Q&A: Karen Shankles, the 2015 National Cornbread Festival Champion

In Q&As, Words With… by Rose Kennedyleave a COMMENT

cook_offKaren Shankles became the 2015 National Cornbread Festival champion April 25 and won $5,000 and a FiveStar Range. Her Festive Good Luck Cornbread includes smoked sausage, collards, black-eyed peas, and cheese cornbread topping. The festival takes place in South Pittsburg, Tenn. and the cook-off pitted Shankles, the 1998 champion, against nine other past winners, each reviving her original winning recipe.

Does this make you the undisputed cornbread champ of America?
No, just for the competition! It’s all so subjective as far as what’s the best. There are some really good recipes, particularly this year since they did take 10 past first-place winners. As it turned out, my recipe was the oldest of the winners, from the second year they even had the contest. The newer ones were more innovative and unusual—I guess the judges just liked the basic something about mine.

Did you enter the first year?
I was a finalist that year, 1997, and got third. My recipe had chili and hot dogs and cornbread on top. I think I called it Chili Dog Pie. I’m sure the kids helped me name it. David, our youngest, he was 4 months old when I first won the contest. He will be a senior in high school next year. The very first year, I went to Athens for the finals when I was pregnant with him but I hadn’t realized it yet. I remember the smells seemed so strange. I’ve been back a few times since then, and was a finalist a couple of times, too

Why are you so good at cornbread?
I enjoy cooking, and having seven children I’ve gotten lots of practice. My husband really likes cornbread and he was part of the reason I entered these cornbread cooking contests. As far as he’s concerned, any time I’ll fix cornbread, that’s a good day.

How long have you been cooking for this man?
We were married in 1981, how many years is that? When we got married, he had a cast-iron skillet his mother had given him. I don’t know that he had used it all that much, but it was a good one and it was really well seasoned, which is key. We were living in California at the time, and his mother came out to visit from Knoxville. She actually brought some corn meal mix. It’s kind of a Southern thing, and she assumed, probably correctly, that she could not get it in California. She packed it in her suitcase and flew it out, a 5-pound bag. Then she showed me how to make cornbread.

Was that your first cornbread?
My parents both grew up eating cornbread in Athens, Tenn., but there it was what you had as food and they weren’t crazy about it–they’d had so much. They’d both moved to Knoxville, but I remember going to visit my grandparents in Athens and eating cornbread there.

What’s your cornbread secret?
I think preheating the skillet. You put a little bit of oil in and put the skillet in the oven while it heats. Then you mix the batter and pull out the pan. When you pour the batter, it kind of sizzles because the pan is so hot. When you put it back in the oven, the cornbread starts cooking right away and that makes the crust really brown and crisp and even.

How many times have you made Fiesta Good Luck Cornbread in your life?
I haven’t cooked it a whole lot. I generally like straight cornbread more, but part of the contest meant that the recipe had to be a main dish. Last night we made it, but I cooked the cornbread separately and put the filling on top. I used some collards I had from the garden. I did make it four or five times after they called in February to say I was going to be in the all-star cook-off.

Are the national competitors fiercely competitive?
Not at all. I’ve never been in a cooking contest where I felt competitive. One of the reasons I enjoyed this contest so much was I got to see several cooks there that I knew from the Cornbread Festival or other cooking contests—they are just like old friends you don’t get to see often. For this contest, there were two different heats and they had just five stoves. You could talk to those who had just finished, and they’d let you know things like, “There’s a sink upstairs if you need to wash anything.” They’re thinking, “This might help you,” not “I’m not telling her about the sink.” All the drama and cutthroats you see on reality cooking shows—it’s not like that at all.

About this winner’s crown—what on earth is it?
It’s a cast-iron skillet. They cut the bottom out and mounted it to a hard hat, so it has a strap to hold it on to your head. It’s pretty heavy.

Do you ever get tired of cornbread?
Not at all. It goes with everything. Not everything, but just about everything.

Do you have any tips for beginner cornbread cooks?
A seasoned cast-iron skillet is the key. Lodge does make a pre-seasoned skillet now. But you’d probably still want to put a little Crisco or oil in that and put it in the oven for an hour at 350F to season it. And never use soap on your cast iron skillet—and get it good and dry after you use it and wipe it out. In Tennessee, with the humidity, it’s best to use the pan often. Otherwise, it will get a little rusty. And while rust is not the end of the world—you can scrub it back off and re-season the pan—it’s such a shame to have a rusting skillet when you could be making cornbread.

Controversial question: Do you put sugar in your cornbread?
Oh yes. Not a lot. That recipe, for example, had two teaspoons for the 1 cup of cornmeal mix. I don’t think there’s ever enough sugar in there to taste. It just brings out the natural sweetness of the corn itself. It’s not like Marie Callender’s mix; their big thing is that super-sweet cornbread. And I’ve seen recipes that use yellow cake mix and cornmeal half and half. If you like that sort of thing, it’s tasty. But it’s not cornbread.

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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