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The Southern Cornbread Controversy

By: Angela Gillaspie © May 2001

My daughter has recently taken an interest in cooking. The other night as I was mixing up some cornbread batter, she innocently asked me, "Why don't you use eggs in your mix like Momaw does?"

Poor child. She doesn't know proper Southern Cornbread Etiquette. Criticizing or questioning someone's cornbread recipe can often be fighting words around here. We take our cornbread serious and the recipes we use are tried, true, and daggummit territorial!

Cornbread has the basic ingredients of cornmeal, buttermilk/milk, shortening, baking soda, and salt, but what goes in next is what's so controversial. I'll try and list some of the more volatile arguments.

Sweet versus Savory. There are two basic flavors of cornbread, sweet and savory. Sweet cornbread, also known as Johnnycakes, has honey or sugar in the mix and leftovers are often eaten at breakfast with melted butter and maple syrup or honey drizzled on top, or crumbled up in a big frosty glass of milk/buttermilk and eaten with a spoon. Savory cornbread has the earthy and smoky flavoring of ham, cracklins (fried pieces of pig skin), or bacon drippings. This cornbread is best when used to sop up *pot likker from peas or greens (*for you Yankee readers, pot likker is that wonderful juice the peas/greens are cooked in).

Fat. Many folks add a lot of shortening to their recipe because they prefer their cornbread to be heavy and robust so that it can be a meat substitute of sorts to have with their collards, peas, and okra. Others prefer a small amount of fat to create a light and airy cornbread to compliment meat main courses. By the way, what is fat? Down here we use lard or bacon grease, but northern folks use stuff like soybean curd, I-can't-believe-it's-not-animal-fat, non-hydrogenated yogurt solids, or something equally appealing.

Eggs. There are militant egg-users and militant non-egg-users. The egg-users say that you must use eggs in order to hold the bread together and not using eggs is, well, just silly. The non-egg-users swear up and down that eggs dry cornbread out and that eggs are what makes cornbread crumbly, and in need of butter. Myself, I sit on the fence - sometimes I use eggs, sometimes I don't. It just depends on how rushed I am. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for the choice the egg-users make to have solid cornbread, however, the non-egg-users have the right to avoid eggs in their batters. God Bless America.

Pan versus Pone. Pans come in all sizes - round, square, rectangle, and oblong to name a few. The cornbread batter is a mite thinner (pouring consistency), and the cornbread is usually baked. Baking cornbread in a pan is easier to serve for those folks with big families. There's more tender "bread" in the pan-baked cornbread, and not as much crust. Pones, on the other hand, have thicker batter and are fried in fat. Made by hand, they are oval-shaped and have more crust than pan-baked cornbread. There's another type of cornbread, lace cornbread. It's mixed thin and fried in a fairly thin layer of oil; the edges are ultra crispy and lacy, and the middle is thinner than most other cornbread. Lace cornbread is best for making collard sandwiches.

While I'm pondering pones, I'd like to state for the record that pones are not hushpuppies. Hushpuppies are made from the leftover cornmeal used when dredging catfish, bream, or whatever else Uncle Herbert caught down at the crick. Add a little milk, egg, then chopped onion, and fry it up golden brown. It's rumored that hushpuppies got their name from our foremommas trying to keep the dogs quiet while supper was loaded on the table. They'd holler "Hush puppy!" and throw a fried piece of cornbread at the whining dogs. (Note to self: try this with my whining kids the next time we have fish.)

I remember my daddy making hushpuppies when I was a youngun. Momma wouldn't let Daddy fry fish (or hushpuppies for that matter) inside of the house because of the stink, so Daddy would get out his little Coleman® stove and set it up on the patio. News of Daddy's fish fry spread like wildfire and soon Uncle James and the local law officer, a.k.a. "Uncle Bob" would pull up in the driveway carrying catfish fillets, a good amount of Pabst Blue Ribbon cold beer, and wearing great big grins on their faces.

The fish was dredged in cornmeal, and then Daddy added chopped green-tail onions, eggs, forty pounds or so of bell peppers, and beer to the leftover cornmeal. After the fish was fried, the batter was dropped into the same oil and fried to a golden brown. These giant pepper-studded hushpuppies were round, flat and about the size of a moon pie. They had a taste resembling fishy and greasy raw peppers soaked in beer - but it was probably due to my young underdeveloped taste buds (or so Daddy said).

Anyway, there are other cornbread arguments too numerous to name (i.e., frying versus baking, iron skillet versus casserole dish, buttermilk versus sweet milk, adding meat or vegetables, etc.), but you get the gist of what womenfolk whisper about behind closed pots, so to speak.

Now, about my daughter's question: I explained to her that I was just in the mood to add eggs to my batter, and then I went on to describe the controversy and emotional ties that cornbread has on Southern folks.

So now y'all know proper Southern Cornbread Etiquette. Don't criticize their choice of ingredients and definitely don't ask 'em their recipe.

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Thanks to Traci, Dave W., Dave G., and Ben (the Redneck Genius) for advice, support, and corny tips. ~Angela

Copyright © 2001 - 2018 Angela Gillaspie
Revised - 05/06/01 - 07/24/18
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