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Exploring Cornbread: History and Recipes

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 the 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.

Who Invented Cornbread?

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. Bobby Deen, a 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