True Southerners can be defined by the cornbread they make.
"We generally divide cornbreads into two categories: Southern-style and other kinds made outside the South," said Linda Carman, director of consumer affairs at Martha White Foods in Nashville, Tenn.
"The South is really the only place where cornbread is a staple bread item."When you get outside the Deep South, it just becomes something you might fix with certain foods, but it's not like we've had it, day in and day out."
Old-fashioned corn sticks and cornbread muffins remain the bread of choice at meat-and-vegetable restaurants throughout the region. At Walker's Restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., cornbread outsells rolls by a 2-to-1 margin, kitchen manager Norman Evans said. Across town at John's Restaurant, the ratio is even greater.
When University of Mississippi students and locals sit down to a steaming plate of black-eyed peas, fresh corn and mashed potatoes with gravy at Ruth and Jimmie's, a popular cafe in the rear of a country store in Abbeville, Miss., they're served a hot wedge of cornbread with a pat of butter.
At Jimmy Kelly's, a popular Nashville steak house, diners are served baskets of scalded water hoe cakes, a primitive version of cornbread enjoyed by settlers in the South.
Interest in cornbread is growing, even though fewer people are baking or preparing large meals at home, Carman said. One reason is that health-conscious people are looking for food with fiber.
Most national brands of cornmeal are degerminated, meaning that the bran and germ have been removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm. A few brands, though, are ground from whole corn with only a portion of the bran removed, she said.
Recent research indicates that corn bran may help lower blood cholesterol in much the same manner as oat bran, so whole-grain cornmeals soon may hit the market.
"We've talked about it," she said. "I think Southerners, especially, would be open to a coarser meal and that anyone interested in adding fiber to their diet would be interested in it."
Cornbread is a simple food, but the addition of butter, eggs and milk turns it into spoonbread, a hearty dish that actually is more like a souffle than a bread. Add onion and seasonings to the basic cornbread batter and fry it in small balls and you have hush puppies, a vital part of any fish fry.
Southern cornbreads generally differ in flavor, texture and color from those prepared in other regions.
"In the area including Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, the most common, everyday cornbread is made with cornmeal, buttermilk, shortening, very little or no sugar and maybe an egg," Carman said. "Some people tell me they put an egg in their cornbread; others say they don't."
Most bakers in the Deep South prepare their cornbread almost exclusively with white cornmeal, but yellow cornmeal is more popular in other regions, particularly the Midwest and East Coast.
"They also use more flour, which makes the cornbread more cakelike. The cornbread is sweet, too."
The latest trend out of the Southwest is blue cornmeal, which is ground from blue corn. It can be used instead of white or yellow cornmeal in recipes, substituting about 3/4 cup blue cornmeal for each cup of yellow or white cornmeal specified.
Blue cornmeal is denser than other varieties and has a nuttier flavor. It also is about 20 percent higher in protein than white or yellow cornmeals.
Cornbread should be baked quickly in a very hot oven, Evans said. Most cornbread recipes specify baking at 425 degrees or higher.
"Other than temperature, I think consistency is the key," he said. "Your measurements need to be exact. You can be just a little bit off and mess up the whole batch of cornbread, so if the recipe calls for a set amount of something, be sure and use that amount."
Using buttermilk as the liquid in the batter produces cornbread with a moist, tender interior, Carman said. Buttermilk also is lower in fat than whole or low-fat milk, reducing the fat content of the bread.
When the cornbread is done, flip it out of the skillet quickly to keep moisture from collecting underneath and softening the crust, she suggested.
The accompanying recipes are for several varieties of cornbread. To substitute self-rising cornmeal for plain, omit salt and baking powder.
4 tablespoons butter
2 large onions, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped, to make 1/2 cup
1/2 teaspoon thyme
3 cups cornbread crumbs
3 cups biscuit crumbs
4 eggs, beaten
21/2-3 cups chicken stock, preferably fresh
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons poultry seasoning
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan. Add onions and celery and cook until tender. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a 9-by-13-inch ovenproof baking dish. Remove onions and celery to a large bowl and mix in all remaining ingredients. Pour into prepared baking dish and bake until browned, about 30 minutes. Serves 8 to 10.- From "New Southern Cooking"
2 cups cornmeal
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons corn oil
11/2 cups skim buttermilk
1 egg white
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift together dry ingredients. Pour in oil, buttermilk and egg white, mixing well. Coat an 8-inch square pan with non-stick cooking spray and pour in batter. Bake for 30 minutes.
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 cups hot milk
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons margarine, melted
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine cornmeal and salt in a pan. Stir in water and gradually add milk. Place over low heat and stir until thick and smooth. Spoon small amount of hot mixture into eggs and mix well. Add egg mixture to remaining hot mixture, stirring constantly. Stir in margarine. Pour mixture into a 11/2-quart greased baking dish (a flat dish makes more crust) and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until desired brownness. Serves 6 to 8.- From "Magic," Junior League of Birmingham
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 cup canned cream-style corn
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup melted shortening or bacon drippings
1 cup grated Longhorn cheese
1/4-1/2 cup canned jalapeno peppers, drained, seeded and chopped fine Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir cornmeal, salt and soda together. Combine corn, eggs, buttermilk and shortening and mix with dry ingredients. Pour half of the mixture into a well-greased 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan. Sprinkle with cheese and peppers and add remaining mixture. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the bread browns slightly and springs at the touch. Makes 9 3-inch squares.- From "The Only Texas Cookbook"
13/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup melted shortening or vegetable oil
2 cups self-rising cornmeal mix
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a 9-inch iron skillet, 9-inch square pan, muffin tin or 16 corn stick molds. Heat in oven. Beat egg in mixing bowl and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour batter into hot pan or molds. Muffin cups or corn stick molds should be filled about two-thirds full. Bake 15 to 18 minutes for muffins and sticks or 20 to 25 minutes for skillet and pan.