Southern by the grace of cornbread!

Posted on February 23, 2011 by


Thinking about Craig’s post from the other day, I remembered something I’ve been meaning to post about cornbread… yes, cornbread.

Now cornbread has become known as something distinctly “Southron”, but appears to  have origins with the Native People of what is now the southeastern U.S. (references vary, but among those suggested as originators are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, or Creek peoples). I don’t think folks give much of a thought to the history that far back, which is a shame, but, that’s another story for another time.

I’ll tell you up front, I like my cornbread just fine, but prefer it made with a little sugar (and yes, I still make it in a cast-iron skillet… a well-seasoned skillet at that… going back, at least, to my great grandmother). Yes, I know, some folks think that by adding sugar, cornbread just isn’t Southern. Well, sorry, but I disagree. The basic recipe is the same, but I just add sugar. It’s a branch-off from the original, but at it’s core, it’s still Southern.

Actually, this debate over cornbread reminds me of the debate behind the interpretations of what is and what is not Southern, in relation to the American Civil War. Frankly, the South was the South before the Civil War. The culture that was that of the South was not made by the war, but existed before. As the war came around, Southern culture saw splintering over politics and perceptions of where things stood with them and their affiliation with the Union. Some reasons seem clean enough, but some aren’t so pretty for denying that affiliation. Still, I guess you could say that the “Confederate branch” is not that different from the way sugar is added to cornbread. It’s another interpretation of part of the story of being Southern, but it isn’t THE story of being Southern. In fact, that “branch” is no different than the other branches… namely those associated with Southern Unionists, free blacks, slaves, Native People, “leave-aloners”, etc. At the core, most of these people had been Southern first, but their preference in flavor differed. Alas, they were human!

So, why is it that “Southern”, “Southern heritage”, and “Southern culture” are being hijacked by Confederate celebrationists? Sure, all that’s a part of the Confederate story, but so too is it part of the story of all the others I just mentioned…once again… Southern Unionists, free blacks, slaves, Native People, “leave-aloners”, etc.  So, are they telling us, as Southerners, that if we don’t embrace our Confederate heritage… and in the way that they suggest we embrace it… we are not real Southerners? Shall we also shun all that which is Southern, but not Confederate?

Personally, I savor the differences in Southern heritage. Each element has a distinct flavor, but I don’t deny, at the core, the Southerness of the overall product… food or culture.

The South and the Southern story is so much richer for its diversity.

Well, all this writing has made me hungry.

As much as I’d like to share the cornbread fresh out of my oven, there just isn’t enough to go around.

So, in the spirit of Southern hospitality, I don’t want to send you on your way without giving you something. Here’s what I have for you…

This little piece is something I grabbed from the Page Courier (Luray, Va.), from January 26, 1893. Enjoy, and please keep in mind while reading what I’ve said… and that this piece does come from a very different time than today…

The Virginia receipt for making the corncake is after this wise: For a family of six persons to four well beaten fresh eggs, add one pint of buttermilk or unskimmed clabber (otherwise known as loppered milk or the natural sour curd) in which are dissolved one teaspoonful of soda as much cornmeal as will make a batter that will pour easily, and a scant tablespoonful of lard heated to the boiling point, a sufficiency of salt having been thrown into the meal before mixing, it being remembered that salt is an essential in all corn breads, beat quickly and thoroughly, taking care that all lumps are mashed; pour into a well-greased pan and bake in a quick oven from twenty to thirty minutes, or until the crust is of a rich dark brown; turn out from the pan and serve hot, cutting in squares or wedges, as the shape of the pan may suggest; split and butter. Or this cake may be baked in small patty pans. It is eaten at breakfast.

A favorite bread for the mid-morning luncheon, taken in the summer by Southern families who have dinner at the inconvenient hour of 3 o’clock in the afternoon, is what is known as ‘risen corn bread.’ This is made up the evening previous with hot water. The dough undergoes a process of gentle fermentation, and when baked is slightly sweet to the taste. It generally appears in small oval pones, and these split while hot, buttered cooled on ice make a delicate and wholesome repast.

A popular but homely bread for the evening meal in Virginia is what is called ‘scratch-back,’ from the roughness of its surface. It is of white cornmeal, make up with milk and eggs and a little melted lard into a dough which is moderately stiff and is dropped from a large iron spoon to fall as it may in a well heated and meal-dusted pan, thrust into a quick oven and baked brown.

To be enjoyable ‘scratch-backs’ must be split, buttered and eaten while steaming hot, as chilling or coloring impairs the richness of their flavor. A buttered ‘scratch-back,’ with a cup of milk, is frequently the Southern schoolboy’s supper.

Cornmeal griddle cakes, or ‘flapjacks,’ made up with milk and eggs, are esteemed a delicacy by invalids at the South, and taken with tea by convalescents, are regarded as safe and nutritious.

In former times – and doubtless at the present – the pork-killing season in Virginia was accentuated by a ‘crackling pone’ for the negroes’ supper. This was a great loaf made of cornmeal, enriched with the residium from frying out lard. To the colored helpers the ‘hog killin’ would have been sadly lacking in completeness of enjoyment without the ‘crackling pone’ to soothe or disturb their midnight digestion.

These are some of the many cakes made of cornmeal in Virginia. It will be observed that in none of them is sugar used. There are cornmeal puddings served with sweet sauces, but no Southern cook would risk the spoiling of her corn breads by sweetening them.”

*How about that last line… whoever wrote this didn’t think much of sugar in combination with cornmeal either. Ha!

**… and yes, I did make that cornbread you see in the picture above, while I was writing this!