November is the time for family get-togethers and traditional Thanksgiving feasting, so we will spend this month looking at food — sounds tempting!
No article on eating in the American South would be complete unless the first thing mentioned was corn.
There is a reason the South likes its cornbread, corn on the cob, corn pudding, cornbread dressing, corn muffin, fried corn, hominy, creamed corn… Well, you get the idea!
When the white man first arrived on the American continent he was greeted by its indigenous people, whom he mistakenly called “Indians.”
Today we call them “Native Americans.” But the white man also met the locals’ vast array of native foods.
The foods of the New World were nothing like the foods of the Old World. The Native American introduced the newcomers to corn, tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, beans, potatoes, wild rice, cranberries, peanuts, maple syrup and chocolate — just to name a few!
How boring would our meals be today if we didn’t have these on the menu?
Foremost among the friendly natives was maize, which the white man called corn. We sometimes call it “Indian corn.” It was a very versatile foodstuff. People could fry it, boil it, eat it raw, bake it or use it to mix with other ingredients.
Which brings us to the topic of this week’s article: cornbread.
Having lived in both the South and the North and visited in the West and back East, I can assure you that it is only in the South that cornbread is fully appreciated.
Northern cornbread is made using yellow corn and adding some flour and sugar. Sugar in cornbread made south of the Mason-Dixon Line is considered heresy.
People have been known to suffer tarring and feathering for doing that.
The Native Americans mixed water and a little salt with ground-up corn (cornmeal) to make a type of bread they called “suppone.” That is the origin of our “corn pone.” It was baked on the fire and was tasty, but also hard and crusty. Keep in mind that the crunchy exterior of cornbread is what makes people like it so well.
The ability to grow corn easily and for it to have so many uses led to it being a popular foodstuff on the frontier of the South as it was settled after the American Revolution.
As we have written before, as soon as the pioneer staked his land, he plowed up the earth and planted a corn crop! It was the lifesaver for him, his family and his livestock.
The Southerner preferred white corn for his cornbread and he lived off the simple corn pone that he got from the Native Americans.
The corn pone can also be tinkered with to create hoecakes — called that because they could be cooked on the metal blade of a hoe, which is a simple farming tool used for chopping weeds in the garden.
Corn dodgers use the same recipe but are tossed into boiling water, where they bob around and seem to “dodge” around each other. Similar is “hot water cornbread,” mixed with hot water and then baked.
An ashcake is just the corn pone cooked right on the ashes of a fire.
With time the recipe improved as the wife of the family, who did most of the cooking, added grease or lard and egg to the ingredients. Instead of water, milk could be used. Some cooks would use sour milk to make their cornbread.
Cooking cornbread required a heavy iron skillet and that is another reason we in the South have the tradition of making cornbread.
On the frontier, cooking over an open fire or using a large rock fireplace, was done with a cast-iron skillet. The more settled homes of the residents of New England had brick ovens and people used wheat to make bread, which was more to their liking than the humble cornbread.
It took a while for the South to refine itself and have brick homes and ovens, but by that time the taste for cornbread was a part of the Southern DNA.
Whether you like your cornbread baked in a skillet in one big pie shape, or in cute little pieces cooked in iron skillets to look like small ears of corn, or whether you crumble it up into a glass of buttermilk, or if you add a can of creamed corn into the mix, eating cornbread makes a person feel good about living and proud to be from the South.