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.
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. So why is there such a fundamental difference between two styles of one basic bread?
Culinary historians have debated this one for years.
The sweet side
“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?’”
The non-sweet side
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.”
Blurred bread lines
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.
Symbolism of sweetness
The debate over sweet vs. non-sweet cornbread, says author and food scholar 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.”