Food for the Soul

“River’s on the rise, crows are in the skies,
Look at the big yellow cornbread moon.
Now that you’re lookin’ do you feel something cookin?
Look at that cornbread moon.”
From the song “Cornbread Moon” by Joe Ely

Story Jan Swoope

When it comes to insatiably Southern favorites, black-eyed peas cooked with tasty ham or bacon and cornbread fresh from an iron skillet blacker than midnight and heavy as a chair are part of our Dixie DNA.

The Veranda’s pristine white linens may be a far cry from the blue-checked cloth on grandma’s farm kitchen table, but the Starkville restaurant’s Chef Jay Yates has captured that same down-home goodness.

By night, Yates and his staff may be preparing hand-cut Angus steaks, lobster bisque or Atlantic salmon, but The Veranda’s daytime menu includes a hearty Blue Plate Special inspired by the made-from-scratch meals Yates remembers from his own grandmother’s home. Black-eyed peas are served several days each week. Cornbread is a daily staple.

“I calculate we’ve made about 32,000 skillets of cornbread since we opened,” says the Natchez native, who moved to Starkville in 1997 and now proudly “bleeds maroon and white.” Yates and partner Frank Jones started the restaurant in 2003.

In the restaurant kitchen, he takes a skillet of golden cornbread from the oven. He’s particular about the distinction between skillets and pans.

“Cornbread made in a pan will never taste like cornbread made in a skillet,” he preaches. And that crisp crust we fought our siblings over when we were kids? The secret to that signature crunch, Yates says, is to start with a sizzling skillet.

Black-eyed peas have been synonymous with the South almost since they were first introduced here around the 17th century. Even our friends to the North know by now that every New Year’s Day should include at least a few, for good fortune. 

SoulFood_JayYatesChef Yates gets his locally-grown, whenever available, and flash-frozen when they’re not. He’s a proponent of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association’s Eat Healthy Mississippi campaign. The initiative links restaurants and local farmers, thanks to a USDA grant through the state agriculture and commerce department.

Peas can be cooked with anything from ham hock to jalapenos, but Yates prefers lean ham that’s been trimmed, adding just the right amount of savory kick. And while some cooks may take the lucky legumes for granted, this chef actually found inspiration in them.

He recalls the day he noticed one of the staff pouring out the peas’ pot liquor (or “potlikker,” if you insist). Pot liquor is the flavored liquid left after boiling vegetables.

“I thought, ‘My gosh, this is delicious; why are we throwing it away?’” It got him thinking. “It’s a chef thing,” Yates smiles. “We’re always coming up with something.”

Borrowing a bit from the method for making crème brulé, Yates developed an original recipe for “pot liquor custard.”

“The Southern flavors and the seasoning are already there in the pot liquor,” says Yates, who adds egg yolks, to create the velvety texture of custard, and then texture by topping each serving with crispy bacon, some sweet onion, cornbread croutons and, of course, a few black-eyed peas.

“My suggestion when you serve it is to not tell anybody what it is,” he grins. “Let them taste it and say, ‘You tell me.’”

Yates shares his pot liquor custard recipe, so you can try it at home. You may even come up with variations of your own.

“And,” says the chef, “that’s the fun part, being creative.” 


2 cups pot liquor saved after cooking black-eyed peas
5 egg yolks

• Mix together pot liquor and egg yolks well. Put in individual baking dishes, such as for crème brulé.
• Bake in a wet bath (bain-marie technique) at 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until set. Let cool.
• Unmold onto a plate and garnish with crispy bacon, raw sweet onion, black-eyed peas and cornbread croutons.


4 slices bacon
1 medium onion, chopped
1 (16-ounce) package dried black-eyed peas, washed
1 (12-ounce) can diced tomatoes and green chiles
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups water

• In a large saucepan, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon, crumble, and set aside to use as a topping for the peas.
• Sauté the onion in the bacon drippings until tender. Add the peas, diced tomatoes and green chiles, salt, chili powder, pepper and water.
• Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the peas are tender. Add additional water, if necessary. Serve garnished with crumbled bacon.


2 cups self-rising white cornmeal (not cornmeal mix)
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup bacon drippings (from 8 slices cooked bacon) or corn oil
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon cornmeal

• Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
• In a large bowl, combine the self-rising cornmeal and flour; set aside.
• Heat an 8-inch cast iron skillet in the hot oven for six to eight minutes. Add bacon drippings to the hot skillet and return to the oven to heat the drippings, two minutes.
• Meanwhile, add the milk and buttermilk to the flour mixture and stir with a wire whisk to combine.
• Working very carefully, remove the hot skillet of drippings from the oven. Pour almost all of the hot drippings (reserve about 1 tablespoon of drippings in the skillet) into the batter and stir to combine. Add the beaten egg and stir until well blended.
• Sprinkle the surface of the reserved hot drippings in the skillet with the teaspoon of cornmeal. Pour the cornbread batter into the prepared skillet.
• Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a deep golden brown.
• Remove from the oven and turn out onto a serving plate.


1 (9-inch skillet) cornbread cubed (half for salad; half for eating)
2 small heads romaine lettuce, chopped
2 large tomatoes chopped
1 (15.5-ounce) can red beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15.5-ounce) can sweet corn drained
1 (8-ounce) package shredded cheddar cheese
1 medium purple onion diced
8 ounces Bacon Ranch Dressing
4 green onions thinly sliced (optional)

• Layer a large bowl with half each of cubed cornbread, lettuce and next five ingredients. Spoon half of the dressing evenly over top.
• Repeat layers with remaining ingredients and dressing. Garnish with green onion is optional. Cover and chill at least two hours. Before serving, toss gently or serve layered.