Editor's Note: On March 9, 2017, Kathleen Purvis won the First Place Thomas Wolfe Award for Outstanding Writing, given by the North Carolina Associated Press for this story. The piece was also named Best Feature by the North Carolina Press Assoicaiton.
If you stop by La’Wan’s Soul Food Restaurant in south Charlotte for collards and macaroni & cheese, there’s something important on your plate.
It’s a small cornbread muffin. Soft and tender, almost cake-like, with a bit of chewiness to the crust and a flavor that’s just a little sweet.
Now drive over to Lupie’s Cafe on Monroe Road and you’ll get a big square of cornbread, 3 inches across, white with a yellow tinge. Firm, almost coarse, with a crisp top.
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Sweet? Not a bit. It’s defiantly not sweet.
La’Wan’s corn muffin and Lupie’s cornbread are humble things. But they represent something deeper: The dividing line between black Southerners and white ones. As examples of one of the defining staples of Southern food, they also are a marker of food history that speaks volumes about origins and identity, about family and what we hold dear.
It also raises a question: So many Southern food traditions are shared by both races. Most Southerners, black and white, revere fried chicken, pursue pork barbecue and exalt their grandmothers’ garden vegetables. So why is there such a fundamental difference between two styles of one basic bread?
Culinary historians have debated this one for years: Did the descendants of slave cooks who were exposed to British baking styles come to value cornbread that was lighter and softer? Did the children of farm-based white Southerners get used to unsweetened cornbread that tasted more emphatically like corn? Whatever caused it, the line is drawn.
“You have to have sugar in your tea and your cornbread,” says La’Wan Adams, the owner of La’Wan’s. “People will ask, ‘Is it like Jiffy? Is it like cake?’”
If you are white, you likely fall into the camp of Lupie Duran, the retired owner of Lupie’s.
“To me, sweet cornbread is like Jiffy mix. And that’s not the Southern kind. No sugar. It’s not my thing.”
In the beginning, nothing was sweet
In African-American foodways these days, the go-to guy is Michael Twitty. Based in Maryland, he’s an author, food scholar and cooking re-enactor who focuses on the cooking of slaves at places like the Stagville historic site near Durham.
He’s very familiar with the cornbread divide.
At last fall’s Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Miss., an annual gathering on Southern culture, Twitty was on stage as part of a food version of “Family Feud.” One question: “Name something Southerners do not put in their cornbread.” His reply cracked up the audience.
“I said, ‘Do you want the white answer or the black answer?’ Everybody knew exactly what I meant.”
Truthfully, though, Twitty finds the answer more complicated. In the beginning – and for Twitty, that goes back further than Emancipation – no breads made with cornmeal were sweet, no matter who was making them.
What we call cornbread today, puffy and leavened with egg, was corn pone. It originated with British colonists who adapted their baking to meal ground from white corn. But it wasn’t sweet.
Most people in the South, from white farmers to slaves, made multiple forms of cornmeal breads. Baked corn pones, skillet-baked Johnny cakes, ash cakes and hoe cakes cooked on hoe blades or griddles – “hoe” was an 18th century word for a griddle. Whatever they made, they kept a syrup bottle on the table, usually cane syrup or sorghum molasses, to pour on it.
“Why would you put sugar in something? It was a valuable commodity,” he says. “They didn’t need to put sugar in it, they used molasses on everything. That was the poor man’s condiment. Quick energy, quick carbohydrate, and a source of iron in the diet.”
Twitty has seen antebellum recipes with the names of black cooks attached to them that were cake-like cornbreads, usually baked for the gentry. But that wasn’t everyday cooking.
“This was celebration cornbread, this wasn’t the everyday hoe cake,” he says.
From the ground up
To be sure, today’s cornbread lines have gotten fuzzy. There are sweet cornbread fans in the white camp, and non-sweet cornbread fans among African-Americans. But the two styles are distinctive enough to make anyone who pays attention wonder how the racial difference started.
The most common theory is a change in cornmeal itself. Until early in the 20th century, Southern cornmeal was made with sweeter white corn and it was water-ground.
When industrial milling came along, that changed. The steel-roller mills used yellow corn that was harvested before it was ripe, so it had less sugar. They eliminated the germ so it kept longer, but it had less corn flavor. And they ground it finer. You had to add a little flour to help it rise and sugar to add flavor.
Yellow cornmeal was cheap, though. So black cooks who had little money may have changed their cornbread to match the cornmeal they could afford. Toni Tipton Martin’s new book, “The Jemima Code,” on the history of African-American cookbooks, shows that in the 19th century, books by Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher showed no sugar in the cornbread recipes. By 1912, in “The Kentucky Cookbook” by Mrs. W.T. Hayes, the cornbread called for 1 tablespoon sugar.
By 1936, she says, “The Eliza Cookbook,” by the Negro Culinary Arts Club, called for 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup cornmeal and 1 cup flour – a recipe similar to today’s cornbread mixes like Jiffy. Martin thinks black cooks were influenced by those.
What about the claim that sweet cornbread is Northern? Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” thinks that association started with the Great Migration, when blacks moved North in search of better jobs in the early 20th century. In the North, where they would have only had industrially milled cornbread, the sugar habit got even more entrenched, then came back to the South with the rise of soul food restaurants.
“I keep going back and forth between Southern and soul (food),” he says. “And sugar in cornbread is one of those demarcation points.”
Keeping it simple
If sweet cornbread vs. non-sweet is just a matter of taste, why do people get so adamant about it? Ask many white Southerners about sweet cornbread and they become apoplectic: “That’s not cornbread, that’s cake.”
Actually, the cake-not-cornbread line may have originated with cookbook author Ronni Lundy. A Louisville native who now lives in Burnsville, she has a new book on mountain cooking, “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey With Recipes,” coming out next fall.
In a story in Esquire in the 1980s, she wrote this: “If God had meant cornbread to have sugar, he would have made it cake.” Over the years, though, she has learned that the sugar question can be divisive.
At a literary dinner in the 1990s, a black colleague told her, “ ‘Your cornbread is rich people’s cornbread.’ She was talking about yellow meal vs. white meal.” Lundy’s working-class white family in Kentucky grew white corn and always preferred white cornmeal, which didn’t need sugar and had the taste they expected.
The issue resonates strongly for her today as personal identity.
“For me, we don’t put sugar or flour in our cornbread in the mountain South because those were things we’d have to buy, or we’d have to be beholdened to someone for. Your daily bread was things you could grow yourself. When I taste the bread of my mother and forebears, it resonates for me culturally as an act of independence. Corn is an individual’s ability to feed him or herself.”
For both races, the insistence that cornbread taste like what our mothers and grandmothers made is a part of us, absorbed from our earliest memories.
“Cleaving to what our mothers fed us, what our grandmothers fed us, is a way to honor us. We cling to it fiercely,” Lundy says.
The debate over sweet vs. non-sweet cornbread, says Michael Twitty, is part of a richer conversation.
“It’s a lot deeper than it appears,” he says. “It’s actually a gauge of who gets to call what’s Southern ‘Southern.’
“So often, what is Southern, how is Southern, why is Southern has been determined by Southern white people. It is part of the larger discussion of whether or not you see Southern culture from the perspective of the big house or the slave quarters. We’re still having this argument 100 years later, but we’re using different vehicles to have it. Including cornbread.”
Adapted from Gourmet magazine. It uses butter instead of the bacon grease that’s common in many traditional skillet cornbreads. It’s essential to use stone-ground yellow cornmeal and good-quality buttermilk.
1 1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups well-shaken buttermilk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place a well-seasoned 9- to 9 1/2-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to heat. Stir together the cornmeal, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk.
Remove the hot skillet from the oven and add the butter, swirling gently to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet. Whisk the melted butter into the buttermilk mixture. Return the skillet to the oven.
Stir the cornmeal mixture into the buttermilk just until moistened. (Don’t overmix, a few lumps are OK.) Scrape the batter into the hot skillet, return to the oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden. Invert the skillet over a platter and cool bread for a few minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 to 8 wedges.
Sweetened Buttermilk Cornbread
From “A Real Southern Cook In Her Savannah Kitchen,” by Dora Charles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Over the years, as cornbread mixes caught on, many cornbreads got lighter, with a softer texture.
4 slices bacon (more if it’s very lean)
2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup self-rising flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup water
2 large eggs
About 2 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Adjust racks to the upper and lower positions.
Cook the bacon in an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet until it is crisp and fat is rendered. Pour the fat into an heat-proof glass measuring cup; you’ll need about 1/3 cup. (If you need more, cook a little more bacon.) Set the bacon aside for another use, or crumble it to add to the cornbread. Return the skillet to the oven.
Stir together the cornmeal, flour and sugar in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Add the buttermilk and water and mix well. Add the eggs and mix well.
Add 2 tablespoons bacon fat to the hot skillet and roll it around to coat the pan. Mix the remaining bacon fat into the cornbread batter. Add the crumbled bacon if you’re using it. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and place in the oven on the lower rack. Bake about 20 minutes, until just set.
Move the skillet to the top rack and continue baking until lightly brown with cracks on top, 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and rub the top generously with the butter. Serve hot, cut in wedges.
Yield: 6 servings.