Cornbread Orthodoxy

David Culp

David Culp › An eighth-generation Southerner, David Culp is a producer and the writer of the Cooking Channel series ...

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Like other matters of religious devotion, cornbread both unites and divides Southerners.

Here in the Cornbread Nation, pretty much everybody is a believer. “In a region that’s comparable in size to Western Europe and is quite diverse in geographies, cornbread is arguably the one food that people wherever you are recognize and celebrate,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss and a contributor to the New York Times and several other foodie bibles.

Fine and true. But where it gets tricky, and the ties that bind start to unravel, is on particular points of cornbread doctrine — yellow cornmeal or white; sweet milk or buttermilk; egg or no egg; bacon drippings or Crisco. Here Southerners’ lines of belief are as clearly drawn and staunchly defended as on, say, the question of dunking versus sprinkling.

In my family we lean toward cornbread fundamentalism — lean but don’t quite fall off the fence. We dogmatically reject the addition of egg. “You can’t make good cornbread with an egg,” my mother states flatly. Yet she, like my Grandma before her, admits a pinch, just a pinch, of sugar to her batter. “You can’t tell it’s in there,” she says. “It’s not enough to make it sweet like that Yankee cornbread. It just does something in combination with the leavening.”

Even this smidgen of sugar is anathema to the ultra orthodox, who believe that righteous cornbread may consist only of cornmeal, fat, milk, leavening and salt. The austerity of these purists, on the other hand, strikes the more liberal cornbread baker as legalistic and a little scary, like people who believe it’s a sin to wear lipstick and who might handle snakes in church.

The controversial pinch of sugar notwithstanding, my convictions are in line with those of John T. “Cornbread doesn’t need a lot of folderol,” he says. “If you just say it’s simple, and by that you mean that it’s simplistic,  you miss the point.”

Cornbread is a thing of elemental, almost primitive, beauty that is too often rendered with rococo excess — the Gospel of Mark interpreted by Barbara Cartland. An acquaintance of mine makes hers with creamed corn, pico de gallo and (good Lord) beer. The mere existence of such cornbread, if you can call it that, must make my Grandma spin in her grave like a Dremel tool.

Even with such heathen concoctions abroad in Dixie kitchens, it is still home cooks, not restaurants, that hold back the dismal tide of cornbread decadence. The professionals have mostly fallen from grace. Yes, it is possible to find decent, simple cornbread at a restaurant, although the likelihood of this is roughly the same as of finding a string of pearls in your fried oyster basket. More likely, you will be served either a square of some sweet, cakey abomination or an overwrought new-age take that features trendy add-ins like butternut squash.

To be safe and to keep your conscience clean, just don’t order the cornbread. If your waiter brings you a bread basket and there’s some cornbread in there, fine; take a leap of faith. You might encounter a miracle. Your better bet, however: Take out the bread and eat the basket.

Photo Credit: Craig McCord