Growing up, all I knew about cornbread was that it came in a box with Jiffy on the label.
Now that I live in the South, Ive been introduced to the wider world of cornbread. Not only is there the iconic bread baked in a cast-iron skillet, there are corn fritters, pancakes, hoecakes, muffins and corn sticks baked in a special mold to resemble ears of corn. Theres a variety in Kentucky and Tennessee called corn light bread, which is baked in a pudding mold and comes out like angel food cake. And then, of course, hush puppies are a whole other clan in the cornbread family.
Its no wonder Southerners have developed such a fondness for the bread that at its most basic is made with cornmeal, flour and water. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes that among the first things pioneer farmers in the South did was plant corn and raise pigs. After the Civil War, most Southern mills were better at milling ground corn, not wheat. And so cornbread, more than biscuits and yeast breads, came to grace tables throughout the South. Even after flour became more widely available, cornbread remained a staple.
My mother made cornbread almost every single day, said James Beard award-winning cookbook author James Villas, of his late mother, Martha Pearl, who lived in Charlotte. Mother and son wrote three cookbooks together, and Villas covers cornbread in its many forms in his new book, Southern Fried: More than 150 Recipes for Crab Cakes, Fried Chicken, Hush Puppies and More.
As with many foods, Southerners argue about how to best make cornbread. There are two points of contention: White cornmeal or yellow? Sugar or no sugar?
Former PBS cooking show host Nathalie Dupree, whose 720-page cookbook Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking won a James Beard Award this year, discovered while reporting a story in Alabama that the white cornmeal-yellow cornmeal debate varied from county to county.
I just think its kind of what you grew up with. I use whatever is around, said Dupree, who is, however, not ambivalent about the sugar debate.
I do not approve of adding sugar, she said. To me, corn is sweet enough on its own.
Villas is a bit more open-minded about sugar in his cornbread: I do like a little bit for better off or worse of sugar in my corn sticks.
No matter where you stand in the cornbread debates, the colder weather makes this the perfect time of year to discover that theres more to cornbread than what comes in a box.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl
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