American as . . . cornbread. Let’s disqualify “apple pie” as a contender right off: it’s “aeppel pye” (Old) English, and of more than 20,000 varieties of apples grown worldwide, only one, the non-pie-friendly crab apple, is native to America. But corn is indisputably American, as are the breads made from it.
Carefully cultivated by generations of Native Americans, corn was the continent’s staple grain long before the Pilgrims arrived. Cornmeal was used in many ways, but, as with all staple grains, its foremost use was in bread. Tortillas, which we now think of as Mexican, are actually America’s first bread. With a dough made of just three ingredients (the alkalinized cornmeal known as masa, water and salt), this simple flat bread has nourished those who live on American soil since before that soil was American.
But what we think of as cornbread today is not the corn tortilla. What we think of is a quick bread, leavened with baking soda or powder. From there what we think of as cornbread depends on where “we” are. To American Southerners, cornbread is made of all or mostly stone-ground cornmeal, more often white than yellow, with buttermilk as the liquid. Baked in a hot skillet, it is round and decidedly not sweet. (Mark Twain famously remarked, “If God had meant cornbread to be sweet, he’d have called it cake.”) To Yankees, it’s made of equal parts flour and cornmeal, more often yellow than white, with sweet milk as the liquid. It’s usually baked in a square pan, which isn’t preheated, and, yes, it is very sweet. If you are African-American, your cornbread is probably more Southern-style, except it may be a little sweet and the cornmeal is usually yellow. And if you’re from the Southwest, it could very likely have some minced green chiles thrown in.
Which is the best? Whatever cornbread you grew up on is probably the one you consider perfect. But wherever you are from, when someone mentions cornbread, if you’re like most people you probably find yourself exclaiming, “Cornbread? I love cornbread!”
—By Crescent Dragonwagon