Since moving to California from Tennessee a decade ago, I’ve railed long and loud about the crap-ass cornbread they serve out here. California cornbread looks and tastes rather like cake—large, pale blocks of dry, crumbly stuff that takes an awful lot of iced tea to wash down. And it contains enough sugar to classify it as a dessert. I don’t want it anywhere near the black-eyed peas. It just ain’t right.
Tennessee cornbread is thin and flat, made in an iron skillet with bacon drippings and just a hint of sugar, used in the same way you’d add a sprinkling of salt while making your cake or pie. The skillet bestows a fine crispiness that gives way in each bite to the luxurious heft provided by the addition of genuine animal fat.
The cornbread of my growing up years--and what I make now--is golden on top, with a brown crunchy bottom that you can only get when you make it in cast iron.
Because this is the type of cornbread I grew up with and what’s authentic for me, I tend to measure all other cornbread by the Tennessee yardstick. The best cornbread in California is what I make in my own kitchen, with my own aged iron skillet, my coffee can full of bacon drippings and my taste memory of all the cornbread of all my years before leaving the South.
Apparently a lot of people indulge in cornbread snobbery--not just me. Some insist it must be made specifically with either white or yellow cornmeal, that it must have flour or a handful of chopped jalapeno peppers or even a can of creamed corn tossed into the mix. And if you don’t make it the way they do, then it’s NOT the real stuff.
Author and storyteller Crescent Dragonwagon makes a good point about the concept of authentic cornbread. I attended her presentation on the subject during the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals recently, and she gave the rundown on corn’s history as part of the Mesoamerican diet waaay before the Europeans showed up. People have been making bread from ground corn for centuries, and my way of doing the job is but one of many. As she wisely pointed out, the original cornbread was the TORTILLA!
So to all those Californians whose cornbread I’ve disparaged, I apologize for the crap-ass remark. But I’d still rather eat my own.