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Sometimes portrayed as a classic Southern food, cornbread is actually a true American food. There are as many variations on this quick bread made from cornmeal, eggs and oil, as there are people who make it. Recipes vary from region to region, although the basic ingredients remain the same.
Cornbread has its origins in the very earliest American history. Native Americans who grew corn were well acquainted with its versatility and used it for cakes, breads, and porridges. They shared their knowledge with the European settlers and corn became a staple food before wheat was established in the New World. The first breads settlers made with corn meal were baked in open hearths, sometimes on planks or other implements, and often called “ash cake.” As cooking methods improved, settlers started using their sturdy cast-iron skillets to bake the breads, known by such names as journey-cake, johnny cake, hoe-cakes, dodgers, spoon bread, and a variety of other appellations.
One of the great advantages of cornbread is that it keeps well and does not need to rise like yeast breads do. This was a big plus in frontier cooking. As it gradually became more widely consumed, variations on the recipe sprang up, depending on what the cook had on hand that day.
Regionally, people in the northern United States often preferred a sweet cornbread, flavored with molasses or sugar. Those in the southeast liked a more savory bread, often flavored with pork cracklings. This tradition still holds in many places, although Southerners also eat Mexican versions, with whole kernel corn, jalapenos, and sweet peppers in it. They rarely eat sweet recipes, however.
Cornbread was also popular on both sides of the fence during the Civil War. When it could be cooked properly, it was a favorite dish, but when supplies became scarce and the soldiers had to fend for themselves, they created “ramrod” versions. This was their ration of cornmeal, mixed with water and salt if they had any. The thick, pasty batter was then wrapped around the rifle ramrods in a spiral and cooked over their bivouac fires. It was tasteless and rock-hard, but it kept the soldiers alive.
This quick bread has become more popular in recent years, often appearing in cooking shows whose hosts are chefs from the South. It can be baked as a large cake in an iron skillet, as corn-shaped “pones” in an iron corn stick pan, as muffins in a muffin tin or on the range top as corn cakes, cooked much like pancakes. Some even bake it in glass casserole dishes, but these do not produce the desirable golden brown crust that cast iron does.
Rural people may eat this bread crumbled into a glass of milk or with syrup and butter. Although Southerners may pour syrup on it, they generally view sweet versions with a jaundiced eye. This bread is often served with garden vegetables, pinto beans, or black-eyed peas and is the basis for cornbread dressing, which is much more common in the South than stuffing. Variations include corn dodgers, dropped into the hot “pot liquor” left over from cooking turnip greens, and hush puppies, mixed with onion and deep fried.
Cornbread has become synonymous with Southern cooking, and indeed, Southerners do eat a lot of it. Recipes for many variations are available online or on the cornmeal bag. It is a versatile, delicious, quick bread and is surprisingly easy to make.