Marlena Raines

When I went home for fall break a few weeks ago, I made a special request to my Yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”). 

“I’m looking forward to your cornbread at Thanksgiving!”

Well, it wasn’t really a request but a not-so-subtle reminder. Not that she would forget to make it, but for me, the holiday would be incomplete — perhaps ruined — without one of her signature dishes.

If you asked my brother and me, “what is the one dish you always look forward to eating at Thanksgiving,” we would swiftly reply in sync: “Yiayia Georgia’s cornbread.” She has prepared this dish every year for as long as I can remember, and it has never failed to bring me joy and fond memories every Thanksgiving day.

Two years ago, curious to learn the recipe, I asked if I could bake it with her to see how the magic happens. Unlike most Greek grandmas who like to safeguard their recipes as if they are their life savings, she was elated at the idea of baking this special dish with her granddaughter. She couldn’t have been more excited than me, though. 

When I arrived at her house the evening before Thanksgiving, in classic Greek grandma fashion, she greeted me with a host of treats: nuts, fruit and Greek cookies. Typically, I would have indulged in the treats, but I was so eager to begin that I blurted out “can we start making the cornbread?”

I had my pen and paper ready. 

This wasn’t my first cooking rodeo with her. Experience has taught me that if I want to recreate any of her dishes, I need to write them down. Yiayia never relies on a recipe. The only cookbook she follows is the one in her head. Her culinary mastery comes from experience and instinct. Every time she makes a dish, it is never exactly the same as the time before, but it inexplicably never fails to be equally delicious. 

As we prepared to make the cornbread, my Yiayia went to the corner of her kitchen and pulled out a little red book. I was shocked! Were my eyes deceiving me? I didn’t think she had ever followed a recipe from a book in her life, yet here she was, showing me the recipe for her most famous dish, created by someone that wasn’t even her! All of these years, I thought that my Yiayia curated this masterful dish herself, recalling it from memory each time she made it, but I was mistaken.  

She carefully turned through the pages of the book, stopping on page 38 where a special bookmark was placed. I was expecting a long, complicated recipe to stare back at me, but surprisingly, the recipe took up less than a third of the page; it only contained six ingredients, and the instructions were written out in five short sentences. 

I was having a mini crisis. 

Yiayia’s cornbread, this recipe I had glorified for years and years, was not what I thought it was. It felt less like cornbread and more like conbread. Yes, I am being very dramatic — and I am the one who assumed she created the recipe — but it caught me off guard. Who would have thought this recipe came from a cookbook? Not me! 

However, just because the cornbread isn’t what I thought it was, that doesn’t mean it’s any less special or beloved. It is still my favorite Thanksgiving dish. I still go back for seconds and thirds. I still eat it for leftovers on the next day. 

So the day following the revelation, my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents came over for Thanksgiving dinner. I boasted that I had learned the coveted cornbread recipe. Like me, all of my relatives thought that this was just another recipe that Yiayia had created herself. However, I decided not to sully Yiayia’s culinary reputation. In a Greek household, that is the eighth deadly sin. Everyone was asking about the recipe, but I kept my responses vague. Anything having to do with the recipe would be a secret best kept between my Yiayia and me. Although, I guess the secret is out now — sorry Yiayia!

This cornbread crisis taught me that maybe the most beautiful things in life — like my Yiayia’s cornbread — involve surprises. And, yes, her cornbread still qualifies as a beautiful thing in life because it’s always made with one last key ingredient that isn’t found in the cookbook — love.