The first baked goods I ever mastered was cornbread, that iconic quick bread so loved by just about everyone in American, especially in the South.
Cornbread was a dinner staple in my home growing up, and I suppose that’s why my mother was so adamant about me learning to make it. It may have also had something to do with cornbread being my favorite snack at the time, and therefore I was always requesting her to make it. Shortly after my tenth birthday, I received my first lesson in the art of making cornbread–one I remember to this day.
Like so many of America’s early country “chefs,” my mother (affectionately called “Sugar” by me, my sister, and most of our friends) didn’t own many of the smallwares and utensils so seemingly indispensable in today’s kitchens. And that included a proper set of measuring cups and spoons. Instead, like her mother and grandmother, she used a teacup and teaspoon from our table service. So as “Sugar” stood next to me in the small kitchen of our frame tract home, my lesson went something like this:
“Get that large green mixing bowl and put in one and a little more than half a cup of cornmeal. No, no, that’s too much . . . that’s better. Now add about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda and a slightly heaping teaspoon of baking powder. Okay, add half a teaspoon of salt, and stir everything together.
Alright, crack an egg into the meal and be careful not to get any shell in it. Now add about a cup and a half of buttermilk and about half of the hot bacon grease from the skillet. Stir the whole thing until smooth. Good, good!”
Then she had me sprinkle some cornmeal into the melted grease left in her cast iron skillet. Only after the meal was nicely browned was I allowed to add the batter and place the skillet in the oven. After about 20 or 25 minutes it was done–tender and fluffy on the inside with a crisp, deep mahogany crust on the outside. It was this crust that my father loved to cut off, slather with gobs of “butter” (actually margarine because it was cheaper), and eat with his supper. Sometimes he’d drown a large piece of buttered cornbread with molasses and eat it for dessert.
I, not being a huge fan of molasses, enjoyed another of my father’s cornbread rituals–crumbling it into a bowl, pouring ice cold buttermilk over it, and eating it like cereal. Man, it just doesn’t get much better than that!
Many people credit the rural South for creating cornbread when in reality we can thank the Native Americans for its humble beginning.
By the end of the thirteenth century, the cultivation of corn had spread throughout the middle and eastern parts of America and as far north as southeastern Canada. Corn was a major food staple for the Native Americans, who were roasting it, grinding it into meal, and turning it into all kinds of cakes, breads, and porridges long before the first European set foot on our shores. As the local Indians introduced early colonists to corn, they also showed them numerous ways of using it, including making a bread called “pone” (or sometimes referred to as “Indian pone”) made of cornmeal (Indian meal), salt, and water. This was the first cornbread.
Soon colonists begin developing their own recipes for “cornbread,” referring to them by any number of names–ashcakes, hoecakes, journey cakes, johnnycake, and dodgers, to mention a few. These names varied by region and community, as did the differentiation in recipes.
One reason cornbread has always been so popular is that flour and yeast–commodities that were once expensive and hard to get–are not needed. Another is that making cornbread is quick because it does not need to rise, as do yeast breads. Cornbread was the bread of life for America’s rural poor and working class.
Today cornbread is enjoyed by everyone throughout the United States, with as many recipes as there are people who make it, although the basic ingredients–cornmeal, eggs, oil, and milk–remain the same. This is particularly true in the South and Southwest where it has become a traditional staple with many uses, from a side dish for barbecue, chili, and various legumes (such as pinto beans, butter beans, and blackeyed peas), to stuffing for chicken, turkey, and pork.
Northern and Southern cornbread differ in several ways, from the preference in types of cornmeal used (yellow cornmeal in the North; white in the South), to the amount of eggs and sugar in the recipe. Northerners typically use a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal and flour, making the finished product lighter with a more cake-like consistency. Southerners tend to use little if any flour. And contrary to the beliefs of many, sweet cornbread is not limited to people in the North. Actually, the practice of adding sugar began in the South, although tastes in this region seem to run more to the savory side. Southerner’s also tend to favor buttermilk in the batter as well as the use of flavorings such as corn kernels, chilies, cracklings, or green onions. And finally, it is traditional in the South to bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet using hot bacon grease to give it a distinctly crunchy crust, whereas Northerners prefer vegetable oil and square metal or glass baking dishes. Having grown up in the South and Southwest, I tend to be partial to sugarless cornbread, although I do prefer yellow course ground cornmeal.
Today “Sugar’s” black cast iron skillet hangs in my kitchen, having been a gift from her in the mid-1990’s shortly before she passed on to her heavenly home. And although I do own a set of measuring cups and spoons, I continue to measure the ingredients for her cornbread recipe using a tea cup and a teaspoon from my stainless flatware set.