Cornbread is more than a mere sponge for gravy, the main ingredient of savory holiday dressings or the finishing touch on a meat-and-three plate. When you bite into a square of cornbread, you're actually tasting the origins of a nation.
Long before explorers began staking their claims in North America, Native Americans were growing and grinding maize for gruel, dough, alcoholic beverages and more. The Europeans built on the basics, devising recipes they found more palatable. But, as with many foods, it was Southerners that took a good thing and elevated it to greatness. If you've ever faced a steamy, buttery corn muffin dripping with molasses, you have an intimate understanding of this concept.
The hot, humid climate of the South might not be prime for wheat, rye and other grains, but corn likes it just fine. Abundant corn crops in Colonial times meant plenty of meal for the most basic interpretations of cornbread. Simple corn pone - a mix of cornmeal, water and salt cooked over hot coals - evolved when Southern cooks added leavening agents, eggs and buttermilk. The combo produced lighter results while cast iron skillets and muffin pans helped maintain the tender middle/crispy outside integrity of the cornbread.
While rich Southerners passed plates of fluffy biscuits at dinnertime, their poorer counterparts were filling up on hefty wedges of cornbread. During hard times, a sop of cornbread paired with soupy beans and greens or crumbled into a glass of milk was a common and delicious remedy for hungry tummies.
And we're still sopping and relishing glasses of "cornbread milk," a clear indicator the biscuit-deprived Southerners of old need not be pitied. The fact that cornbread is a staple on today's Southern tables - be they fine or humble - is a testament to its place of honor in our culinary history. So, keep your caviar - in these parts, a generous slice of cornbread topped with home-grown tomato and sweet onion is a priceless delicacy.
Chefs across our state prize these traditions, oftentimes adding special touches, such as bacon bits or drippings, vegetables and cheese, to their cornbread batters. While many home cooks prefer baked rounds of bread, others attest to the virtues of hoe cakes, made by dropping scoops of batter, pancake-style, onto a hot greased griddle. You'll find cornbread made from white cornmeal (the most popular in these parts,) yellow cornmeal and, occasionally, blue cornmeal, which has a more intense corn flavor. Some recipes call for sweet milk, though buttermilk is most often preferred as it gives cornbread a rich tanginess. While all these are acceptable practices, cornbread purists usually agree that two ingredients - sugar and flour - have no place in the mixing bowl. Some cooks will argue the sugar-flour point, but the general consensus is that, when meal is ground from good corn, it will have a natural hint of sweetness and deliver the perfect crumb. Add sugar and flour, and you've got yourself a cake.
So, it stands to reason that great cornbread begins with great cornmeal, and we've got plenty of that in South Carolina. For authentic taste and texture, try heirloom varieties such as Jimmy Red and Sea Island Blue from farms such as Geechie Boy or purveyors such as Anson Mills. And don't forget the other "main ingredient" - a hot, well-seasoned cast iron skillet or pans for that signature crispy crust.
Never made cornbread? Here's a basic recipe to get you started. Note that it calls for self-rising meal - a time-saver as it already contains the right amounts of leavening. You may use yellow or white cornmeal interchangeably, according to your preference. This recipe also makes great muffins or cornsticks. If you prefer a thinner, crispier cornbread, omit the egg.
Southern Skillet Cornbread
2 cups self-rising cornmeal
1¼ cup of full-fat buttermilk
¼ cup of melted butter
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix egg, buttermilk and butter, then add to the dry ingredients. Pour the batter into a hot, greased 9-inch iron skillet, or scoop into muffin pans or cornstick molds, filling about 2/3 full. Immediately pop into a preheated oven. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.