In addition to enjoying corn fresh from the cob or baked in pudding, mountaineers store it dry and use it ground. Ground cornmeal is the primary ingredient in mush and cornbread.
Cornbread is so popular and so important that some mountaineers view it as a gift from God. Divine and spiritual, cornbread is a manna. From the time settlers reached the frontier and built cabins, corn and cornbread were a treasure like the one that sustained the Israelites for 40 years in the desert. Cornbread nourished mountaineers through the Great Depression, coal booms and busts, and mountain isolation. When mountaineers grew their own corn, they made cornbread three times a day, and today, no country restaurant in Appalachia would serve dinner without offering cornbread. Cornbread continues to be a mountain staple, a daily food, and a primal joy.
This popularity is due at least in part to the fact that cornbread is a quick, home-baked bread made with ground cornmeal and fast-acting leaveners. The batter is leavened with baking soda and buttermilk or with baking powder. An occasional fancy cook leavens cornbread with yeast, but this is rare.
Cornbreads include puffy corn fritters, gritted bread, crusty cornbread, fried corn pones, jalapeño cornbread, and quick cornbread. To this add recipes for hush puppies, johnnycakes, and corn dodgers. Other cornbread names suggest ingredients: hot water cornbread, mayonnaise cornbread, crackling bread, and buttermilk cornbread. Still other descriptors, such as muffins, sticks, griddle cakes, ashcakes, and skillet cornbread, tell us about the cooking utensil used. Muffins are baked in a muffin pan. Corn sticks are baked in a cast-iron corn stick pan, and griddle cakes are cornmeal pancakes fried on a griddle. Ash cakes are baked on a hearth in ashes while skillet cornbread is baked in a cast-iron skillet. Spoonbread is also a cornbread named after a utensil; however, rather than being baked in a spoon, the soufflé-like batter is baked in a casserole dish and served with a spoon like stove-top stuffing.
A most important cornbread shape is the pone, a round “loaf” of baked cornbread. When the batter is baked in a round cast-iron skillet, the bread is a pone. Mountain cornbread is not typically baked in a rectangular pan. Square loaf pans do not yield pones, and they do not yield the traditionally pieshaped wedge of cornbread. A pone is also a small, round cornbread cake or a corn cake. These pones are biscuit-sized and biscuit-shaped individual servings of cornbread. Using thick batter, some bakers shape small pones between their palms, and bake them on a cookie sheet. Cornmeal muffins are also called pones.
While a loaf of cornbread is a pone, “cornpone” is the term used by early Native Americans for cornbread batter. They called it apone or apan. If the cornpone is thin, it can be poured onto a griddle and fried to make griddle cakes, hoecakes, Johnnycakes, or cornmeal pancakes. If the batter is thick, it can be dropped by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and baked like drop biscuits. Cooks also drop thick cornbread batter into stews to make dumplings or what mountaineers call cornmeal dodgers. When this same batter is deep fried, it becomes hush puppies.
A seasonal variation of cornbread is gritted cornbread. Cooks prepare the batter with corn they grate from the cob. Using the milky mixture of fresh corn and hull in place of cornmeal results in highly flavored, moist cornbread. When baked, gritted cornbread develops an outside crust while the center remains like pudding.
Other cornbreads are full of goodies such as bacon, cheese, chopped peppers, and cracklings. Today, cornbread can be thick or thin, robust or tender, sweet or savory, and rich or light. Through its evolution, the old Native American cornpone has been changed to include flour, baking powder, eggs, bacon grease, butter, vegetable oil, buttermilk, yogurt, and sugar. To the batter, cooks also add creamed corn, diced green peppers, redhot peppers, onions, and diced ham. They bake cornbread in the oven, fry it in oil, and boil it in water. The many cornbread variations reflect the talents of hill country highlanders from Georgia to Maryland.
In her book, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, Ronni Lundy catches our attention when she says, “If God had meant for cornbread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake.” Lundy grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line, and she knows that cornbreads are not all the same. She holds a bias against cornbreads baked from a package as well as commercial-style breads. Large establishments often make soft, thick, crumbly, and yellow cornbread. Staff cooks bake them in large, rectangular pans and cut them into squares. The top and bottom are soft and the four edges center-cut. This cornbread is a commercial excuse for fresh, home-baked mountain cornbread, and it may be so soft that you cannot spread it with a pat of butter.
Indeed, this style may please some, but the form is not traditional wedges, sticks, pones, or muffins. Furthermore, the bread is tender and sweet. Commercial cornbread is not only like cake, it also lacks coarse cornmeal and has little trace of old-fashioned, brash mountain country spirit.
While large-scale kitchens may bake cornbread as much as 3 inches thick, homemade breads are thinner. Thinner bread cooks more quickly and has more crust. Mountain cooks decrease thickness by adjusting the size of the recipe, using a larger pan, or baking the batter in two pans. A traditional thickness is 1¡ inches, as it gives a good balance between crust and crumb.
Cornbread crumb is also important. Crumb is the center part of the bread. Cornbread centers range from crumbly to substantial. As cornbread batter gets richer and the cornmeal more refined, the crumb becomes more tender and more like cake. The addition of oil and eggs to the batter also adds tenderness. Many cornbreads are too rich. Traditional mountain cooks prefer a more primitive, more substantial, and less rich bread with a tough crumb.
The crumb stands in contrast to the crust. Cornbread crusts have three parts: top, bottom, and edge. When country cooks bake cornbread in a heavy cast-iron skillet and in a preheated 450°F oven, their cornbread comes out with a wonderful crusty brown top and a crunchy, golden-brown bottom. If the top is pale in color, it should be broiled; if the bottom is pale, it was baked too far from the heat source. To develop a crispy, crusty edge, preheat the oil and skillet until just before the oil starts to smoke. Then pour in the batter and bake.
Although a high oven heat can create a dry and crispy crust, moisture will soften it. Left in the pan, sealed in plastic, or covered with foil, crusty cornbread softens quickly. Moisture is the enemy of crispness. Careful cooks treat fresh cornbread so that it does not become soggy. To do this, they serve the cornbread as soon as possible after taking it from the oven. The longer the bread sits, the more the moisture moves from the center to the crust. To reduce this transfer of moisture, as well as the impact of hot steam, good cooks first turn the pone out of the cast-iron skillet and onto a wire cooling rack. Then, they flip it back onto a cutting board and listen to the crunch as they cut through the crispy top and hardened bottom. Finally, they return the wedges to the cooling rack or place them uncovered in a serving basket with an absorbent cloth lining. In a restaurant setting, chefs serve cornbread from a heated serving pan equipped with a top hot light. The hot pan and heat light draw steam away and help keep the crust fresh.
Biting into a crunchy cornbread crust is just one of the pleasures associated with this treat. Some diners find pleasure in holding the wedge and dipping it while others prefer to crumble it into soup beans, pot likker, or sour milk. Even within families, some argue the merits of cornbread wedges eaten out of hand and cornbread crumbles eaten from a bowl of likker with a fork or a glass of buttermilk with a spoon.
Dipped or crumbled, spoons or fingers, the traditional cornbread experience includes buttermilk, pot likker, wild greens, and soup beans. This combination is available at country restaurants along the Country Music Highway. US Highway 23, the north-south route that winds its way from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Kingsport, Tennessee, is dotted with a fast-food chain called Dairy Cheer. At Dairy Cheer restaurants during the winter, you can get a lunch special of cornbread muffins, soup beans, and diced onion. This lunch special is a balanced meal, an art form, an Appalachian tradition, and honest cooking.
At restaurants such as the Windmill in Pikeville, Kentucky, or the Rusty Fork in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, mountain chefs serve cornbread with country fried steak, meat loaf, fried chicken livers, vegetable soup, roast pork, and fried chicken. For old-fashioned mountain eating, a wedge of cornbread served with a wilted lettuce salad and a glass of buttermilk makes a complete meal. So do soup beans, cornbread, and chow chow. For a feast, the kitchen staff adds fried potatoes and a thick slice of onion. This combination is as basic to the mountain spirit as squirrel hunting, poke sallet, and bluegrass music. An order of cornbread and soup beans (recipes for both can be found in Part Two) is both a culinary feat and feast for the spirit. Leftover cornbread makes good bread pudding, cornbread stuffing, and cornbread salad, and it can be fed to the chickens or fried in lard!
Now, let’s ponder going to the kitchen, measuring ingredients, mixing batter, and baking cornbread. Simple. Quick. Thin. Not fancy and not complicated. The recipe for simple cornbread in Part Two, as well as the variation for kernel cornbread, represent the good that comes from old-style mountain cooking, and the two recipes appeal to modern minimalist-style chefs who want to serve unadorned cornbread. With four ingredients, one mixing bowl, and a trusty black iron skillet, this recipe is easy to prepare. The pone should be crusty and 1 inch thick.
The recipe for the more robust mountain country cornbread found in Part Two produces a light, low-calorie, quick bread. Not like a muffin, the bread is not sweet, not greasy, and not tender. Bread flour and egg whites hold it together so that it crumbles less than other recipes. The stone-ground cornmeal poured in the skillet and over the top gives the crust a bit of crunch as well as a primitive country appearance.
Finally in Part Two, you’ll see the recipe for jalapeño cornbread. This recipe has become popular in recent years. The cornbread is almost a meal in itself, and, hot from the oven, a slice is crusty, moist, heavy, and full of goodies. If it were not baked in a cast-iron skillet, some would say it did not taste like true mountain cornbread. To develop a crusty cornbread surface, consider cast iron.