The Great Cornbread Controversy

Kelley, the chef here at Second Story Cafe, has been soliciting opinions: should cornbread have sugar in it?

Yes, it’s that ugly, age-old conflict of North vs. South, encapsulated in food. Northerners tend to say yes, Southerners no. And we all know what happened the last time these geographies disagreed on an important issue….

Before we dive into this rather heated debate, permit me to point out that cornbread has brokered culture blend way longer than it has provoked division. When Europeans “discovered” America, they found corn a staple of food for the people already here, and adapted it into their own recipes. Cornmeal went from something served more like polenta to the pone that became a part of every Appalachian’s diet.

[Side note: A great story Dan Brown missed in his use of Rosslyn Chapel for The DaVinci Code is the decorative carvings of maize on its walls – put there at least two centuries before corn came to the Isles from the New World. This fascinates Jack and the people who visit Rossyln as part of the annual Scottish tour he leads. How did corn show up in art when no one had seen it yet?]

My grandmother made the best cornbread, in a pre-heated, pre-buttered cast iron skillet so the crust was hard and the inside crumbly. Hers wasn’t sweet, but dripped butter enough to make Julia Child pause. Growing up, cornbread at Sunday dinner, alongside ham and green beans, preceded cornbread in a glass of milk for bedtime snack. And if there happened to be any left (an unusual occurrence) it was Monday morning breakfast before catching the school bus, as well.

cornbreadAfter Gran’s death, during my lean graduate years, I resorted to those pre-packaged mixes, about 30 cents each. Of the two brands that fought for supremacy in my local grocery, one was sweet and bright yellow, one savory and pale. I bought the bleached brand out of loyalty to grandmother; for under a dollar, even counting the butter, I could make an evening meal out of cornbread and a side vegetable. Breakfast the next morning – leftover cornbread heated up, then dumped into cold milk–was about 40 cents.

In New York City, they of course take a sophisticated (read: compromising) approach to this subject: you can buy artisinal cornbread from the local bakery with jam in the middle, or with a tangy herbed butter mix. That sound you hear? Gran rolling in her grave. She might not have cared about the jam, but the $4-a-tiny-loaf price tag? *Eye roll*

So I don’t mind if cornbread is sweet or savory, choosing rather to celebrate its cheap (in Appalachia, at least) wholesome goodness and its cultural blending. But if you want to see some REALLY fun debates, hop over to Second Story Cafe’s FB page and read the comments. “Sugar in cornbread”???!!! Feuding words.

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20 Comments

Filed under folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

20 responses to “The Great Cornbread Controversy

  1. lou ann gioffre

    Cornbread? Uuugh! Can’t stand the stuff. Once a year, I try it again, to see if my taste buds will accept it–they never do, not even after 71 years. I do love your blog, though, and all things books and cats!

    • Pat Brown

      I buy fresh ground local corn meal and sometimes add fresh corn cut from the cob and sometimes jalapenos to it but this Yankee farm girl never put sugar in corn bread in her life. I also heat a black iron skillet with butter and then bake it like your grandmother did. It is the country way to do things. And Oh so good!

  2. Jean Stewart

    I can’t imagine life without cornbread !! Never had it with sugar when I was growing up nor did I make it (for 50 years) with sugar. I was surprised to find sweet cornbread in Boston years ago while on an early trip to New England. And as for maize in Britain, I have been to Rosslyn Chapel but have never encountered maize or cornbread in my many trips to Britain.Good hot cornbread is hard to beat!!

  3. Teri

    I like both. Before I moved south, my exposure consisted of sweet corn muffins. This also reminds of that other geographical culinary controversy….Stuffing or dressing???LOL

  4. Donna Chapman

    Love me some cornbread…..fried, baked, pancake size, cast iron fry pan size, thick, thin, etc…..never had it before I came to South Carolina….boy I was missing something yummy, y’all!

  5. Northern cornbread and southern tea is my idea of heaven.

  6. I might drop like a teaspoon of sugar into a pan’s worth of cornbread batter. It seems to do a little something for the flavor without actually making it sweet. But it’s fine without any at all. And if I pour sorghum syrup over it for breakfast the next morning I’ll never notice anyway.

  7. Janice Brooks-Headrick

    Wendy & Jack, Cuz’ mom, native Tennesseean, swore me to secrecy when she gave me her cornbread reciepe. MUST use 3 Rivers meal, and about a teaspoon of sugar. Cuz said I make really, really good corn bread. The secret included heating the iron skillet before putting batter in it. Roslyn: From several sources, I heard that one of the St. Clairs went on a long trip and discovered America, prior to Columus, and maybe before the Vikings. Therefore, the corn in the carvings. Jan

    Janice Brooks-Headrick 865-429-1783 Storyteller Author Instigator TALESproject.org Timeline: facebook.com/janice.brooksheadrick Email: janice.brooksheadrick@facebook.com

  8. Sally

    No sugar, but a diced onion really does wonders for a pan of cornbread and made thin and really brown is better in my opinion. Use soured milk or buttermilk, too.

  9. Eve Hill

    Ohio cornbread recipe which cane down from the FitzRandolphs who fled Barnstable and Plymouth in 1638 because they changed from Puritans to Quakers… one teaspoon of sugar, melted butter in it, yellow cormeal. My mother baked it in a cast iron skillet when I was small, alter used another pan which wasn’t as heavy to lift.

    We also had oysters in our stuffing and I now make both with and without for the same occasions.

    One of the FitzRandolph women, Amanda, was my grandmother
    s grandmother and she married a Hawkins, but it is agreed that the cornbread is a FitzrRandolph recipe. Of course, it was called a receipt and never written down, just made. I can still do that..

  10. Mama (from Kentucky) baked her cornbread in an iron skillet; no sugar. Daddy (from Oklahoma and who never, ever criticized her cooking) would wistfully say “just a teaspoon of sugar takes the bitterness out”. For years I left out the sugar (if I want cake, then it will be chocolate cake, not sweet cornbread), but a few years ago I realized he was right, and now I add about a tablespoon. Chemistry frightens me, but I think it must have something to do with the bitter nature of the leavening.

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