Tag Archives: Appalachian foodways

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.


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