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Exploring Cornbread: History and Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Cornbread has a long and storied history.

Cornbread has a long and storied history.

A Heavenly Dish

The cast-iron skillet is as dark as coal dust, blackened by countless years on the wood stove. Today it holds a fragrant cake, hot from the oven. There is a faint crunching sound as a knife slices through golden crust. “Don’t touch,” grandma warns as I hover over the pan, breathing in the aroma. Steam rises as she removes a generous slab and places it on a plate. The air is filled with the fragrance of sweet corn and maple syrup. This is perfection.

There must be cornbread in Heaven.

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

My grandmother was born in 1870, but even 150 years ago, cornbread was not a new invention. Archeologists believe that corn originated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico 7,000 years ago where it was roasted, ground into meal, and formed into cakes and simmered in stews. But that corn was not what you find at your local produce stand. The corn that we love began as a wild grass with sparse seeds clinging to a sturdy stalk—a far cry from the plump kernels on sturdy cobs that we enjoy today.

The farmers of the past domesticated those ancient grasses through selective breeding—they carefully chose the seeds from the largest, plumpest, sweetest maize and planted them for the next year's harvest. In time, these hearty plants cross-pollinated and the best characteristics became dominant, resulting in what we now recognize as corn.

Archeologists believe that corn originated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico.

Archeologists believe that corn originated in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico.

Affixed by nature in a wondrous manner and in form and size like garden peas.

— Christopher Columbus

A Pocket Full of Gold

History books tell us that in the year 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of an easier passage to the Spice Islands. Although Columbus failed to find that magical passage, he did discover the New World and her wondrous bounty. Potatoes, squashes, chili peppers, cacao, pineapple, and maize were all among the culinary treasures supplied by the New World.

However, he forgot one significant piece of the puzzle. Anyone can grow maize, but once you have it, what do you do with it? According to Betty Fussell, author of "The Story of Corn," that little bit of knowledge kept thousands in Europe from utilizing corn to its full potential.

For those who actully cooked the stuff, cornmeal was hard going. Not only was corn obdurately hard to pound even to coarse meal, but the meal refused to respond to yeast. No matter how they cooked it, in iron or on bark or stone, corn paste lay flat as mud pies...Heaviness was a constant colonial complaint, which cooks sought to remedy by mixing cornmeal with the more finely ground flours of rye or wheat-when they could get them..."

— Betty Fussell

The Evolution of Cornbread

Corn was an essential part of the Colonial diet. It was easy to grow, even in the most unfavorable soil. And so it filled stomachs. But corn was not a substitute for the wheat and other grains of the Old World. European cooks followed the instruction of the native Americans and formed flat cakes of cornmeal, fat, and water.

In time, these home cooks were able to acquire additional ingredients to make the cakes more palatable. Yeast, eggs, and molasses changed the tasteless (though filling) cakes into something that more closely resembles the cornbread of today.

Boiled Corn Bread

According to Native American Recipes, the Iroquois made cornbread by pounding corn kernels into flour and then mixing in enough flour to make a stiff paste. Sometimes berries or nuts were added. The resulting small loaves were dropped into boiling water and cooked until the bread floated, very much like the dumplings that we make today. The same mix was also baked in fire pits or fried in sunflower oil.

Cornbread Cake

Cornbread Cake

Cornbread Cake

More cake than bread, this dish has a very tender crumb, tons of sweetness from brown sugar, and even bits of real corn. Spread some soft butter on top as soon as it comes from the oven. Why? Because it makes this perfect cake even perfect-er.

Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread

Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread

Cast-Iron Skillet Cornbread

Brittany is the creator of the blog MomWifeBusyLife and shares with us her mother-in-law's cornbread recipe. This is about as authentic as it gets. She even explains how to properly season the cast iron skillet so that the batter doesn't stick and you get a perfectly golden cake.

Cornbread Biscuits

Cornbread Biscuits

Cornbread Biscuits

I created this recipe for our Thanksgiving Day meal. Some of my guests wanted biscuits, while others asked for corn muffins—and yes, I heard from the dinner-roll fan club also. We certainly don't need or want three types of bread on the dinner table, so I combined all three.

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup shortening

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand 5 minutes or until foamy. Add to buttermilk and set aside.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Cut in shortening with pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in yeast/buttermilk mixture and knead just to bring together about 5 or 6 times.
  3. On a lightly floured surface, pat dough out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch round cutter. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Biscuits should be almost touching.
  4. Cover and set in warm, draft-free place for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake biscuits for 10-12 minutes or until browned.

Hoecakes

Legend tells us that hoecakes received their name because they were cooked on the edge of a hoe (clean, I hope) propped against a campfire. Jamie Deen, well-known author and cook on the Food Network, shares his favorite recipe with us.

Pumpkin Cornbread With Cinnamon Honey Butter

Pumpkin Cornbread With Cinnamon Honey Butter

Pumpkin Cornbread With Cinnamon Honey Butter

As I write this, the days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, and the trees are beginning to put on a dazzling display of color. Autumn is just around the corner. With Autumn, all thoughts turn to pumpkin—pumpkin bread, cookies, cake, and of course cornbread. Jaclyn (CookingClassy) has provided many great recipes for us and this one for pumpkin cornbread is also beautifully written and photographed. Pumpkin puree makes the bread moist and tender.

Savory Skillet Cornbread: Tomato Upside-Down Cake

Savory Skillet Cornbread: Tomato Upside-Down Cake

Savory Skillet Cornbread: Tomato Upside-Down Cake

I wasn't looking for a savory cornbread recipe, but the photo of this cake made me completely stop in my tracks. This stunner is the perfect showcase for heirloom tomatoes. They aren't mandatory, but just look at the beautiful color contrast they provide.

If you don't care for fresh dill, you can certainly leave it out. I would suggest fresh thyme or perhaps a dash or two of dry (not fresh) oregano.

The apotheosis of cornbread, the ultimate, glorified ideal; spoon bread, a steaming hot, feather-light dish of cornmeal mixed with butter, eggs, milk, and seasoning and lifted by the heat of the oven to a souffle of airiness.

— John Egerton

Sweet Corn Spoonbread

Sweet Corn Spoonbread

Sweet Corn Spoonbread

Stacey is the creator of SouthernBites, a cookbook author, and "true Southerner from a line of amazing cooks." He loves sharing his passion for cooking family favorites like this sweet corn spoonbread.

© 2018 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 02, 2020:

Yes, named angel biscuits because they contain yeast.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on January 02, 2020:

Hi Linda,

Are the cornbread biscuits the ones you were referring to as Angel biscuits?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 01, 2018:

Rodric, I must have looked at that recipe 101 times and never noticed that error. Thank you for pointing the omission out to me (and I have fixed it).

I always try to add some history or an interesting backstory to each of my articles. I'm so glad that you stopped by today. I post every Monday and Tuesday, and the 1st of each month.

Rodric Anthony from Peoria, Arizona on November 01, 2018:

I want to try that recipe you made up for the roll/biscuits/cornbread. In the instructions, I could not find where to add in the 1 cup of meal. I don't want to assume anything. I figure it is better to ask. I think I want to try making them this Thanksgiving. By the way, I love your delve into the history of corn and cornbread.

manatita44 from london on October 23, 2018:

Ok. I will look for your book. But how do you know about mines? Have you read it? I have one which you will truly love. It's called Maxims For Our Children: A Look at The Teachings of Jesus, The Christ. It's done in a profound Christian way, rather like that of the Saints and has lots of back-up quotes.

Alas! It sits on my computer, as does my poetry book called Blossoms of The Heart. I need a secretary, Linda. Care to visit? (Sweet chuckle)

Thank you for your kind words. I can excel at many things. At this stage in my life, I feel that God wants me to inspire humans to be conscious of the inner life. Poetry is a quick and easy way for me to do this. Love you, my Sweet Carb Diva.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 22, 2018:

My dear Manatita, actually I did write a book. If you look at my profile page you will find the details on how to buy it on Amazon. You are an amazing author, and your words bring tears of happiness and joy. Thank you so much my dear friend.

manatita44 from london on October 22, 2018:

Your ability to write and research does you proud here. I'm proud of you too. Actually you should write a book, not necessarily to do with cookery. You are the Queen here and would succeed at whatever you choose to do. Higher blessings.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 20, 2018:

Linda, thank you so much. My sweet tooth is asking me to make the sweet corn cake pretty soon, and I think the spoon bread might just find itself on my Thanksgiving Day table this year. Thanks for stopping by.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2018:

I haven't made cornbread in a long time, but I'm very tempted to after reading this article. The recipes that you've shared sound and look delicious. Thank you for sharing all of the information.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 16, 2018:

Eric, perhaps because of where you live tomatoes are always tasty. Up here in Washington State, especially in the cooler months of the year (when they don't grow fresh here but have to come from somewhere else) they never seem to have much flavor.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 16, 2018:

Dora, the cast iron skillet brings back memories of meals cooked ages ago, doesn't it? Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is always good to hear from you.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 16, 2018:

Linda you got me to look it up. We have great tomatoes here. Even in my garden two times a year if I am up to it.

And it seems that our county produces enough to not have to import. Interesting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 16, 2018:

All very interesting! The sight of the iron skillet predicts something above usual. The other recipes seem appealing too. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 16, 2018:

Eric, I know. It's gorgeous, isn't it? Someone said we eat with our eyes first. Now, if only I had a good tomato.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 16, 2018:

Great stuff here. I surely swooned over the heirloom tomato one. Off to the store I go.

Thanks for another great one.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Hi Kristen. I did not grow up in a "cornbread-loving" house. The introduction was a bit of fantasy (editorial license). But my dear father-in-law introduced me to the need and love for cornbread. We enjoy it and hope you might appreciate these new recipes.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 15, 2018:

Great cornbread recipes Linda. I've had cornbread cakes once or twice. I even made it myself. Would love to try other variations of it this fall.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Thank you, Peggy. They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 15, 2018:

I like a good moist piece of cornbread occasionally. The history you provided is interesting. You are quite the ingenious one combining biscuits, rolls, and cornbread together into one recipe. Congrats!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Flourish, Mr. Carb's dad was a tall Texan and loved his cornbread so this little Yankee gal had to learn how to make it. Thank you for your sweet words.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 15, 2018:

There’s a joke somewhere in there with those hoe cakes but I’ll leave that one alone. Cornbread is fairly common around here any time of year and my great grandmother loved spoonbread. I never thought I’d see it in this column! You are a true delight, Linda!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Shauna, cornbread is one of those things that just goes naturally with chili, I think. And, as our friend billybuc said this morning, we are deep into chili weather in the Pacific Northwest. It was almost freezing this morning.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Bill try the cornbread cake or the spoonbread and you won't be tasting sawdust.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 15, 2018:

Yum, cornbread! I don't think I've ever made it in anything but a cast iron skillet. You put syrup on yours, huh? I've always only put butter on it, but syrup sounds like a good idea too!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 15, 2018:

I like the taste of cornbread, but every time I've had it, it is so dry I feel like I'm swallowing sawdust. That makes it a turn off for me, obviously. :) What I need is you nearby so I can taste moist cornbread. :)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 15, 2018:

Good morning Ethel (it is still morning here in the Pacific NW). You are a new visitor to my page. Welcome. I note that you live in Kingston-Upon-Hull. I have family in Manchester, not too distant from you, correct?

Thank you for stopping by. I mostly write of food and food history. If you enjoy that type of thing I hope you will hover over my profile a page a bit.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on October 15, 2018:

You got me at that description of your grandmother’s cornbread. What an interesting hub and it has made me peckish.