People are passionate about their cornbread; and according to famed cookbook writer, Crescent Dragonwagon, “the only correct cornbread is the cornbread you grew up with…” I concur, being that I’ve seen marriages dissolve, families feud, and babes cry simply over the amount of sugar used in a Southern cornbread recipe. Dragonwagon’s preference gently falls somewhere in between: the African American technique that boasts cast iron, butter, bacon fat, and just a touch of sugar. She first enjoyed the warm, crumbly specimen, baked by Brooklyn neighbor Viola from Tennessee, in the summer of 1971. Crescent was only 16 years old, living in a Brownstone commune with a group of forward-thinking bohemians, passionately searching for herself through writing and engaging in a cultural and social education that could only come from living in that place, at that time, with those humans.
Crescent Dragonwagon and friends, ca. 1972
On the eve before setting out on an adventure to the middle of America, in retreat from equally scary ideas of suburban encroachment and melting ice caps, she was invited into her African American neighbors’ home for dinner that started, unbeknownst to her, an east to south to east pendulum swing that was set off by true Southern cornbread. Crescent embraced it literally and metaphorically, even publishing the recipe in her first Dairy Hollow House recipe (see below) in the 1980s; and subsequently composing an entire book, The Cornbread Gospels, that did a deep dive, face first of course, into this American culinary archetype.
So why are people so incredibly passionate about cornbread? That’s a question that yields as many different answers as there are recipes in this world; but one thing is certain, it’s more than just a recipe. We love what makes us feel good, and the foods of our lives—especially comfort foods that are warm, simple, and delicious—help keep us grounded in the sanctuary of who we are, and perhaps as important, where we come from. Cornbread appeals to all of our senses, a pop and sizzle as batter pours into a hot skillet, the earthy fragrance intermingled with bacon fat that fills the kitchen and home, the bumpy, cracked landscape that feels heavenly to the touch after properly cooled (but not too much), the inviting wedge of porous bread that allows for warm butter to penetrate and over flow. And then the taste—the warm, simultaneous soft crunch of baked maize that spills across tongue, palate, throat, and tummy, but not before dispersing upward through our minds and imagination en route to heaven. I’m not a religious man, but Viola’s cornbread has the power to make me a believer. Praise Cornbread!
Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread
1 cup AP flour
1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup mild vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 10 inch-skillet with cooking spray.
- Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl.
- Stir baking soda into buttermilk in a small bowl. Whisk in sugar, egg, and oil.
- Place prepared skillet over medium heat; add butter. Heat until butter melts, and starts to sizzle. Tilt pan to coat sides and bottom.
- Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and combine quickly, using as few strokes as possible. Scrape the batter into prepared pan. Bake until cornbread is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool a few minutes and slice into wedges to serve. Serves 8.