New Englanders think of cornbread as theirs. But so do Southerners. Like any other dish made in several regions, the way you grew up eating it is the way you think it should be made. But the differences between the two are dramatic.
Vermont resident Crescent Dragonwagon, author of “The Cornbread Gospels,” explains it this way: “Southern cornbread has little or no wheat, all cornmeal, very little or no sugar, and it is generally made in a blastingly hot skillet started on top of the stove and finished in the oven. Northern cornbread has a much higher percentage of flour, and it’s very very sweet.”
Southerners have long maintained that Northerners do not know how to make the dense yellow quick bread. As Mark Twain famously said, “Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread and perhaps no bread is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.”
It’s enough to make a Northern baker feel insecure.
As for other ingredients and how the breads are baked, most Southern cornbreads are made with buttermilk or sour milk, Northern versions with sweet milk. And while you might get a cakey Northern bread baked in a square or rectangular pan, or in a casserole dish, and cut into squares, a Southern one will invariably be made in a cast-iron skillet, cut into wedges.
Dragonwagon, raised in New York and a resident of the South for several decades, describes a third style of cornbread that she prefers. “The African-American cornbread takes the best of both worlds,” she says. “It’s made in a skillet, uses buttermilk, has half cornmeal or more (where traditional Yankee cornbread has half or more flour), and it’s a little sweet.”
Today, many cornbreads are made with add-ins: jalapenos, chipotles, fresh corn, herbs, ham, cheese. And they are baked in cornstick pans, muffin cups, mini loaves, and other fetching shapes.
One of Dragonwagon’s favorite cornbreads comes from a woman she knew in New York, an African-American raised in Georgia. The author ran Dairy Hollow House, an inn in the Ozark mountains in Arkansas, and made it there often.
These popular breads are “home food,” says Dragonwagon, “and as such, very very potent.” One day while visiting London, she was talking to her Pakistani cab driver about his favorite food, roti. “It is a homely food,” he told her.
Cornbread, says Dragonwagon, is one of our homely foods.