Cornbread has indeed saved the world. Seems like a broad statement, so let me explain. Not just a staple of the South where cornbread is religion and the daily bread part of every important occasion, corn and cornbread has sustained folks around the world and was especially significant in the New World where local Native Americans shared their ways with the starving colonists and helped to shape and flavor the regional cornbreads of America: skillet-baked buttermilk Southern cornbread; sweet cake-like Northern cornbread; chile spiced, smoky Southwestern cornbread.
In our house, cornbread is King; growing up in Northwest Arkansas, I brought my religion with me, as many before me have. Cornbread is the first thing College Girl requests when she comes home and it was one of the first foods I absolutely had to find a way to make without baking powder when Don was put on a very restricted sodium diet. Why no baking powder? Surprising to us, and to many who are watching their sodium intake, bread is one of The Salty Six. Not only is most bread highly processed with salt added for flavor and a preservative, but a component of nearly every baked good is baking baking soda or baking powder – baking soda has an astounding 150 mg. of sodium per 1/8th teaspoon and baking powder 55 mg. per 1/8 teaspoon. The labeling verges on deceptive because when do you use only 1/8 of a teaspoon? When you do the math, that is 1,200 and 440 mg of sodium per teaspoon respectively! Check the label.
But, back to cornbread and its place in food history. You can find cornbread brethren in Mexico as pan de elote, arepas in Columbia and Latin America; humitas in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. New World corn spread to Old World Europe - broa, a yeast risen dense cornbread, served with caldo verde in Portugal, and more of a cornmeal mush in Italy’s polenta in Italy and Romanian mamaliga. The path of corn around the world is as intriguing as tales of spice traders, and no one tells it better than passionate author Crescent Dragonwagon who spent six years following the cornbread trail from the Green Mountains to the Ozarks, to Latin America, Asia, and beyond researching and writing The Cornbread Gospels.
“No other single food has been the subject of more passionate discussion, on and off the record, than cornbread. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain are just a few of those who wrote heatedly about cornbread. No other single food has more purely American historical and cultural connections, from the worship of Mother Corn, the Corn Goddess, by Native Americans, to the survival of the Pilgrims, … to its darker history, that of a staple food to those once enslaved in this country.”
Usually I bake cornbread in my cast iron skillet and it makes a nice homespun presentation but I also like to serve it in my brick red apple casserole dish because I get to eat the little crunchy “stem” piece. College Girl always liked the puffy center pieces, I adore the crunchy edges, and Don is an equal opportunity cornbread eater.
Cornbread is a given when I cook Southern dishes like beans, my un-fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, pulled pork and, of course, chili and ribs. Over the years I tweaked my cornbread recipe to be a little less caloric by substituting 1% milk for whole milk and sunflower oil for butter or bacon fat. Now, with the help of Hain Featherweight Sodium-Free Baking Powder (yes, there is such a thing – it contains potassium in lieu of sodium) and no added salt, it also has nearly zero sodium (milk has a little). Some people like sweet cornbread – we’re not one of those people – there is only a scant 1/4 cup of sugar for just a touch of sweetness.