Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cornbread: A Brief History

Wrote this paper for my Artisan Breads class.  We had to pick any bread we weren't discussing in class... so I picked my favorite!

One often hears the phrase “as American as apple pie” – quite an ironic statement, as apple pies are actually a European dish using a fruit with Asian origins and not remotely American. Why should apple pie hold the baked-good-banner of American culture, when there are other dishes far more worthy of national recognition? One might consider the pumpkin pie, or peanut butter cookies – both of which feature main ingredients that originated in the Americas. Even the tomato, which features heavily in the traditional dishes of Italy, was only acquired by that nation in the 1500s after discovering it upon their explorations of South America. It strikes me, however, that there is another dish truly unique to the Americas, both through birthright and development, which still plays a leading part in the everyday meals of many American people – cornbread.

Cornbread is a quick bread, leavened with baking soda and\or baking powder. Ingredients generally include eggs, milk or buttermilk, flour, and of course, cornmeal, but variations are available to suit most palates, sweet or savory, mild or spicy, and can be prepared in a large dish or as individual muffins. Cornbread is generally regarded as a Southern food, but was once popular throughout the country – now, it can be hard even to locate simple cornmeal in non-Southern areas. But cornbread in its many incarnations remains very popular in the American South.

Archeological and social studies research has shown that corn became widely domesticated by the Mesoamerican people around 1100-1500 BCE, but could have been used as a food as early as 12,000 years ago. It was not until corn began to be domesticated that it began to resemble the corn we know today: it had previously had a much smaller amount of edible material, a form which is still apparent in wild varieties of corn. A staple in the diet of the early Americans, it was generally either popped or ground into meal. The earliest version of cornbread is thought to be a mixture of cornmeal, salt and water, shaped and baked on a stone next to a fire, also similar to the corn pone. It was not until the Europeans arrived to colonize the New World that the rest of the world was introduced to corn, and America was poised to create cornbread as we know it today.

When the Europeans settled in the Americas, they brought with them their own cooking traditions and ingredients. When trying to use cornmeal by itself in place of flour, it was discovered that it creates a much heavier, denser bread than when used in conjunction with flour – a blend commercially available today as self-rising cornmeal mix. Cornbread recipes were evolved that did not call for flour, important mostly in the early days of America when flour was expensive or unavailable. The product they sought that resembled their traditional breads, however, needed flour for a lighter structure – in addition to having a grittier texture, cornmeal alone is nonreactive to yeasts.

An economical answer to the high cost of flour in the early United States, cornbread became very popular as a meal accompaniment. Perhaps the height of its fame came during the American Civil War, when the destitute nation used cornmeal in abundance – the South favoring a savory cornbread made with a white cornmeal, the North a sweeter bread made with yellow meal. But more than just using it for cornbread, by this point the versatility of the meal had been discovered – it could be pan-fried into pancakes or “Johnny-cakes”, deep-fried into hush puppies, boiled into hasty pudding (also known as “Indian pudding” or “cornmeal mush”), or baked as cornbread or spoonbread. Not actually a bread, spoonbread resembles a baked pudding or souffl√©, and while not a widely utilized recipe, remains exceedingly popular in certain areas of Kentucky. Following the end of the Civil War, the widespread use of cornmeal remained popular in the South, as the people struggled to rebuild their broken society.

Today, one can still find cornbread on the everyday menus in many traditional Southern homes and restaurants, usually baked in cast iron skillets. It may be eaten as-is, or crumbled with pinto beans for a protein-rich dish, or into buttermilk and eaten with a spoon like cereal – in my personal opinion, a sweeter cornbread works best, or add a little honey to the dish, as it has a nice juxtaposition with the tartness of the buttermilk. However, some homes use plain milk for this dish instead of buttermilk, achieving a much different flavor and texture, and in that case a more savory cornbread is suitable.

Perhaps if the person who first said “as American as…” could have looked back at the history of this dish, they would have finished with “cornbread” instead of “apple pie”. Could they have known how deeply rooted this dish has been in our country’s traditions? Boasting a unique texture, versatility to adapt to countless flavor variations, and a long and fascinating history, perhaps the best part about cornbread is that I currently have all the ingredients for it in my kitchen.

Camp Silos. “The Story of Corn.” History Detective. http://www.campsilos.org/mod3/students/c_history.shtml

Olver, Lynne. The Food Timeline. http://foodtimeline.org/

Rattray, Diana. “Cornbread: Learn how to make real Southern cornbread.” About.com. http://southernfood.about.com/cs/cornbread/a/cornbread.htm

http://www.wikipedia.com/. Articles on Corn, Cornbread, and Cornmeal.

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