Southern cornbread, Virginia

When I was young my mother gave me a copy of Alan Hooker’s Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery. You can still find old copies of this book, with its elegant hand drawings and soft, sage green cover. When I began making corn bread, I turned to Alan Hooker. Corn bread is a natural accompaniment to cowboy beans, red beans, chilli beans and almost any other kind of bean. 

While the New England settlers did make cornbread, it is mostly associated with Southern cooking. It comes in so many different versions that it’s hard to trace it through the pages of Southern fictions, but it’s there all the same. In Katherine Anne Porter’s story, ‘Noon Wine’, Mrs. Thompson stirs up a bowl of buttermilk cornbread for supper. It gets a mention in The Grapes of Wrath, but when the Joads are at their hungriest they eat fried dough. In To Kill a Mockingbird Calpurnia makes cracklin’ bread for Scout at the end of her first day at school. Harper Lee doesn’t describe the making of the bread in the novel and only gave the recipe years later. (Cracklin’ bread is cornbread cooked in pork fat and crackling.) When Portia, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, eats collard greens and hoecake with her father she’s eating an unleavened corn bread fried on a griddle. The cornbread here is a quick bread, a soda bread, baked in a cast iron skillet in the oven, though it would be even better cooked over a wood fire. 

  • Ingredients – Roughly 250g of yellow cornmeal, half as much again of plain white flour, a teaspoonful of sugar, a teaspoonful of salt and half a teaspoonful of baking soda, one egg, a lump of butter and about 350 ml of buttermilk and ordinary milk combined, about three quarters of which should be buttermilk. (Alan Hooker suggests sour cream and milk or butter and milk and I’m sure that yoghourt would be fine too, but I’ve always used buttermilk and milk.) 
  • Discretionary Ingredients – On this occasion I have flavoured the bread with garlic chives and ancho chillis. In small quantities these give the bread a warmth and depth which does not detract from the texture or flavour of the corn. You might try crumbled bacon instead of chillis and chives. Bacon gives a breath of traditional corn bread, a gesture in the direction of Scout’s cornbread. 
  • Method – Blend your dry ingredients together. Then lightly beat in the egg, milk and buttermilk. Add any other ingredients at this stage. Do not beat for too long, just until you see bubbles on top of the mixture. If you have a cast iron skillet or frying pan, put it into a hot oven with a lump of butter. Otherwise, just use an ordinary pie dish. When the butter begins to sizzle, pour in the cornmeal mixture. Leave it to cook for about twenty five minutes at a temperature of about 200°C. 

I’ve searched in vain for cornbread in my favourite Southern novel, Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding. The book is stuffed full of good things to drink and eat – cherry bounce and coconut bread, ham and biscuits. Biscuits though are something else entirely and, in any case, at Shellmound the Fairchilds’ bread comes in silver baskets. I doubt that it’s cornbread. 

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