“You can put in baking powder. You can put in cracklings. You can even add jalapenos and bake it in a muffin tin. But whatever you do, don’t you dare put sugar in my cornbread!” — I used to say, and write, that with pride.
Then two things changed.
One: Michael Twitty of “The Cooking Gene” fame schooled me. White people didn’t have to put sugar in their cornbread because they had good-quality cornmeal. Mostly lower-quality cornmeal was available to black people, historically, and they needed the sugar — or molasses or honey or whatever flavoring they had to hand — to make it more palatable.
Two: I visited Dye’s Lowcountry Cooking in Hilton Head, South Carolina and ate her amazing “sweet tater” cornpone with sugarcane syrup poured on top. I haven’t learned to make it yet, but it’s on the list for sure.
Now I know, there are as many ways to cook cornbread as there are people who eat it.
The word cornpone, according to “Appalachian Home Cooking” author Mark Sohn, came from the native Appalachians, who called it “apone” or “apan.” They passed it on the sacred food to white Appalachians, along with every other knowledge we needed to survive in these mountains.
Sohn says, rightly I believe, that corn is like manna, and the tribal legends from around the world of the creation of corn support this view. Made with bacon grease or lard, fried in butter or baked in ashes, cornbread nourishes.
In the days after the American Revolution, corn and cornbread were a daily symbol of independence from the wheat-loving British. One hundred years later, the great improvers of the so-called “Progressive Era” tried to shame mountain people into eating only wheat flour biscuits.
Elizabeth Engelhardt explains in her “Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South” essay, “Beating the Biscuits in Appalachia: Race, Class, and Gender Politics of Women Baking Bread,” how turn-of-the-century progressivists May Stone and Katherine Pettit worked to purge cornbread from the kitchens of families living along the forks of Kentucky’s Troublesome Creek.
“The biscuit, in other words, marked middle- and upper-class status in 1900,” according to Engelhardt.
Cornbread was a mark of poverty.
Eventually, Appalachians did adopt the biscuit, and even in my mind improved it. But we have never forsaken the simple cornpone.
Cornbread has sustained the mountain people of the Southeast through the frontier days and the Great Depression. It went with us to cities like Detroit and Cincinnati during the diaspora, when many Hillbillies left the land and the coal mines for urban tenements and factories.
Cornbread, you see, is about about crust, not tender crumb. It tells a sometimes hard story of poverty and suffering, of ceaseless labor and the prejudices of outsiders. But it will soak up a potlikker, and melt in your mouth, too.
There are few things that taste as good to me as my granny’s beef roast shredded into a bowl of its own au jus and sopped up with cornbread. Few memories are as sweet as my popaw before bedtime smiling as he ate buttermilk and cornbread at the kitchen table. And no other aroma calls me home like a thick yellow batter baking in black iron.
You can eat cathead biscuits with soup beans, if that’s all the bread you’ve got. But it won’t be as good as soup beans sopped up with a crusty wedge of cornpone. Neither will greens or fried potatoes, or even venison stew, reveal their best qualities without the foil of good cornbread.
This is the essential bread of my granny’s kitchen, and of mine.
Special equipment: A well-seasoned 12-inch cast iron skillet or a 9-by-9 glass baking dish
Ingredients: 3 C. plain cornmeal
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 TBS lard, butter or shortening
About 2 cups milk or buttermilk (buttermilk is better)
1 or 2 TBS butter
Instructions: Place cast iron skillet in the lower-middle rack of oven. Preheat to 475 degrees. Skip the preheating step if using a glass baking dish and turn heat down to 400 or so.
Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl, then cut in lard or shortening either with a pastry knife or a large fork. The shortening should form small peas throughout the cornmeal, but don’t fuss over it. Add eggs and 1 cup milk and mix. Keep adding milk slowly until the batter is loose and easy to stir, but not soupy. Don’t fuss over this, either. A little less or more will change the texture of the cornbread some, but it won’t be a disaster either way. Cornbread is very forgiving.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven, drop in the butter and swirl it around the pan. Pour in the batter. It should hiss and begin cooking right away (Don’t preheat the glass dish, just spray the cold pan with cooking spray, pour in the batter and bake).
Smooth the top of the batter, dot with extra butter if you like, and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown You can cook it to a deeper brown for a crunchy pone — it’s a matter of personal taste. To check doneness, pierce the middle of the pone with a knife. If it comes out clean, it’s ready. If not, bake a little longer.
Serving: Cool, cut into wedges and serve as bread with dinner. It’s especially good with wilt sallet, or any cooked greens and fried potatoes. My personal favorite is to eat cornbread with pot roast. For a dessert, you can serve wedges hot, topped with butter and honey or molasses. For a midnight snack, do what my popaw did: Crumble cold cornbread into a glass of buttermilk and eat with a spoon.
Storing: Cornbread freezes very well if cut into wedges and stored in a plastic freezer bag. Take out as many wedges as you need, wrap loosely in paper towels and reheat in the microwave – no longer than 30 seconds for one wedge, or 1 minute for 2 to 4 wedges. Recipe serves 6 to 8.