Cornbread is an all-American bread, tracing its humble roots back to the days of the early settlers. When the first colonists arrived in North America, wheat flour was unavailable and they had to turn to local resources to make their breads. Corn was one of the first crops to be grown by the Native Americans, and ground corn had long been used for cooking. The settlers soon learned how to fashion breads from the meal ground from corn. And the rest is history – baked cornbread, hoecake, corn pone, johnnycakes, hushpuppies – all began here.
Although many associate cornbread with the South and Southwest, it’s a popular quick bread served all over the US with many regional variations. If you have Southern roots, you are probably familiar with an unsweetened, skillet cornbread with a crunchy, crispy crust. A Southern comfort-food treat is to crumble leftover cornbread into a tall glass of cold buttermilk and eat it with a spoon as a snack before bedtime or in the morning, much like cereal. Skillet cornbread is also used for making the famous oyster stuffing served during the holidays in the South.
If you’re from “up North” in the New England states, you’re probably familiar with Boston or Vermont brown bread, a moist bread containing cornmeal and other hearty flours that is steam cooked in a can, studded with raisins, and sweetened with molasses or maple syrup. Anadama bread, a cross between cornbread and yeast bread, had its inception in a seaport town in Massachusetts.
Moving our culinary journey West, in Texas you’re likely to find a fluffier cornbread, baked with jalapenos, corn kernels and cheese – just the thing to dip or crumble into a big bowl of chili con carne. Slightly sweetened corn pudding, a casserole that is a cross between creamed corn and corn bread, also became a popular Tex-Mex side dish.
By the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s, just about every imaginable variation of cornbread made its way to California. Today what many of us are familiar with as cornbread (at least in California!) is the fluffy sweet corn cake served and made famous by the Marie Callender restaurant chain. Their cornbread mix is now sold nationally in supermarkets, a testament to American’s love of cornbread.
Whether you prefer your cornbread unsweetened and skillet baked (or fried) or cake-like and sweet, there’s a cornbread for everyone. There are many choices of corn meals to choose from, including coarse, gritty stone ground meals (also used for polenta) to the fine-as-flour versions, to white or yellow meals depending on the variety of corn used for milling. Ingredients for cornbread can be as simple as water and salt; richer versions might include milk or buttermilk, eggs, sugar, butter and a leavening agent. Most are familiar with the recipe printed on the corn meal box from the grocery store (which is very good!) but there are many other tempting cornbread recipes, depending on your whim.
Cornbread is the perfect accompaniment for chili, soup and stew during the cooler fall months. Cornbread is easy, quick, and delicious. Serve it warm with butter or drizzle it with honey. Any way you slice it, it’s good stuff.
Locally grown and milled organic cornmeal is now available at T & L Coke Farm at the Aptos and Monterey Farmers Markets.