Here are some of the things I discovered.
Cornbread had its origins right here in America. Native Americans cooked with ground corn long before the first European settlers arrived here. When the white settlers DID arrive, they were dependent on local resources and learned how to adapt and substitute cornmeal for the wheat flour in much of their bread making.
Cornbread easy to prepare and resulted in a dense and flat cake. This made it not only easy to transport over long distances but also to remain edible over long periods of time – the perfect food product for these adventurous settlers.
Although cornbread was a staple in most early American kitchen, it seems very few cookbooks from the first half of the nineteenth century provided instructions for how to cook it. This was likely because it was perceived that there was no need. This was a dish most young girl’s learned to cook early on at her mother’s side so there would be no need for them to refer to a recipe. And it was also true that each family had their own twist they put on the basic recipe so a generic one in a cookbook would be ignored.
During the Civil War, cornbread enjoyed another major spike in popularity. Unlike other grains, corn was plentiful and cheap in all regions of the country, and meals that included cornmeal were easy to make and filling for the diners.
Because there were so many varieties of corn, even in the early years of our country, the corn itself varied by region. This led to regional differences in the cornmeal and thus the cornbread. This difference manifested itself in flavor, texture and even color. The southwest areas had a blue corn, the south a white and the north a yellow. There were also many regional variations in the way cooks approached the preparation.
Today there are numerous variations on the simple cornbread recipe, many of them regional. In Texas, the favorite version seems to be a fluffy cornbread with kernels of corn and cheese and often includes jalapeños.
In the deep south, you’ll find an unsweetened, skillet cornbread that has a crispy, crunchy crust.
If you’re a New Englander, then the most familiar version to you is the Vermont or Boston brown bread which has a moister texture and contains, among other things, raisins and either maple syrup or molasses.
I’m sure there are other regional favorites as well.
As for myself, I grew up thinking of cornbread as a comfort food. My mom made the skillet version with the crunchy crust. Many nights we would have warm cornbread crumbled up in a bowl of milk for supper. Or as a side dish slathered in butter or mashed with a serving of bacon-seasoned black-eyed peas. My grandmother made a sweet, almost cake-like cornbread that could be substituted for dessert.
Later, after I married and moved ‘up north’ to north Louisiana, my mother-in-law introduced me to cornbread dressing. And once I tasted jalapeño cornbread I knew I’d found a new favorite. It’s great with soup, gumbo, stew or just on it’s own.
So what about you? Do you have a favorite version? And do you cook yours from scratch or use a packaged mix?
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