Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One A Pithy and Perfunctory History
of Cornbread in These
What, as the academics say, is the deal with cornbread? In what manner and in what age did humankind first bake corn into loaves or cakes of bread, and what did they put on the bread? Did they put butter on it or no? Was this before butter was invented? Had cows even been invented? Or did these people eat their cornbread plain, a.k.a. "straight up"? Who were these people, and where are they today? If there were a Cornbread Museum and Hall of Fame, who would be honored therein? What kind of colorful dioramas would be on display there? And what would be for sale in the museum's gift shop? Could I get a cornbread key fob? A cornbread shot glass?
All very good questions.
The history of cornbread, though, like that of so many foods and also that fake plastic "grass" that you put in Easter baskets, is largely shrouded in mystery. Cornbread, after all, is a bread of the people, for the people, and by the people. It's also to the people, at the people, on the people, in the people, nearby the people, around the people, with the people, through the people, and almost any other preposition you can think of. And most of these people didn't read, write, or take the New York Times, and therefore the story of their food is largely undocumented. But we must do what we can to unshroud the mystery. Well, I propose that it all started with corn. Picture this: at some point, about 7,000 years ago, some mopey bloke was slumping by his fire somewhere in the highlands of southern Mexico when the dried seed of a long stalk of grass leaning over the fire exploded and jumped straight toward the poor man andhit him squarely in the forehead. This fellow, in defense, bit into the exploded seed and discovered that it was exceptionally edible, even though it did leave a thin bit of hull wedged securely between two of his molars for six days, which even flossing did not dislodge. Popcorn had been discovered, and, at the same time, so had corn.
Many archeo-botanists do think that popcorn was a likely way that corn was discovered. And once the wild grass was cultivated, it became the stable agricultural base that allowed for the creation of complex civilizations such as those of the Aztec and Maya. Over the centuries, new strains of corn allowed it to be grown in a variety of climates in North and South America, and the people of those continents began baking tortillas and parched corn cakes and so forth. It was the first great age of cornbread cookery. A fine time was had by all. Meanwhile, back in Europe, everyone wanted gold. I guess they wanted gold to make watches and dobby earrings and nice fountain pens, not to mention bowling trophies, cell phones (there's gold in there, isn't there?), and that crazy liqueur that has gold flakes in it. And the so-called New World was supposedly piled high with gold, so off went the Europeans on a good old-fashioned gold hunt. Little did they suspect that the gold they would find was not of the precious metal sort, of course, but of the corn sort, which eventually would prove to be more useful and precious than all the gold in the world put together, plus silver.
Now, we all know that Europeans are slow to learn and pig-headed. They didn't much care for the wide variety of Native American cornbread cookery that they encountered. They wanted corn tobe like their staple grain, wheat. But corn is not like wheat, and wheat is not like corn, and never the twain shall meet. (Or, shall they?) Corn, after all, is both a vegetable and a grain. Wheat converts sugar into starch; but corn converts starch into sugar. And almost any attempt to substitute cornmeal wholly for wheat flour will fail miserably, partly because corn lacks the gluten that allows wheat dough to rise. But because corn was well suited to North America, and wheat was more difficult to grow there, the European settlers were forced to come to terms with this new grain. Though Columbus and other early explorers had taken note of corn and helped transport its seeds across the globe, Thomas Hariot, who left the ill-fated settlement at Roanoke Island before it vanished, made what might be the first mention of corn as a basis for a bread in 1588. In describing corn, he wrote that "the graine is about the bignesse of our ordinary English peaze and not much different in form and shape: but of divers colours: some white, some red, some yellow, and some blew. All of them yeeld a very white and sweete flowre: beeing used according to his kinde it maketh a very good bread." But cornbread, it seems, wasn't powerful enough to save Roanoke from failure. This is a powerful lesson: even cornbread has its limits.
Hariot and the other early settlers had learned the cornbread techniques of the natives, but it's difficult to say when the Europeans first created their own style of cornbread by mixing corn with wheat. In the 1630s, Captain John Smith clearly stated that the Virginian settlers had "plentie" of bread, made from wheat, corn, and rye. But were they mixing these grains together?The settlers at Plymouth, meanwhile, were busy stealing the seed corn of the Indians, which they'd found buried in the ground. But they, too, quickly learned from the natives how to make breads from corn. Lo and behold, cornbread was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. But was there wheat in it? Probably not... Ozark Cornbread Makes 9 Pieces
Historically, cornmeal was easier to come by than flour, and also cheaper, so many Americans in all regions of the country subsisted on breads that contained no flour. If you can get fresh, whole-grain cornmeal, this cornbread is the one to make. It's the cornbread I grew up on, which is perhaps why I grew up to be so manly and healthy. My sisters and I prized the crisp corner pieces.
Ingredients 2 tablespoons plus ¼ cup canola oil
1 2/3 cups cornmeal (preferably whole-grain)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 large egg
1. Preheat your oven to 400° F. Put the 2 tablespoons canola oil in an 8 x 8- or 9 x 9-inch baking pan and put the pan in the oven to heat.
2. Stir together the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Add the milk, egg, and the ¼ cup oil and stir until just combined. There should still be small lumps in the batter.
3. Remove the hot pan from the oven, pour the batter into it, then shake it carefully to spread the batter into the corners. Bake for 22 to 28 minutes, or until firm and just beginning to brown. Velvet Spoonbread Serves 6 to 8
One part mush, one part soufflé, and one part cornbread, spoonbread has no equal.Long a staple in southern cuisine, spoonbread has largely failed to find a broader audience. But it deserves more. Itaccompanies a wide variety of dishes with ease, and often is the main course itself. You're just as likely to encounter it at breakfast as at dinner. Put butter on it and drizzle it with maple syrup or honey. Eat it with applesauce and eggs. Or serve it with ham and redeye gravy.
Ingredients 1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1. Preheat your oven to 375° F. Grease a 2-quart baking dish with vegetable shortening or nonstick cooking spray.
2. Pour 1 ½ cups boiling water over the cornmeal in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the butter and let it melt while you separate the e
Jeremy Jackson has four goals:
- Make cornbread one word. Once and for all.
- Have cornbread named the official bread of the United States.
- Find a wife.
- Think outside the box of cornmeal about the Possibilities, potentialities, and promises of cornbread.
Cornbread is the American bread. The by-the-people-for-the-people bread. So it should be put forth to the people with humor. And a whole lot of butter.
The Cornbread Book does just that with recipes for cornbreads, fritters, hush puppies, and biscuits. Cornbreads of the sweet persuasion appear, too, from biscotti to pound cake. And there are yeast breads such as Anadama Batter Bread and Cornmeal Pizza Dough. Don't forget timeless favorites like spoonbread, buttermilk cornbread, and popovers. Not to mention Gospel Buns, Sweet Potato Cupcakes, and Honey Snail (which doesn't come within ten miles of an actual snail).
Cornbread doesn't even have to be made with cornmeal. Hominy-Leek Monkey Bread has riced hominy. And Jeremy is as proud as a peacock to have come up with three yeast breads made with flour he milled from popped popcorn (Popcorn White Loaf, Popcorn Pita Bread, and Popcorn Focaccia). In the unlikely event you have any leftover cornbread, Jeremy has recipes for cornbread salad, croutons, and dressing.
And if you ever meet Jeremy, he might just sing you "The Cornbread Song" . . .
Includes bibliographical references (p. -124) and index.
About the Author
Jeremy Jackson is the author of The Cornbread Book,
the first cookbook devoted solely to America's bread of breads. A graduate of Vassar College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Jeremy has written about food for the Chicago Tribune and is also the author of two novels, Life at These Speeds
and In Summer.
He lives in Iowa City, Iowa.In His Own Words. . .
Though I was born in Ohio, I grew up with my family on a farm in the Ozark borderlands of Missouri. We raised cattle and hay and had a garden the size of Texas. At various times we had horses, cattle, a pig, sheep, chickens, ducks, and a pony. We ate a lot of these animals, but not the pony. We also had wild blackberries and persimmons and walnuts on our farm. And a pear tree. And we caught fish in our ponds. We ate some of them, too.
For some crazy reason, I headed off to Vassar College, thinking that I would become a writer. Unfortunately, I did. It was all downhill from there, though the sex was good. From Vassar I went straight into the Iowa Writers Workshop, where I wrote brilliant stories about bunnies, marbles, and a talking mailbox named Ruth. Then I spent a year writing a novel and a screenplay. Then I went and taught English back at Vassar for two years. Being a professor was a mind-numbing experience, though the sex was good. I quit that job and started being a writer full time, which was very much like being a writer part time except that it took a lot more time and I felt much more guilty when I didnt write anything. I moved from Poughkeepsie back to Iowa, which is kind of like moving from the outer circles of hell to the Garden of Eden. I bought a house here. It's a nice Craftsman-style bungalow. Plus there's a sauna.
In addition to The Cornbread Book, I'm the author of Life at These Speeds, a literary novel. There isn't any cornbread in the novel. Right now I'm writing a second novel. And my next cookbook, Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me, is already on the way. There isn't any cornbread in it, either, mostly just butter and heavy cream.