One of the joys of enjoying good food, especially Slow Food, is building an appreciation of the subtle differences in even simple dishes that can be driven by fascinating cultural, regional, environmental, and other factors. Most cuisines are traditionally far more diverse and interesting than the homogenized standards encountered in standard American restaurants (Italian food is particularly offensively Americanized, in my personal opinion). Those who enjoy exploring the diversity of world foods often forget that America, too, was once a rich tapestry of local culinary traditions, in which each region, state, county, and town had its own way of cooking that was driven by the local conditions, traditions, and varieties raised (what we now nostalgically refer to as heirlooms and heritage breeds).
The author of The Cornbread Gospels makes an enjoyable case that corn, and cornbread in particular, can be used to trace and define some of the regional culinary traditions in America that are just barely hanging on through the blustery winds of commercial homogenization. The book’s foundation is a survey of cornbread recipes throughout the country and the historical/cultural/regional factors that underlie a wonderfully diverse yet simple food. Boasting over 200 recipes, the book widens its focus to cover the uses of corn around the world, throughout which it spread following the European arrival in the Americas.
It is beyond the scope of this review to cover all the diverse and interesting recipes in this book, so I will focus on the subject of most direct interest to us: cornbread, and in particular Southern cornbread. Back in early October, I wrote about growing our own heirloom dent corn, from which we made and sold cornbread at market. We quickly learned that many folks have strong opinions about their cornbread and its ingredients, a fascinating dynamic covered at length in The Cornbread Gospels. The book opens with a survey of cornbread recipes collected around the country, with particular emphasis on the differences between Northern and Southern cornbread (the latter generally being far more “pure” with no flour, sweetener, or other unnecessary ingredients).
I decided to undertake a study of “Southern cornbread” as the author defines it, and put together a table of ingredients for all the Southern recipes in the book. As you can see, they are all fairly simple, mostly cornmeal, buttermilk, and some leavener. The table is arranged from “most pure” at the top to “most Northern” at the bottom, and several patterns jump out right away. For example, the recipes on pages 21 and 27 are virtually identical (the main difference is that 27 uses self-rising cornmeal, for which I estimated the individual leavening amounts for the purpose of comparison; 23 is the same way). Pages 14, 24, and 25 are very subtle variations of each other, and if doubled are nearly identical to 21. The main differences are baking temperature and egg quantities, and at times the type of cornmeal used.
Of course, cornbread is more than raw data. Though each of these recipes are subtle variations on a theme, what does not come out in the table are the personal stories, histories, and cultures that influenced the different recipes. One might be from the Arkansas delta region, another from the Tennessee hills, each cooked subtly differently and infused with the traditions that shaped this humble food into a unique product for its makers. For this alone, the book is worth it, though I took the analysis further and tested several recipes.
I chose pages 12 and 21 as opposite ends of the spectrum. Though included in the Southern section, page 12 is about as Northern as it gets by the author’s own definitions, using half flour, a lot of sweetener, and a significantly lower temperature than most of the purer, higher-temperature recipes. The results can be observed above, with the pure page 21 on the left and the Northern page 12 on the right. Both were tasty to us, but the differences were clear. The unadulterated corn flavor was far stronger in 21, and the higher temperature resulted in a nicely browned crust across the bread. 12 was sweeter, softer and more cake-like, which is indeed how the author defines Northern cornbread. Try them both and see if your roots match your taste buds (in my case, my Mississippi heritage wins over my Minnesota heritage).
We also dipped into the more eclectic recipes toward the back of the book, which offer a wide survey of possible ways to use cornmeal. The recipe for Rosemary Corn Crackers on page 156 caught our eye, and did not disappoint. These were very simple, though taking a bit of concentration to roll out correctly, and had a lovely crispness and unique flavor. Not a pairing I would have come up with on my own, and a lovely discovery. You can see the results above.
Overall this is an enjoyable book that offers a worthwhile look into the culinary history of corn along with some very interesting recipes. At times the writing was too flowery or cute for my taste, as the author tends to enthusiastically wax poetic about the more ethereal virtues of corn, but that does not detract from the value of the basic contents and the basic quality of the recipes we tried. Our own verdict on cornbread? When made with commercial cornmeal, we prefer the sweeter Northern varieties, which compensate for the lack of real flavor in the meal. When made with our own home-grown heirloom dent corn, freshly ground into course meal, a truly simple Southern cornbread allows the real flavor to shine, and comes the closest to what cornbread ought to be and was in the glory days of America’s regional food system.