Last meals on Earth are the subject of much speculation. Food writers almost always ask Julia Child to compose her final menu and journalists regularly make grisly reports on last meals before executions.

Jack Butler, author of "Jack's Skillet," prefers to focus instead on his first meal in heaven."The foundation upon which all must rest - it cannot be else, it must be, it shall be none other than buttermilk cornbread," Butler writes in his book, which celebrates the sizzling marriage of food and black iron skillets. "You sever the huge golden wedges, lift them steaming from the skillet, slather them with so much butter that every crumb, every tender morsel is bathed in richness."

Cornbread in its purist form - with no sugar, ever - makes the guy from the Delta town of Alligator, Miss., high with happiness. But for others, basic cornbread is just a starting point.

Mark Miller, chef-owner of the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, adds regional ingredients such as pinon nuts, sage, green chilies, chipotle peppers and cilantro to his many versions of cornbread.

Miller thinks highly enough of cornbread to picture a skillet full on the cover of his book "Flavored Breads . . . Recipes from Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe."

Butler, who moved to Santa Fe from Little Rock about five years ago, said he doesn't see much cornbread in restaurants that feature regional foods of the Southwest.

"Corn shows up in tortillas, in posole (hominy) and in fried mush cakes but not much in regular cornbread," he said. "Coyote Cafe is a tourist thing."

In the Southwest, cornmeal is often a vehicle for jalapenos and other chilies. Blue and red cornmeal, not just white and yellow, are also widely used, said Betty Fussell, author of "Crazy for Corn" and "The Story of Corn."

"Chefs in other regions are coming to cornbread through polenta," Fussell said. "They are discovering the cornmeal is a sponge for flavors and textures."

It absorbs flavors and serves as a background for them in a way that wheat cannot, she said.

To spice up the cornbreads in her book, Fussell uses ingredients such as Bloody Mary Mix, raisins, cinnamon, Parmesan cheese, blueberries and sweet potatoes.

While cornbread remains a staple in the South, it was the staff of life for early settlers in all regions.

"Everyone used corn because that's what grew here," Fussell said. "Wheat was difficult to get established in the Northeast and the South. We didn't have a lot of wheat flour until the Midwest was settled."

Early New England cooks would sometimes add small amounts of wheat or rye flour to the cornmeal to try to make it behave more like wheat flour. Wheat flour contains gluten, an elastic protein that reacts with yeast to form the framework of breads. Cornmeal has no gluten, which is why it is best leavened with baking soda or baking powder instead of yeast.

Once wheat flour became readily available, many northern cooks turned totally to yeast breads.

"The cornbread tradition held strong in the South," Fussell said. "I think it's because the South stayed rural to a degree the North did not."

Chefs in many regions are now using cornmeal in lighter creations, many of which have their origins in spoonbread, said Linda Carman, a consultant for Martha White Foods in Nashville.

"Spoonbread is the lightest, richest, most delicious of all cornmeal dishes, a veritable cornbread souffle," writes John Egerton in "Southern Food." "It is an excellent companion to country ham and red-eye gravy and it is also well matched with seafood, fresh garden vegetables, hot fruit dishes and salads."

Carman developed a dessert version with lemon flavoring.

Martha White is again teaming with a Tennessee iron skillet maker, Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, in a recipe contest featuring main dishes made with cornmeal and baked in iron skil-lets.

Many of the recipes submitted feature southwestern flavors with cornbread baked on the top.

"When you don't use a separate pan for the bread, the meal gets to the table more quickly," Carman said.

At last year's contest, she remembers a recipe for stuffed poblano chili peppers baked within a soft cornmeal batter that was especially good.

This year's entries include "some neat Cajun things, upscale recipes with sun-dried tomatoes, Tex-Mex recipes and a pork sausage dish with dried cherries and apples," said Mindy Merrell, a Nashville public relations executive who works with Carman on the Martha White contest.

Salads made with crumbled cornbread are "like potato salad without the potatoes," Merrell said.

The contests have flushed out numerous cornbread pizzas, including some topped with barbecued pork. In Middle Tennessee, pork barbecue is typically served with cornbread.

"I usually bake my cornbread in a skillet, but if I'm in a hurry, I'll make corn cakes," Butler said. "I just whip up a batter and pour it like pancakes in a skillet."

BASIC BUTTERMILK CORNBREAD

4 cups yellow cornmeal (whole kernel preferred)

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

6 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter

3 medium eggs

2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut in all but 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add eggs and buttermilk and beat until a smooth, thick batter forms.

Melt reserved 2 tablespoons butter in a 10 1/4-inch black iron skillet, about 2 inches deep.

Pour batter into hot skillet and place skillet in oven. Bake for 30 minutes and check the bread. It should be lightly browned and slightly split open on top. If it's not done, give it 10 to 20 minutes more.

Remove from oven, divide into sections and butter immediately. Serves 6.

- Source: Jack's Skillet by Jack Butler

LEMON SPOONBREAD WITH BERRIES

1 cup self-rising cornmeal mix

1 1/2 cups milk

3 eggs, separated

1/4 cup butter

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

2 cups sweetened blackberries, raspberries or strawberries

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a deep 2-quart baking dish with additional butter. In large mixing bowl, place cornmeal. Heat milk to boiling; gradually stir into cornmeal until smooth and thickened; set aside. In medium bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form; set aside. Add butter, sugar, lemon juice, peel and egg yolks to cornmeal mixture; beat well. Fold egg whites into cornmeal mixture. Pour into greased baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and set. Serve hot topped with berries. Serves 6 to 8.

- Source: Martha White Kitchen

HOT TOMATO CORN MUFFINS

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup Bloody Mary mix (or Tabasco-spiked tomato juice)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 12-muffin tin or two six-muffin tins by greasing cups or lining with paper inserts.

Toast the cornmeal in a shallow baking pan in the oven for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove and set aside. Raise oven heat to 400 degrees.

Sift together dry ingredients including toasted cornmeal. Mix in raisins and walnuts. Beat together oil, eggs, sour cream and Bloody Mary mix. Add the liquids to the dry mixture and stir until barely blended. Scoop into muffin pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until tops are crusty and lightly browned. Makes 12 muffins.

- Source: "Crazy for Corn" by Betty Fussell

TENNESSEE CORNBREAD SALAD

1 package (6 ounce) cornbread mix, prepared as directed

3 cups chopped tomatoes

1 cup chopped green pepper

1 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped sweet pickles (juice reserved)

12 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup reserved pickle juice

Crumble half of prepared cornbread into bottom of large serving bowl. In another bowl, combine tomatoes, green peppers, onion, pickles and bacon; blend well. Spoon half vegetable mixture over cornbread.

Stir mayonnaise and pickle juice together; spread half of dressing over vegetables. Repeat layering procedure with remaining cornbread, vegetables and dressing. Cover tightly and chill 2 to 3 hours before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

- Source: Martha White Kitchen