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Sweet, savory or spicy: The great cornbread debate at Maryville College

If you crave a meaty discussion over the Thanksgiving table, skip canned versus fresh cranberry sauce or dressing versus stuffing. Cornbread is a topic people can really dig into.

Maryville College freshmen proved that Monday, Nov. 22, with a discussion in the first-year seminar titled “Butter My Biscuits: An Exploration of Southern Food.”

A couple of the teens had never tasted cornbread before the samples assistant professor Kristen Riggsbee served, and about half grew up with sweet cornbread on their family dinner table.

After sampling the sweet version for the first time, however, Walker Settles declared, “I would never eat that again.”

Articles, videos and podcasts assigned earlier gave the students background for a wide-ranging discussion over the next half hour, covering ground such as how the corn plant was domesticated — “natural GMO stuff,” the professor noted — the change the Industrial Revolution brought to milling, the addition of different ingredients and multiple cooking styles.

“It’s a multicultural practice, and it was here with the indigenous people,” Riggsbee noted.

She told the students the British initially thought the North American maize was inedible. “It took indigenous people and other cultures showing us how to actually utilize corn, and it has become what it is today,” she said.

Initially made with a paste of simply cornmeal and hot water, cornbread developed into different recipes including eggs, buttermilk, baking powder and sugar. She even brought a “Mexican-style” cornbread made with jalapenos and cheese to Monday’s class, noting that it was only a Southern variation, not the true dish.

Ale Blanco, whose family comes from Colombia, offered an even wider perspective on cornbread, discussing the many ways to prepare arepa, a South American cornmeal cake.

As students prepared for the class, they learned more about their own families, how one great-grandpa had milled corn, and another’s grandmother in Michigan learned to make cornbread from indigenous people when she lived in New Mexico.

“People feel very passionate about this particular cornmeal mix,” Riggsbee told her students as she held up a bag of Three Rivers cornmeal. “It was off the market for nearly a decade in the early 2000s.”

“People will fight each other at Food City to get this cornmeal mix,” she said.

Passionate debate

The first-year seminar is designed to expose students to new ideas and prepare them to hold discussions.

An assistant professor of health and wellness promotion who reads cookbooks like novels, Riggsbee knows cornbread is a rich topic with deep beliefs from many students’ own roots.

“They don’t realize they each have passionate feelings about this is how my grandmother made it, and this is how it should be, and I can’t believe you eat it that way, why would you?” she explained during a prior interview.

“We learn so much from people and who they are, based on food,” she said.

While Riggsbee grew up in the South, her parents are from Michigan. On the rare occasions they served cornbread, she said, “it was yellow and sweet out of a box more like a Duncan Hines cake.”

“Some of the things with Southern food culture are just foreign to me,” Riggsbee conceded.

The first time her husband’s grandmother said she was going to make a pone of cornbread, Riggsbee asked how to spell the word, because she had no idea what a pone was.

The grandmother taught her how to use White Lily self-rising white cornmeal mix poured into a screaming hot, greased skillet to produce a crisp crust. “I’m pretty passionate about those crispy edges,” Riggsbee said.

On Monday she used the pone pan Granny gave her to show students how to flip the cornbread onto a serving platter with the crispy underside on top.

Riggsbee said, “I have gotten fairly close to Granny’s cornbread,” but she knows the food isn’t just about the flavor; it’s about family stories and memories in the kitchen too.

Last year was the first time she taught “A Taste of the South” as a first-year seminar. Because of COVID-19 precautions, she arranged for students to have small outdoor picnics to discuss topics including pimento cheese and barbecue.

Through food, the students not only get to know each other but also can explore a wide variety of topics, including history, geographical differences, cultural significance and nutritional implications.

They talked about academic integrity when they discussed how recipes developed by enslaved people were written down by plantation owners, making it difficult to credit the person who originated a recipe.

Now she’s developing a full class on Southern food for the college’s Appalachian studies minor, working with staff from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The best part of my job is getting to talk to people about food all day,” Riggsbee said.

More to explore

The discussion this week even led some students to ponder wider questions, such as whether hush puppies and tortillas are cornbread.

As the discussion was wrapping up, the professor told them, “It’s not meant to be an easy answer. It’s meant to be a way for us to look at our own families and our own cultures and say, “This is who I am, but it’s OK that Elvin eats sweet cornbread and Eli likes this Mexican cornbread.”

“It’s a cultural piece of who we are,” she added.

She encouraged the teens to continue the discussion with their families. “There’s no better time than Thanksgiving and this holiday to think about food and how it connects us,” she said.

As the students prepared to leave the classroom, Riggsbee’s comment that she needed to bake cornbread on Tuesday so it would dry out for her Thanksgiving dressing drew a critical question of why from Allen Brooks, who obviously disagreed with the practice.

“That way it absorbs the yumminess. Call your mom,” she said with a smile.

“I make the dressing,” he loudly informed her.

“I still love you, but we’ll call it a difference of opinion,” Riggsbee said.


Business
AP
Many environmentalists back Biden's move to tap oil reserve

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats and climate activists generally supported President Joe Biden's decision to release a record 50 million barrels of oil from America's strategic reserve, even as the move appeared to contradict his long-term vision of combating climate change.

The U.S. action, announced Tuesday in coordination with countries such as India, the United Kingdom and China, is aimed at global energy markets and helping lower gasoline prices that have risen more than a dollar per gallon since January. But it could also undermine Biden's climate goals, including a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Some leading climate hawks, however, said they were not concerned by the move because they see it as a short-term fix to meet a specific problem. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has focused on combating climate change, said Biden was “taking effective action to protect Americans from oil price gouging” even as the administration continues to boost renewable energy that it hopes will eventually mean less dependence on fossil fuels.

“This is what reserves are for — defending our economy against disruption,″ Markey tweeted. “Profiteering can’t go unanswered, especially as Big Oil makes billions and fuels the climate crisis through exports.″

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.

Markey and other Democrats had urged Biden to release oil from the reserve to ease prices on consumers. There have also been calls on the president to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports that was lifted in 2015. Biden has made no move to reimpose the export ban, which was repealed by congressional Republicans in a bid to assert U.S. energy dominance and promote domestic production.

Biden has authority under the legislation to declare an emergency and limit or stop oil exports for up to a year but is not expected to do so.

Kelly Sheehan, senior director of energy campaigns with the Sierra Club, hailed Biden’s actions as a way to ease Americans’ energy burdens. But she said the current spike in oil prices was a reminder that “the only way to truly achieve energy security is to rapidly transition away from risky fossil fuels like oil and gas and make it easier for more people to access clean energy.″

Lorne Stockman, research director of Oil Change International, an environmental group focused on creating a “fossil-free future,″ said Biden should have acted sooner, if only to counter a barrage of Republican criticism blaming him for high gasoline prices.

“Presidents are always blamed for high gas prices, whether they have anything to do with it or not,″ Stockman said, calling the measure a small step to bring short-term relief to American consumers.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Biden said the rise in gas prices made the move necessary and that it wouldn't distract from his larger ambitions of moving toward energy independence.

“My effort to combat climate change is not raising the price of gas,'' Biden said. "What it is doing is increasing the availability of jobs building electric cars like the one I drove ... in a GM factory in Detroit last week.''

Americans who buy electric cars will save up to $1,000 in fuel costs this year, Biden said, "and we’re going to put those savings within reach of more Americans and create jobs installing solar panels, batteries and electric heat pumps. We can make our economy and consumers less vulnerable to these sorts of price spikes when we do that.”

Biden said the White House was looking into potential price gouging by oil companies squeezing customers while making money off lower costs. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said U.S. companies were keeping production below pre-pandemic levels in order to increase profits.

The coronavirus pandemic has roiled energy markets. As closures began in April 2020, demand collapsed and oil futures prices turned negative. Energy traders did not want to get stuck with crude that they could not store. But as the economy recovered, prices jumped to a seven-year high in October.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Biden's use of the strategic reserve, along with calls for OPEC and Russia to increase production, “desperate attempts to address a Biden-caused disaster” and no substitute for increased American energy production.

Lukas Ross, manager of climate and energy justice at Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, said the spike in gas prices shows that “our continued dependence on a volatile compound that is literally cooking the climate is exactly why we need” Biden's sweeping social and environmental bill approved as quickly possible.

The $2 trillion bill, which has been approved in the House and is pending in the Senate, includes about $550 billion for climate change efforts, including proposals to boost wind and solar power and support electric vehicles. Republicans unanimously oppose the measure.

Biden has said the U.S. needs to transition away from oil dependence, and “now is the moment to keep that promise by urgently speeding the transition to electric cars and a renewable energy grid,'' said Kassie Siegel, director of a climate law institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group.

“Price volatility will always be part of Big Oil’s playbook,'' she added. "Let’s break their stranglehold on our economy once and for all.”


Lifestyles
AP
On the road again: Travelers emerge in time for Thanksgiving

DALLAS (AP) — Determined to reclaim Thanksgiving traditions that were put on pause last year by the pandemic, millions of Americans will be loading up their cars or piling onto planes to gather again with friends and family.

The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts that 48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday period, an increase of nearly 4 million over last year despite sharply higher gasoline prices.

Many feel emboldened by the fact that nearly 200 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But it also means brushing aside concerns about a resurgent virus at a time when the U.S. is now averaging nearly 100,000 new infections a day and hospitals in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are seeing alarming increases in patients.

The seven-day daily average of new reported cases up nearly 30% in the last two weeks through Tuesday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says unvaccinated people should not travel, although it is unclear whether that recommendation is having any effect.

More than 2.2 million travelers streamed through airport checkpoints last Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic devastated travel early last year. From Friday through Monday, the number of people flying in the U.S. was more than double the same days last year and only 8% lower than the same days in 2019.

At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Peter Titus, an engineer at the Princeton University plasma physics lab, was heading to visit extended family in Canada with his wife and adult son. He carried a folder with printouts of their vaccination cards and negative COVID-19 tests needed to fly into Canada.

His son, Christian Titus, who works as a voice actor, says he’s spent much of the pandemic inside but is willing to risk flying on a crowded airplane because he misses being around his family. He got a booster shot to increase his protection.

“My mental health does better by being around my family during these times,” he said. “Yeah, it’s dangerous. But you love these people, so you do what you can to stay safe around them.”

Meka Starling and her husband were excited for many members of their extended family to meet their 2-year-old son, Kaiden, for the first time at a big Thanksgiving gathering in Linden, New Jersey.

“We’ve put pictures on Facebook so a lot of them have seen pictures of him, but to get to actually touch him and talk to him, I’m excited about it,” said Starling, 44, of West Point, Mississippi, who will gather with nearly 40 family members, all of whom agreed to be vaccinated.

For their part, airlines are hoping to avoid a repeat of the massive flight cancellations — more than 2,300 apiece — that dogged Southwest and American Airlines at different times last month.

The breakdowns started with bad weather in one part of the country and spun out of control. In the past, airlines had enough pilots, flight attendants and other workers to recover from many disruptions within a day or two. They are finding it harder to bounce back now, however, because they are stretched thin after pushing thousands of employees to quit when travel collapsed last year.

American, Southwest, Delta and United have all been hiring lately, which gives the airlines and industry observers hope that flights will stay on track this week.

“The airlines are prepared for the holidays,” said Helane Becker, an airlines analyst for financial-services firm Cowen. “They cut back the number of flights, the industry has enough pilots, they are putting more flight attendants through their (training) academies, and they are paying flight attendants a premium — what I'm going to call hazardous-duty pay — to encourage people not to blow off work.”

The airlines have little margin for error right now. American expected to fill more than 90% of its seats with paying customers on Tuesday. That's a throwback to holiday travel before the pandemic.

“There is not a lot of room to put people on another flight if something goes wrong,” said Dennis Tajer, a pilot for the airline and a spokesman for the American pilots’ union.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration is dismissing concern that it might have staffing shortages at airport checkpoints this week because of a requirement that federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. White House officials said 93% of TSA employees are in compliance with the mandate, and they don't expect any disruptions.

For holiday travelers going by car, the biggest pain is likely to be higher prices at the pump. The nationwide average for gasoline on Tuesday was $3.40 a gallon, according to AAA, up more than 60% from last Thanksgiving.

Those prices could be one of several factors that will discourage some holiday travelers. In a survey conducted by Gasbuddy, which tracks pump prices, about half of the app users who responded said high prices will affect their travel plans this week. About two in five said they aren’t making as many trips for a variety of reasons.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered 50 million barrels of oil released from America’s strategic reserve to help bring down energy costs, in coordination with other major energy consuming nations. The U.S. action is aimed at global energy markets, but also at helping Americans coping with higher inflation and rising prices ahead of Thanksgiving and winter holiday travel.

The price at the pump was a bit of a shock to Tye Reedy, who flew into California from Tennessee and borrowed his friend's truck for some sightseeing. Gas was running $5 a gallon at the Chevron in Alameda, and it cost $100 to fill up the truck.

“We did not travel last year because of COVID restrictions and all,” Reedy said. “But you know, we’re confident enough ... with the vaccine and where things are now with the virus that, you know, we felt comfortable traveling.”

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AP staff writers Ted Shaffrey, Terry Chea and Seth Wenig in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter


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