Great Southern Style Cornbread Recipe

Sometimes early retirement is just about having enough time to do all the stuff around the house that you always wanted to do.  To that end I recently set out to re-create my late Mom's southern-style cornbread.  It was moist, not sweet and had a unique texture that just made you want more.  Nothing I've had in the years since has come close, but I knew there had to be a way to do it.  Over the course of a few weeks last month I tested all the recipes and corn meals I could find and nothing worked.  By trial and error and experimentation, though, I found my way back to it.  This being too good to sit on the only thing left is to share it widely and preach the gospel of great southern-style cornbread!  Quick and easy to make, here's the link.  Enjoy!

Southern Style Cornbread Recipe

This cornbread is simple and gives a moist, savory flavor.  Eat warm from the oven or split in half and toast with butter or jam/honey.  Also can be eaten without jam, as an accompaniment to any meal that doesn’t already have a lot of starch.  Getting the right cornmeal is essential (see below).  There is just enough sugar to take the edge off the dry ingredients, but the cornbread will not taste sweet.   As a bonus, cornmeal is gluten free.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Place your baking dish in oven (7” x 11” glass oven dish or 10” cast iron pan or similar)  From a stick of butter place 2 tablespoons of butter (1/4 stick) in the pan to melt while pan preheats.  (Or you can use 2 tablespoons of bacon fat if you are really authentic.)  Melt the other 6 tablespoons of butter separately for mixing into batter later.

Dry Ingredients:

2 Cups Cornmeal      Use organic, stoneground cornmeal, medium grind or other specified for use with cornbread.  Red Mill and ArrowHead are both good and available at Whole Foods and other fine food stores.  Another favorite, by mail order, is the heirloom seed cornmeal being grown and ground by Anson Mills.  Up to ½ cup of a (e.g. Red Mill) finer grind cornmeal can be substituted for medium grind if desired.

1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (use sea salt for better flavor)
2 teaspoons sugar

Mix cornmeal and all dry ingredients and then mix together and blend in:

2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
and the melted remainder of stick of butter, 6 tablespoons.  Mix it gently just enough to wet everything.

Remove hot pan from oven, ensuring melted butter covers bottom and pour in the batter.  Cook for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.  Remove from oven and allow to set 5-10minutes before eating.

15 Years in Semi-Retirement- How is it Going?

JD Roth at MoneyBoss.com kindly asked me to reflect on semi-retirement, a path I’ve been on now for 15 years.  A version of this article was published there in late 2016.

One thing is sure, plenty of people are interested in semi-retirement these days.  I recently even heard it has its own buzzy millennial nickname, Semi-Re.  Between exhortations to put in 4-Hour Work Weeks or “LifeHack” the big project of earning a living there is ample evidence that people are considering alternatives to the traditional 40-year full-time career arc.

I should know:  At age 42 in 2001 I left full-time work to embark on a self-funded post-career lifestyle that involved doing some sort of part-time work-like activity to keep me challenged and engaged, and help close the budget gaps.  I wrote a book about it 5 years later (Work Less, Live More) popularizing the term Semi-Retirement in the second edition which came out in 2008.  I had started a digital design firm in 1994 and sold it into the dot-com frenzy, which left me with a bad case of burnout and a full retirement savings account, so it seemed the right time to pull the plug. 

But does it work?  And what has it been like for me and my family?

The quick answer is that Yes, it can and does work – the investing approach I’ve been using, outlined in Work Less, Live More, has sustained our spending and kept us whole in real terms vis a vis the day my wife and I quit work in early 2001.  We sometimes say our savings have simply allowed us to have part-time, low-paid but intrinsically fun and meaningful jobs at a time when the normal people in those jobs can’t actually make ends meet or really enjoy them as a result.

My wife works 10 or 15 hours a week in a large specialty women’s clothing store, staying connected to her interests in fashion and spending time being with a younger generation of women--  her co-workers and managers.  I embarked on a long-dreamed of career as an artist, going to art school, building a sculpture studio and showing and selling my work everywhere from Hong Kong and Paris to trendy art fairs in Miami or galleries in Chelsea. 

It’s right-sized for my time and interests – I’ve certainly had 15-hour days and 80-hour weeks at times but mostly I putter around mornings then go into the studio after lunch for an active afternoon sculpting, and am parked on the couch at night just like the rest of the country.  I sigh, like all artists, that I don’t have as many sales as I’d hoped after an art fair or gallery show, but then pinch myself and remember that the art itself is getting better, the creating of it deeply meaningful, and our financial needs still adequately covered by our Safe Withdrawal Rate and savings.

We have been a close family – our two sons, (now 21 and 25) who were shortchanged for Mom & Dad time during the 90’s were able to spend a lot more time with us after that.  More in fact than they probably wanted by the time high school and college rolled around, lol.  Lost time away from the kids, business trips and long hours at the office, had scarred me deeply and was probably the driving force pushing me into the early retirement decision.  So we bought a boat and took plenty of family vacations, and there was always time to play catch or Frisbee while the kids were growing up.

I also got into yoga and spent more time working out than the average executive could ever hope to.  Staying fit takes time and energy, and I had that.  We also have been very into healthful eating and cooking meals at home.  As the years go by and I can eat less and less without adding pounds, eating really exciting, well-made food has been something of a compensation.

The house, bigger now than empty-nesters need after in-laws and kids have moved out, requires plenty of work but is a source of enduring pleasure for us.  The gardens and grounds are Edenic.  We entertain a lot at home, and the studio I built on the property a few years back has made me something of a homebody, gladly so.    I have the time to think, to read, to putter and still get my errands done and art created.  Mornings inevitably involve a long read of the Wall St Journal over a big cup of strong coffee, looking out on the gardens and digesting what’s happening out in the world. 

Art has been a good avenue for opening up that world further:  thanks to GPS it’s easy to get around the sorts of areas (all over Brooklyn, for instance) where artists  tend to settle.  We’ve met lots of young, interesting people, and enjoyed at least 10 trips a year to art-selling or exhibition locations where my work is being shown:  art fairs in Miami or fine craft fairs around the Northeast, international symposia in Europe or Asia.  It’s always more fun to travel with a purpose, we’ve found, and weaving art and travel together has been a hit, something my wife and I often do together.

Our marriage is no doubt stronger for having gone down the Semi-Re path.  I’m convinced a lot of marriages founder just out of need for more time and energy for each other, which can be so difficult to find when juggling full-time work, commutes and the inevitable life-maintenance overheads that everyone has to attend to.  We often look at full-time working friends, especially those at the lower rungs on the pay ladder and wonder how people can possibly hold it all together given the stresses.  So we recognize the gift we have been able to give ourselves of time, and the extra bit of cash it sometimes takes to keep irritants at bay:  a parking ticket doesn’t ruin our day or cause us to fight, but the irony is we have more time to drive around to find a parking spot in the first place so the issue just doesn’t come up.

Our social lives are active with rich friendships among people and couples of all age groups in our community.    We are active with community groups and volunteer for the things we care about, feeling connected to our town and the people in it.  There was never any time for this during the full-time work years.  Now I crop up regularlyin the local paper for one project or another, usually for helping bring sculptor friends’ work to our town for temporary installations around our parks and public areas.

All that probably sounds idyllic, and it is.  But there are things cropping up 15 years in which I feel warrant mentioning, since they have caught me somewhat off guard.  Not complaining, but simply put out there in the interest of full disclosure. 

My concerns are not financial – we have all we need and have kept our lifestyles in check.  Friends are definitely showing up with the flash cars (Maseratis and Teslas being the new It-Bag for my male peers) and some really nice 2nd and 3rd homes.  This is not a problem for me – I always knew it would happen and am not wired up to envy them or feel left out.

The issue that is concerning though comes down to questions of identity and accomplishment.  Getting out of the fast lane a decade or two before your peers means some of them will go on to become big dogs at a time when you’re feeling more like a Chihuahua.   (It’s really rare to be a big dog in the art world, especially for a late-bloomer like me.   Most artists subsist on the joy of creating and the satisfaction of nudging a body of work out into the public sphere to some admiring fans and a few sales.)  

I’ve always had the respect of my still-working friends – they like having a window into my aesthetic, alternative lifestyle and admire the chutzpah it took to walk out on the System and chart my own course.  Still, the fact is that on conventional metrics they have gone further and achieved more in their extra years, allowing them now, as they approach traditional retirement age, to play the next few decades at a level I had not really foreseen and which is in all fairness closed off to me. 

For example, friends who are embarking into their 60s with large career accomplishments are becoming directors of significant public companies, an idealsemi-retirement role.  Others who have done well financially are in a position to engage in philanthropy at a level I simply cannot.  In addition to the genuine good they are doing through their gifts they are invited into advisory roles where they can help steer the charities’ vision and activities, deeply meaningful for them and again, ideal for those in semi-retirement. 

These sorts of post-operational roles, which are available to those descending from visible traditional achievements in their professional lives, also carry distinction which keeps the older semi-retiree feeling valued, respected and useful in a significant way, and connected to other high-achievers.    At times my path can come up short in this area – I’m certainly appreciated and respected in the circle of people I’m involved with but that can sometimes feel rather quiet or small.  I did understand intellectually that this could happen, 15 years ago, and appreciate it’s the direct result of choices I’ve made to pursue a quieter, more introspective path, but I am experiencing what’s closing off now for the first time in a palpable way. 

Of course many readers will have no interest in embarking on any kind of high-profile semi-retirement activity.  Let me have a quiet place to do what I want and leave the living large to others!   But plenty of early-retirees got the savings to make that possible specifically because they are high-achieving, high-energy, even visionary people.  Now they want it all – relaxing more, yet still feeling connected and needed, and this simply might not be possible if you drift away from the limelight for an extended period. 

My own journey has been to finally follow my original credo and actually "Work Less, Live More"!  It is surprisingly refreshing to let go of all these needs for achievement and recognition.  Just getting less done and being OK with it, at last.  Is that so awful?

Given all this though my new extra advice for would-be early retirees, with the benefit of 15 years on this path is: Before shifting into the slow lane, for all its benefits, consider your own needs for recognition and impact - being valued-  and decide whether it’s going to be a fit for you long term, or whether you should opt for something closer to your original career, only in shorter-hour form- part-time, consultant, director.  That can let you hold onto the rolodex, the capital you have built within a field of work, and thus retain more of the recognition and engagement you may find you'd miss if you were to completely remove yourself to something entirely different.

 

10 Year Review

I had been blithely living my semi-retirement life now since 2001, and my book, first published in late 2005, has become a pleasant but not-often considered bit of my past.  So it came as a jolt when Robert Brokamp of the Motley Fool contacted me last week to say it had now been 10 years since the book's first edition and could I give him an update on how the portfolios had been doing, or any other insight as to how this semi-retirement thing looked a decade later.

I dug up some of the old data, reached out to Tom Orecchio at Modera Asset Management for some of the new asset class returns numbers, and spent an enjoyable few days re-immersing myself in financial models and the like.  I was pleased to see that the two Work Less Live More portfolios had acquitted themselves well in the official statistics, (I knew more or less how they were doing since I've followed them for my personal investing all along)

The numbers:  The Rational Investing Portfolio (RIP) with its full slicer-dicer 16 asset classes, slightly underperformed the simpler Sandwich Portfolio (8 mutual funds and a money market account) but both did well,  supporting 4% annual withdrawals, standing up to inflation and still leaving retirees better off in real terms than when the decade started.

RIP:  5.4% annual compounded return 2006-2015.  After 4% annual withdrawals (5.1% in 2009 because of the 95% Rule kicking in) and after adjusting for inflation, annual compounded return of 1.2%.  So you gained over 1% a year, in real terms, while still taking out 4% (or more) to live on each year.

Sandwich Portfolio:  6.2% annual compounded return 2006-2015.  After 4% annual withdrawals (5.0% in 2009 because of the 95% Rule kicking in) and after adjusting for inflation, annual compounded return of 2.1%.  Even better than RIP, mostly due it appears to its higher equity allocation and the lack of exposure to commodities and oil/gas.

Either way, we have been living our dreams, investing in a simple, hands-off and generally non-stressed manner, taking out annual withdrawals, and having even larger nest-eggs, in real terms, than when we started.  What's not to like?

 

One other area I emphasized with Robert Brokamp was the need to have an immersive set of experiences and challenges in semi-retirement:  you have left a high-stakes career, you have a good mind and good health, and if you don't have anything to do that excites you, then you won't be happy and you might as well have stayed at work.  It gives even more credence to the calls and strategies in the books for developing your interests and ensuring you look after the mental health side of your life.  For me it has been art- that all-consuming, life-enhancing field that provides endless puzzles (and frustration) as I work to move my second career forward, get my work to a quality that will be of interest to museums, sell enough of it to make it a viable business, etc.  For you it will likely be something else, but my strong advice 10 years after the book's publication is don't assume early retirement is one long vacation.  It needs more, so be sure to spend time building new challenges and activities for yourself.  This is especially true as you see your friends moving forward into bigger roles, big jobs, big paydays.  In 10 years or so they'll be retired, too, and wondering what hit them, but for now you're the one who might be feeling a little underwhelmed in the self-esteem department. Be proactive and you'll be fine, but you need to tackle this head-on. 

Finally, I wanted to share a funny nickname my book has acquired among the local Moms here in our town:  "More Husband, Less Money".  You've been warned. :-)

 

Welcome to the Work Less, Live More blog

I will try to get to blogging here, but for now, have a look at my sculpture website -- this is something I began doing after semi-retiring in 2001 at age 42 and have been really glad to fill my days and years with this rewarding activity.  If you're wondering what to do after early retirement, here is one example!  Bob Clyatt Sculpture.  I'm also a pretty reliable updater on Facebook where you can follow me on Bob Clyatt Sculpture.

Good luck with your semi-retirement planning!