Sweet, Light, Crispy, Sturdy
Just as there is no singular recipe for Southern fried chicken, there is no definitive way to make cornbread. The other night, I had the pleasure of talking about this beloved bread to a group of enthusiastic tasters here at the library. It was fun to comb through cookbooks and Internet postings to find recipes, and even more fun to bake and share the results.
Cornbread is truly an American dish because its source is a grain native to the Americas. Native Americans mixed cornmeal and water into little cakes that were baked in ashes.
Enter the Scots-Irish immigrants and other “backcountry borderland” people (read Albion’s Seed) who headed for the hills of Appalachia and the South more than any other area. They were accustomed to oats. Porridge, oatcakes, scones. Oats like the cooler weather across the pond. The New World’s native corn grew better and — as I would imagine — was a whole lot easier to harvest than oats. The settlers adapted and adopted. It’s easy to see how the Scotsman’s oatmeal porridge became the Southerner’s grits. And it’s not too farfetched to imagine oatcakes and scones becoming little cakes of cornbread.
While cornbread can be found on tables throughout the United States, it reigns supreme in the South. It probably got a good start and took hold because wheat flour was not as readily available until after 1860 (according to A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge).
While there’s no one perfect cornbread recipe, there is a regional difference. In the North, cornbread tends to be sweet and light — by light I mean it contains a high amount of flour. Northern cornbread calls for varying amounts of sugar. And here in the Midwest, honey is the expected partner to cornbread.
On the other hand, Southern bread is heavier and a bit more sturdy. Southern cornbread contains mostly cornmeal and it isn’t sweet. I say “tends” because you can find exceptions for every rule. Southerners do like their sugar. Southern cornbread will have a crispier crust, owing to the use of cast iron skillets, precious implements often passed from one generation to the next. The technique of heating a cast iron skillet until the batter sizzles helps the bread achieve that characteristic crispy-to-crunchy crust. More unique to the South is hot water bread — little cakes fried in hot oil. The batter is moistened with boiling water instead of milk.
In the South, cornbread hot and buttered is a necessary accompaniment to the main course. It’s used to soak up “pot likker” from a mess of greens or to shove the remaining purple hull peas onto one’s fork. Leftover cornbread gets dry and crumbly, so fresh bread is often made at each meal. Nothing’s wasted, though. Leftover bread is often crumbled into a tall glass to which buttermilk or plain milk is added. This makes a fine supper or snack.
What I make at home is most definitely Southern cornbread and I have two hand-me-down cast iron skillets and one cast iron griddle, all beautifully blackened from years of use. But like those settlers who had to adapt to their new home, I’ve learned to make do with Midwestern cornbread. If it’s offered to me, I will take a piece and say “thank you.” But I will pass on the honey.