Cornbread is a staple food in the Southern U.S., but this food item has a global history. Today, it is made in various ways and called different names, and it has been elevated to a higher status via a little bit of sugar.
— By John Jacobs
It would be difficult to find a home in the southern United States that does not have multiple bags of cornmeal in the pantry. The reason is quite simple. Cornbread is a beloved food that accompanies everything from a hearty bowl of white beans or chili to a feast of BBQ with a side of turnip greens.
Though Southerners think of cornbread as their own, the history of cornbread says otherwise. Globally, cornbread is called by different names and cooked in a multitude of ways, but all versions of recipes have one thing in common – ground white or yellow corn.
To really appreciate cornbread, you have to know its history and its important role in keeping diverse people satisfied through the centuries.
Cooking on the Flat Side of a Hoe
Cornmeal, or ground corn, has been a staple food for thousands of years. Though Southern cornbread recipes usually call for a number of ingredients, history shows cornmeal can be turned into one of the simplest breads on earth. Mix some water and salt with the cornmeal and fry it in butter or oil or cook the mixture over an open fire.
Native Americans were making cornbread when the Europeans first arrived in North America, and it was the basic version of cornmeal, water, and salt. Yeast is not needed because of the corn properties. The Europeans adopted the recipe, and cornbread became a favorite food in North America. Its popularity really grew in the mid-1800s when corn became cheap due to plentiful crops.
Europeans may have adopted cornbread, but American slaves and white farmers perfected the recipes, and there were plenty of variations.
The terms describing various forms of cornmeal breads are like music – skillet-baked Johnny cakes, baked corn pones, hoe cakes, ash cakes, and on it goes. Hoe was a term for a griddle, but historians say the griddle was originally the flat side of a gardening hoe. People of limited means did not add sugar to the cornbread because sugar was a luxury item. Instead, corn pones or slices of cornbread were covered with molasses or sorghum syrup perhaps.
Wealthier people who had more access to a variety of ingredients took the poor person's recipe and added egg, sugar, milk, and other ingredients to make a puffier corn bread compared to the simple flat corn pone.
A debate that continues to this day is whether adding a couple of tablespoons of sugar makes a traditional Southern cornbread. American slaves and poor farmers did not add sugar, making their recipes the same as the recipe of Native Americans. It is difficult to not take a stand and say "no sugar" for historically authentic cornbread.
As for mixing cornmeal and flour, it reflects a change from using white corn to yellow corn when the industrial milling process started. Yellow corn is ground finer and needs flour to help it rise.
The residents of America's British colonies introduced cornmeal to Europe in the 17th century but called it Indian meal which then became maize. The word corn covered all types of grains. Every cook of cornbread today swears by their personal recipe that was "just like my grandmother made" and she got it from her mother. Ingredients include buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, cheese, jalapenos and rendered bacon fat.
Same Recipe – Different Century – Different Country
Using cornmeal in bread products is something people have been doing for thousands of years.
The Aztecs and Mayans made tortillas out of ground corn and water. The mix was cooked over an open fire or in a hearth. This proved to be an enduring cornbread since you can now buy packages of corn tortillas.
Cornmeal is also used to make mush, a filling dish that continues to provide nourishment. The cornmeal mush is called by different names in African countries. In South Africa, it is mealie pap. In Zimbabwe, it is sadza. In Kenya, it is ugali. Whatever it is called, the recipe calls only for adding boiling water to cornmeal and kneading it over heat with a utensil until cooked to the desired consistency. Once cooked, bits of it is shaped into a ball in which an indentation is made to scoop stew or meats. Ugali is known as polenta in other parts of the world.
India is not to be left out. Makki di roti (bread of maize) is a flat bread made from yellow cornmeal that is found mostly in the Punjabi region. This leads to another point about cornbread. It can be fairly hard and very flat or puffy and crumbly.
Cornbread is best when cooked in a heavy pan, like an iron skillet. It is served with just about any kind of meal, too. Johnny cakes are like pancakes made with corn meal and make a filling breakfast.
Look Around the Corner
Slice a big cornmeal out of a round skillet, slather it with butter or honey, and make it a meal with boiled greens. Crumble some cornbread into a bowl of chili or soup or beans. Cook crispy cornsticks in a cornstick pan (iron pan with five impressions that look like corn).
Though cornbread is not always easy to find when traveling, like in France, there is always a little place around the corner serving it. This is said with great confidence. As people become more global and more mobile, bread made with cornmeal could become the great uniter of humankind.
Perhaps that is putting too many expectations on a humble food, but it is worth thinking about. After all, cornbread has survived through thousands of years and crossed continents, and that says a lot.