A Fine Cornbread - Not THE Cornbread
When Mother made cornbread -- usually corn sticks and corn muffins -- my response was "Yippee." Cornbread was a treat, not a staple, at the table on our hard-working farm. Mother's cornbread belonged squarely in the southern/mountain/Appalachian "no sugar, no flour" species of the larger cornbread kingdom. I resisted sweet cornbread and corn muffins for years before I finally admitted the facts: Sweetness and cornbread can coexist peacefully, even delightfully, in the hands of the right cook.
Before I dig around in the meal bin of cornbread history just a bit, two things: Cornbread and summer vegetables like green beans and tomatoes make marvelous meals. Some wine advisors tout the wine-friendliness of corn in general, and certainly cornbread and light sparkly wines like Prosecco have won a place in my list of favorite wine-food pairings.
Hungry? If you are in a hurry, here is a recipe for cornbread in the traditional Kentucky black skillet style, moist and crusty, with no sugar and no flour.
Now for a bit more from the well-equipped larder of research and writing about corn, cornmeal, and cornbread. It turns out cornbread plays a pivotal cultural role in Kentucky's food history. I'm no historian, and this is not an academic website, but a crunchy bite or two may be interesting to you.
Cornbread supported self-sufficiency on small farms. With seeds, labor, decent land, and good luck with weather and pests, farm families could grow and process their own corn for their own bread year-round. Cornbread and other corn-based dishes made from dried, crushed or ground corn, could keep both humans and their work animals alive without a lot of help from the outside world.
Cornbread fit in farm women's work days. For a couple of centuries, a working woman on a small Kentucky farm worked with crops and animals, reared children, milked cows and managed the milk, grew enormous vegetable gardens, maintained an orchard, canned/dried/salted/pickled foods for winter, did laundry and made soap outdoors, and carried out who knows what other tasks necessary for sustaining life. That busy woman could leave the potato field in mid-morning, rebuild the fire in the wood cookstove by stoking the embers left from pre-dawn breakfast, make cornbread from ingredients the farm provided in about the time it took to heat the skillet, and have hot, fresh nourishment on the table before noon. Even before families had homes, stoves, and kitchens, cornbread could be cooked on a hoe over an open fire.
American Studies professor Elizabeth Engelhardt offers interesting comparisons of the social meaning of cornbread and wheat-based breads, especially beaten biscuits, in our part of the world. Her theories, and the evidence she offers for them, won't fit neatly here, but one aspect may be summed up as "Cornbread is the traditional food of people who are poorer and blacker; biscuits and wheat breads are the preferred foods of people who are whiter and had more wealth."
Ahhh, cornbread. Easy and good in whole grain versions, easily gluten-free, easily adaptable to include ingredients ranging from blackberries to habañero peppers, cheap, quick, forgiving, delicious, and even nutritious. I'll take you every time.
Good book resources: All the Southern Foodways Alliance "Cornbread Nation" collections of writings about southern food, and particularly Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South, edited by Ronni Lundy, which includes Elizabeth Engelhardt's "Beating the Biscuits in Appalachia: Race, Class, and Gender Politics of Women Baking Bread." (Tip of the rotary egg beater to LC for reminding me about this resource.)
Crescent Dragonwagon's cookbook-and-more, The Cornbread Gospels, offers an open-armed approach that embraces many different shapes and types of cornbread and includes recipes from around the world.
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