WITH ALL due respect to the goodness of pumpernickel, rye bread, yeast rolls, French loaves, potato bread and all the fascinating variety that overflows the breadbasket -- there are times when only cornbread will do. And good cornbread is hard to find. But there are signs that the quest will become easier, with the resurgent interest in better nutrition and natural foods.

Gristmills once were a common sight in America, and a trip to the miller with corn and other grain was a social occasion as well as a practical one. Traditionalists declare that there is no cornmeal that can match whole grain, waterground cornmeal. It does have a grainy texture and special flavor all its own. When cornmeal from these small gristmills is available, it is well worth trying.

Cornmeal sustained our ancestors in more ways than one -- not only was it used in all kinds of cornbread, but it was used in meat casseroles and pies, in scrapple and liver pudding, in desserts like Indian pudding, in breakfast mush or "cush," and many other dishes -- and it was widely used in barter. Sacks and barrels of cornmeal were traded for other goods and services, and cornmeal was a staple in the pantry.

Cornmeal has a place in polentas, meat casseroles and pies and is the basic ingredient for a wide swath of breads, ranging from simple pone to waffles and rolls to plain baked cornbread hushpuppies. (The latter got their colorful name, it is said, when fishermen returning to their village would toss these fried cornmeal morsels to dogs howling underfoot, with the admonition. "Hush!") While cornmeal recipes of all kinds can be found in cookbooks, by far the most popular use of cornmeal is in cornbread.

Cornmeal is a meal made of ground whole-kernel corn. The meal is either yellow or white; but for slight nutritional differences, and the obvious difference in color, they may be used interchangeably. The cornmeal found on most supermarkets shelves is finely ground from degermed corn. It is very good, though different in texture (and some say in flavor) from waterground cornmeal. Be sure to store cornmeal in dry containers with tight lids.If too much moisture gets to the cornmeal it may become moldy.

Normally, cornmeal will keep for several months in a tightly sealed container in a dry place. Some cooks prefer to store waterground cornmeal in the refrigerator, but it is unnecessary. Incidentally, grits are the roughest grind of wholegrain corn, then comes cornmeal; the very finest grind is corn flour. Hominy is corn, too. It is skinned kernels of dry corn soaked in a lime solution and then canned in a brine solution. (In pioneer times hominy was soaked in a lye solution made from wood ashes. Happily, those days are past.) A cornmeal comes both plain and self-rising. There are also some cornbread mixes that are handy, but by no means the same as cornbread made from "scratch." For one thing, they are usually too sweet, and for another it is less expensive to make your own.

So when a craving for cornbread strikes and a change from the usual bread-rut seems like a good idea, the well-prepared cook will step to the pantry shelf for the cornmeal and stir up a batch of golden-crusted, heavenly-smelling cornbread. SHIRLEY'S CORNBREAD (4 or 5 servings) 1 cup yellow or white cornmeal 1/2 cup all purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons sugar 1 cup buttermilk 1 egg 1 tablespoon bacon fat or oil

Heat a heavy 10-inch skillet (with ovenproof handle) at 350 degrees 5 to 10 minutes. While pan heats, lightly spoon cornmeal into measuring cup. Put in mixing bowl. Sift flour with salt and sugar into cornmeal in mixing bowl. Add buttermilk and egg.Beat together until well mixed. Remove pan from oven, raise temperature to 450 degrees, put bacon fat in pan to melt, tilting pan to coat entire surface. Pour cornbread mixture into hot pan, and bake 25 to 30 minutes.

Note: 1/2 cup pea-size cracklings or crumbled bacon may be added to this cornbread mixture before baking. HUSHPUPPIES (About 24 hushpuppies) 2 cups white cornmeal 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 tablespoon salt 1 egg 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients. Add egg and buttermilk to make a thick batter. Drop from teaspoon into deep hot fat (375 degrees) and cook until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve hot. Excellent with fish. SPLENDID JOHNNYCAKE 1 1/2 cups cornmeal 2 tablespoons all purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 2 cups milk 1/4 cup melted butter, cooled

Combine and sift dry ingredients. Beat in milk and cooled butter. Mix well. Pour in buttered 9-inch square pan and bake at 400 degrees about 40 minutes. (Check at 30 minutes.)

(Try this with molasses butter: 1/2 stick soft butter whipped with 3 or 4 tablespoons good quality molasses.) TOUCH O'CORNMEAL BISCUITS (16 biscuits) 1/3 cup cornmeal 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/3 cup vegetable shortening 1/3 to 1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put cornmeal in large mixing bowl. Over it sift remaining dry ingredients. Add shortening and work in with fingers or pastry blender. Add buttermilk, starting with 1/3 cup and adding more if needed, to form a soft dough. Form dough into a ball, and roll out 1/3-inch thick on floured board. Cut out with 2-inch round biscuit cutter, and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Do not allow sides of biscuits to touch. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter and bake 12 to 15 minutes. (Note: after brushing tops with butter, biscuits may be sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds, or generous amount of grated cheddar or parmesan cheese.) YANKEE CORN STICKS (or Muffins) (12 muffins) 1 1/2 cups flour 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons sugar 1 egg, well beaten 2/3 cup cream-style corn (canned) 1 cup milk 2 tablespoons cool melted shortening or oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease 12 corn-stick pan-openings or 12 muffin cups. Sift dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. Blend egg with corn, milk and shortening and mix with dry ingredients. Mix just until moistened, don't overbeat. Fill corn stick pans or muffin cups and bake 10 minutes or until golden brown. EASY SPOONBREAD 1 quart milk 2 cups white or yellow cornmeal 1 teaspoon sugar 4 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon brandy Pinch nutmeg

Grease a 1 1/2-to 2-qt. ovenproof casserole dish. Heat milk to boiling. Stir in cornmeal and sugar. Add eggs, brandy and nutmeg. Beat well. Bake 25 minutes at 350 to 375 degrees until thick and brown. This traditional cornmeal dish is good with poultry, stews, roasts, chops, etc.)