Celebrating the sweet culinary heritage of a native New England staple.
Following the Pilgrims’ first winter in Plymouth in 1620–21, their numbers reduced by nearly half from illness and lack of shelter, one of the surest and strongest signs of relief came in the form of corn from the native Wampanoags. After learning how to grow, harvest, dry, and grind the new grain (which they called “Indian corn”), the settlers boiled the resulting cornmeal into a thick mush and baked it into cornbread. By embracing corn as a staple in their new diet, the settlers not only filled their bellies, but adapted a Native American tradition as their own.
Over time, the mildly sweet and gritty crunch of cornmeal worked its way into many classic New England dishes. Anadama bread and Indian pudding call for cornmeal, as do pancake-like jonnycakes made with whitecap flint cornmeal—so beloved by Rhode Islanders that the state legislature passed a law in the 1940s stating that any product designated as Rhode Island cornmeal must be made only from whitecap flint corn, grown and ground within the state. Humble cornbread, meanwhile, defied regional exclusivity and found its way onto supper tables nationwide, where it often reached (especially in the southern United States) a status akin to kitchen communion.
For her book The Cornbread Gospels (Workman Publishing, 2007), Vermont author Crescent Dragonwagon spent six years researching and compiling more than 200 cornbread recipes, both national and global. In America, she admits that Southerners in particular are “passionate about proper cornbread ingredients and technique to the point of fanaticism,” but reminds us that with its rich past, cornbread belongs to everyone, and that “cornbread love, like all love, is universal and deeply individual.”
Generally speaking, Southern-style cornbread is an “everyday” bread, made from all cornmeal, without a whisper of sugar; it’s moistened with buttermilk and cooked in a cast-iron skillet, greased with bacon fat, until crisp. Northern cornbread, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from sweetness. Most recipes call for a small amount of sugar, along with regular milk and equal parts cornmeal and flour for a lighter texture. Tender and sweet with a light crunch, squares of Northern-style cornbread are a treat for special occasions. For many, this cake-like version proves hard to resist, and according to Dragonwagon, “thus does Yankee cornbread quietly offer its own gospel, leaving the preaching and conversion to those who have already partaken of its goodness.”