something about skillet cornbread that makes me feel like I’m in Tupelo Mississippi, sitting at the table with little Elvis and his parents. There’s a wonderful homemade goodness about fresh bread, and serving it in a skillet feels so nostalgic. Elvis, today we celebrate your life, your contribution to the arts, and your infamous Southern appetite. Go make some skillet cornbread in honor of Elvis… it’s now or never.
Tip: No buttermilk on hand? It’s easy to make your own! Mix 1 1/2 cups of milk with 1 1/2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice. Wait about 10 minutes until the milk starts to curdle. Voila! Instant buttermilk.
- 1 1/2 cups cornmeal (finely ground, not coarse or medium)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and lukewarm
- 1/4 cup honey or sugar (optional)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil (canola, corn, grapeseed, etc.) or bacon grease
You will also need
- A 9 or 10 inch seasoned cast iron skillet
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Place your seasoned cast iron skillet on your stovetop and set burner to medium high. Let the skillet heat up for about 10 minutes while you prepare the cornbread batter.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt till thoroughly blended.
- In a smaller bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, melted butter, and honey or sugar (optional).
- Stir wet ingredients into dry until the cornmeal mixture is just moistened. Don't overmix-- a few lumps are okay.
- Grease your hot skillet with vegetable oil (careful, don't burn your fingers!).
- Pour your cornbread batter into the hot skillet-- it should sizzle a bit.
- Use an oven mitt to pick up the skillet. Place the skillet immediately into the hot oven. Let the bread bake for 20-25 minutes till the edges brown and pull away from the pan. Test for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the center of the bread. If it comes out clean, the bread is ready.
- Take the bread out of the oven and let the skillet cool a bit.
- Bread can be cut and served about 10 minutes after taking it out of the oven-- just be careful, the skillet will still be hot. The skillet will keep the bread warm for up to 30 minutes.