Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white.

It used to be that, in most of the cornbread-eating regions of the country, white cornmeal was the preference. It was thought in old Rhode Island, for example, that yellow cornmeal was strictly for chickens. This may have reflected some real distinction between varieties of corn, but it definitely reflected a broad belief that white foods — flour, sugar — were more refined and therefore better.1

Now, in progressive food culture, that distinction is reversed: refined is bad. White flour and white sugar are seen to be unhealthy, flavorless, and industrial in origin. And that association has, again, infected preferences about unrelated foods. Cage free or farm raised eggs, for example, must be brown, even though there are plenty of perfectly good breeds of chickens that lay white eggs. My friendly neighborhood Whole Foods stocks only yellow grits in the bulk aisle, because, I assume, the sort of people who buy grains in bulk would eschew white grits. (When I asked after white grits, the Bulk Foods Guy responded with something only slightly above a sneer.)

Some of this reversal has to do with cost. White flour was more expensive than brown until the early nineteenth century; white sugar was more expensive than brown until about 1880. The refining process genuinely cost money, but the fact of the expense also to some degree made the products more desirable. Now, of course, it’s precisely the opposite. Brown sugar is more expensive than white, and “raw” sugar is even pricier than that. And, again, the relationship of price and desirability is circular: high price not only reflects but signifies and inspires desire.

But some of it also seems to have to do with what white food signifies. White grits tend to be finer ground than yellow and to cook faster and smoother; they make a more refined dish, in the sense of being more delicate and subtle, but whiteness also signifies industrial refinement. As does, I think, the fineness of grind. Yellow grits look less industrial and therefore more natural, and the little shards that take longer to cook make them seem even purer.

The meal I buy for cornbread comes in paper bags from a mill here in North Carolina,2 and I buy it at the cheap chain grocery store up the road. (I don’t believe you can get it up North.) It is not a mill that brands itself as local to snag foodies; it just happens to be located in North Carolina and continues to grind corn as it has for ages, for people who wish to bake cornbread as they have for ages. This cornmeal is also not organic: it is not, again, that sort of mill.

Now, all things being equal, I would prefer to buy cornmeal that was not ground from genetically modified corn. But most companies that do grind organic corn don’t seem to offer the fine-ground white stuff — either because most progressive foodies don’t know how to bake proper cornbread anyway, or because fine white meal would look too industrial and insufficiently Authentic and Wholesome. When I have found organic fine-ground cornmeal, it’s come in very small, very expensive bags, at nearly five times the price of the old-fashioned meal.3 (It’s still been yellow.) Now, non-GMO corn does not cost five times as much as GMO corn, and even allowing for the fact that food is generally underpriced in this country, I have my limits. I’m simply not going to pay that kind of premium for the idea of the thing being organic.

All else being equal, though, I’d also rather support the local mill than a national company — the mill that began in 1854 doing custom milling for farmers in the neighborhood and still makes traditional products, rather than the big concern that repackages those traditions as Authentically Southern or Old Timey and charges me a premium for them.

I’d like to have it both ways. But as long as white means industrial and un-progressive and organic means expensive, urban, and snooty, I won’t. Which is stupid.

But the cornbread is good.

Recipe: Basic southern cornbread

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups fine stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups buttermilk

Equipment

An 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet, a couple of decent bowls, and a good wire whip. A rubber spatula is nice, too.

Procedure

Set the oven to 375°F. Place the butter in the skillet and the skillet in the oven to let the butter melt while the oven heats.

Whisk together the cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Beat the eggs until very light, then stir in the buttermilk. When the oven is hot, whisk the wet and dry ingredients together, pour the batter into the skillet — the butter will rise up around it — and bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden and firm in the center, and/or a cake tester comes out clean.

It’s best served immediately.

Notes

  • You want an 8- or 9-inch cast iron skillet for this, because cast iron will give a crisper crust than anything else. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, use a cake pan or anything else of similar volume, but then go out and get a cast iron skillet and season it before you make this again. They’re cheap and they last a lifetime.
  • If you don’t have any buttermilk, use regular milk (not skim, please), and replace the baking soda with an extra teaspoon of baking powder. Then go out and buy some buttermilk. Seriously.
  • I find that the cornmeal clumps a bit in the batter unless I actually whisk it smooth, but since cornmeal has no gluten, you don’t have to worry about making your bread tough by overbeating it.
  • Bacon fat is an excellent substitute for the butter.
  1. I haven’t had time to trace the cultural history of colors of cornmeal; at the moment all I have is an item from 1838 listing yellow at 70 cents a bushel and white at 5 cents more. See New England Farmer and Gardener’s Journal 16:43, May 2, 1838, p. 338.
  2. Moss’ Water Ground Cornmeal from the Buffaloe Milling Company in Kittrell.
  3. $3.99 per 24 ounces vs. $2.99 per 5 lbs.

6 thoughts on “Cornbread and the color line”

  1. Thank you so much for the recipe and it’s slather of historical condiment! Now my family can peacefully enjoy this delicious dish…certifiably southern but without the sugar my yankee Mom abhors in cornbread, and gluten free so I can myself consume it. In quantity, I might add…bread of any sort being rather a rare event in my diet. Delicious. Yay.

  2. Christine, of course, but I’m asking whether there’s any real and general difference between white and yellow corn besides color. Is there a fundamental link in the genes of the plant between color and flavor or the way it grinds? Or have we bred varieties with characteristics that match our feelings about their colors? Or is it all just nonsense? There’s an agricultural question in there that would take considerably more research, and maybe isn’t answerable.

  3. Good topic. I have an aversion to eating straight up yellow corn. I repeat what my grandparents told me in that yellow corn was fodder and not meant for human consumption. Yellow corn (being more difficult to digest) was used for pig food, and was always altered in some manner to make it edible i.e. hominy, grits, cornmeal. White corn varieties were developed and promoted for “people” food and considered more desireable. Now, I have no historical data to prove this is true, only oral tradition, but sometimes that can lead to a grain of truth.

  4. People look at me crazy when I say that even in America, tradition dictates that white corn is people food and yellow corn is for animals. White corn is the most common in Africa where corn remains a staple food. Yellow corn is rarely grown and there is a strong sentiment that yellow corn is animal feed. I can taste the difference – white corn is a milder, more neutral taste. Yellow corn tends to have a stronger ‘corn’ taste. White corn in the US is grown only for human food products. Poultry fed white corn need marigold or other coloring additives or their yolks come out strangely colorless (free-range chickens tend to get the coloring also from eating lots of green things.) Ghana, for example, has some of the worst eggs I’ve eaten. Not only do the chickens eat the local white corn available on the market (available because the largest portion of the market is human food and the farmers eat the corn first, selling excess into the market), but they also feed them fishmeal. So the egg (at a fancy hotel mind you) had no yolk color and tasted like fish.
    But back to the white versus yellow – there used to be more flour corns grown for human food. Flint corns though don’t make as fine of flours/grinds, but are more insect/disease resistant. There are yellows and whites of both. You should read Carol Deppe’s book, The Resilient Gardener, for a bit more on the various types of corn, their production, and what they can/were used for.
    But my hypothesis is that it isn’t only color, but also a more neutral taste to the traditional white corns. And it isn’t only here in America, but also widely accepted/preferred in other regions as well.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.