Once, at a dinner party, a woman turned to me and said, “It’s a shame you don’t have a food heritage.”
The fellow guest, who had Hungarian roots, seemed to be dismissing my generations-deep American tradition as bland. I was too taken aback to reply, but I thought of how much I loved being called to dinner for my mother’s cornbread and beans. Half the appeal, I’ll admit, was the promise of the dessert that followed: honey on warm, buttered cornbread.
If you and your kin have lived in the Americas long enough, your DNA is dusted with cornmeal, an ingredient with Mesoamerican, Native American and African roots. The yellow and white kernels have passed through the hands of indigenous and enslaved people, colonists, moonshiners and noted chefs who have populated a culinary family tree that’s anything but bland.
Researching “meal” quickly becomes a silo-deep dive rich in history and culture. Cornmeal and its many kitchen progeny — cornbread, mush (and fried mush), johnnycakes, spoon bread, spider bread, pudding — inspire strong allegiances and good-natured bickering over recipe origins.
Its most well-known result, cornbread, needn’t induce fretting over what’s authentic: with or without sugar, part wheat flour or not, white meal or yellow, buttermilk or sweet. (My Texas-born, Kentucky-reared grandmother’s handwritten cornbread recipe gently notes, “I have better luck with buttermilk, more tender.”)
What’s important is that cornbread begets comfort. Leftover bread, crumbled into a glass or bowl, soaked with milk (or buttermilk) and drizzled with honey is an enduring childhood favorite and is equally beloved by anyone in need of a soothing treat. “Corn cup” is what Nashville-based pastry chef and writer Lisa Donovan says her father called his regular glass of milk-doused, day-old.
Culinary historian Michael Twitty notes the fortifying nature of the classic quick bread.
“My first solid food was cornbread mashed up in potlikker, the stock left over from a pot of Southern greens,” Twitty writes in his James Beard Award-winning book, “The Cooking Gene.” That mixture, he says, is “the oldest baby food known to black people in America, going back to the days of slavery.”
Although cornmeal and its creations are practically a religion in the South, ground maize commands affection across the continent. In New England, Rhode Island claims johnnycakes, and in Boston, brown bread is made with the grain trio of wheat, rye and cornmeal.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian each have cornmeal-based offerings in their restaurants.
In Detroit, which may be the country’s most southern northern city, cornbread is a constant companion of soul food and barbecue. I fondly recall Friday lunches at Maxie’s Deli in Detroit’s old Irish neighborhood. Cops, reporters, society matrons and lawyers filled counter stools for a bowl of fish chowder served with a hunk of fluffy cornbread and a side of conversation with the beloved Jewish owner, whose colorful past reportedly included rum running.
Maxie’s is no more. But one recent morning, I sampled the cornmeal mush blue-plate special at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich. A waitress placed a bowl of soft, flecked mush, topped with two sunny-side-up eggs and accompanied by a small pitcher of syrup, on my fireside table. The mush was subtly sweet, reflecting a blend of two Anson Mills cornmeal varietals.
“The foods I like are fairly simple, if you start with good ingredients,” Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig explained by phone from Italy, where he was sampling Parmigiano-Reggiano. “When you use stone-ground with the germ left, it’s much livelier.”
The humble, rustic ingredient is becoming even livelier. Millers and chefs are conducting meticulous sleuth work in a quest to find, resuscitate, preserve, grind and cook heirloom varieties that were thought to be forever lost.
Greg Johnsman, a founder of Geechie Boy Mill in Edisto Island, S.C., says when you taste an heirloom that’s local to your area, “It’s like shaking your great-granddaddy’s hand.”
He and others who grow and mill vintage varieties discuss cornmeal like vintners discuss wine. His Jimmy Red meal is nutty, he says; his blue cornmeal, flinty and herby. Some are so sweet, he says, “You’d swear I put a cup of sugar in it.”
Johnsman also extols the aroma of cornmeal. He savors the bouquet emanating from his mill like a sommelier swirling pinot for a sniff.
“You can smell the difference,” Johnsman says. “When I walk in the door — even before I go in the door — I know what they’re working on.”
Fellow aficionado Glenn Roberts, founder of the organic, heirloom Anson Mills in South Carolina, also speaks oenophile lingo when he describes various cornmeals. He ticks off tasting notes: “floral, nuttiness, vanillin, stone fruit, spice nutmeg, cumin.”
Johnsman, Roberts and other heirloom millers say slow, cold milling done with granite millstones followed by fastidiously refrigerated, sealed storage preserves the grains’ aroma and flavor profiles.
Also, like wine, cornmeal has an identifiable mouthfeel and distinctive color. “Toothsome” is the word often used to describe the textural results of baking with cornmeal, especially the coarser grinds. As for hue, Johnsman says, “With Jimmy Red, when you see the beauty of that red fleck in the cornbread, it will flip you out.”
In North Carolina, David Bauer, founder and miller of the Farm and Sparrow Craft Mill and Collection of Grains, cites another cornmeal asset: its ability to retain a large quantity of water.
When cornmeal is used in a bread dough and fermented with yeast or sourdough, “it steams the bread from the inside as the loaf bakes, giving off its distinct aromas and creating an extremely moist interior,” Bauer, an experienced baker, explained in an email. “If the dough is rolled in cornmeal or polenta, it creates a crackly, crunchy texture that smells like sweet popcorn.”
Bauer says cornmeal adds texture and color to pie shells and suggests making the pastry using one-third to one-half cornmeal with the remainder soft pastry flour.
Donovan, who once made a tres leches cake with cornmeal, suggests a relaxed approach when cooking with it.
“Start with someone else’s recipe, but don’t be afraid to play around,” she says. “Throw some poblanos in there.”
“My grandmother was of Zuni/Mexican descent,” she adds. “I base a lot of food on my own personal history.”
In the Americas, cornmeal may be the most indigenous of ingredients, spiraling across regions, and among ethnicities and races, like a genetic double helix.
“Cornmeal, for me, is ancestral, historical; it’s the starch of my people,” Twitty told me recently by phone. “It’s associated with slavery. It’s associated with hardscrabble, poverty and the frontier. But this is the food that fed Aztec and Mayan kings and African royalty.”
Hunger for kinship has us walking heritage trails and tracing our genealogy. But our divining-rod moment in that search for human connection might just occur in the kitchen.
As Johnsman says, “When you bring a skillet of uncut cornbread to the table, it just makes people so happy.”
Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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