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Cornbread and the Problem of Authenticity

Much is made of authenticity in food. We speak of "authentic" ethnic food as if we have some idea of what we're talking about--as if we could tell the difference between the real thing and an impostor if both were presented to us simultaneously. Has a blind taste test been conducted on authenticity? If so, I would like to know the results.

To my mind, it only makes sense that there is a great deal of flux in what we call authentic. Is there a definitive cassoulet recipe? Paella? It would stand to reason that the peasants who invented these foods and their analogs would have used what they had on hand. Further, what they had on hand must have changed month to month, season to season.

I suppose what I dislike about the term "authentic" is that it implies not only a right and a wrong way of doing things but also that what is authentic is better than something inauthentic. Or that the authentic way of doing something is categorically superior to any other way. But problems arise here. What if one creates a new take on an authentic recipe or dish, and the new is tastier than the old? Do we still look down on it--if only a little--for being inauthentic? Or what about all those dishes--like kedgeree or Country Captain--that are inauthentic in and of themselves; plays on another cuisine that are neither of that cuisine nor the one that cobbled the dish together? 

Take cornbread as a lesson in authenticity and its deceptiveness.

Cornbread is a matter of constant debate. A few months ago, when a very gussied up cornbread recipe appeared on the NY Times website, the comment thread was awash with vitriol and disbelief. Tamper with authentic cornbread?! How dare you!

I'll be honest. As a southerner, I tend to think that I am entitled to a word on cornbread. I grew up in a family of talented southern cooks, all of whom make cornbread. The catch is that all of them make it slightly differently.

My grandmother on my father's side adds corn kernels. My nana--my mother's mother--uses mayonnaise instead of oil and eggs, and her cornbread is very thin and crusty. My own mother always made a much richer, more tender version with whole corn, cottage cheese, and plenty of eggs and oil.

This would all be somewhat problematic if I believed in the doctrine of authenticity. Whose cornbread would I call authentic? Or would I call none of them authentic? These women are all "authentic" southern cooks. To give only one, or none of them, a gold star for authenticity seems disingenuous. And what about all those good folks who add sugar to their cornbread? Are they totally off base? Cracklin's or no cracklin's? Bacon grease or oil? Cast iron skillet or baking pan?

My thinking is that it's a matter of taste. So sue me.

My favorite cornbread is simple--cornmeal (yellow or white), buttermilk, eggs. Bacon grease in a hot cast iron skillet. I love it dark and crusty on the outside with a tender golden crumb--a contrast I believe can only be achieved with cast iron. My go-to recipe is JOY's Southern Corn Bread.

I've added ramps just for kicks (also: we're trying to go through them before we leave town next week--no good coming home to a super stinky fridge), but the recipe would be the same without them. You could also use onions instead if you want that extra bit of flavor. 

Other articles you might enjoy: Sweet and Spicy Ramp Bacon, Faux Smoked Pulled Pork, Fermented Louisiana-Style Hot Sauce

Southern Corn Bread (with or without ramps)
Makes one 9-inch bread

Preheat the oven to 450°F with a heavy 9-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, in the oven. You can also use an 8-inch square glass baking dish if you don't have a cast iron pan, but you don't need to preheat the oven with the glass pan in it.
Whisk together thoroughly in a large bowl:
           1 3/4 cups cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
            1 teaspoon baking powder
            1 teaspoon baking soda
            1 teaspoon kosher salt
Whisk until foamy in another bowl:
            2 large eggs
Whisk in:
            1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk*
Add to the dry ingredients and whisk just until blended. Remove the skillet from the oven and add:
            1 tablespoon bacon fat, lard, oil, or vegetable shortening
If using ramps or onions, add them now. Briefly sauté them until wilted or translucent. Use up to half a cup of minced onions or ramps.
Pour the batter into the pan all at once.
Bake until the top is browned and the center feels firm when pressed, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve immediately from the pan, cut into wedges or squares, with:
Leftovers, though dry, are nice enough if wrapped in foil and rewarmed in a low oven. You can also put a crumbled slice of cornbread in a glass and cover with buttermilk--my favorite way to eat leftover cornbread.

*If you are using a stone-ground cornmeal, which is to say coarser, you may want to use the larger amount of buttermilk. If using a normal, store-bought, finely ground cornmeal, use the smaller amount. Either way, start with 1 1/2 cups and go from there. You want the batter to be fairly thin (i.e. not as thick as pancake batter) but not soupy.


PMac's picture

I am going to try this with coconut oil. So there.


meg's picture

Go for it! We always try to get people to make our recipes their own. I'm sure coconut oil will be great.
Jo s's picture

Lust wondering if the 2 cups of buttermilk is a typo. I thought it seemed like a lot and sure enough after cooking It for 25 minutes in my convection oven on 450, it was still soupy in the middle. Probably need one cup of buttermilk instead of 2!
meg's picture

Thanks for pointing this out! Actually, it depends on what type of cornmeal you use. I use a coarser cornmeal, and 2 cups of buttermilk is about right, but for some finer cornmeals, this is too much buttermilk. I wouldn't go down to 1 cup though--don't think that would be quite enough. Maybe try 1 1/2. I've altered the recipe to reflect this.
Jill's picture

I have made this recipe several times, using stone ground cornmeal. But the cornmeal separates during cooking. It drops to the bottom of the bread. I preheat the cast iron pan and pour the batter in quickly. Any idea why I am having this problem?
meg's picture

Hmmm...this is an interesting problem. It sounds as if you're doing everything right. My immediate guess is that the heavier particles of cornmeal are sinking to the bottom simply because they're heavier, and irregularly shaped particles are par for the course with stone-ground cornmeal. Is the cornbread good? How does it taste?
Jill's picture

The first time this separation happened, it was quite pronounced, and the "eggy" layer was weird. The second time I was more careful, so it only separated a little and it tasted great! I wondered too about the stoneground cornmeal being heavy, but I like the texture. I'll keep trying.
meg's picture

Huh, that's odd that it was eggy, but it sounds like you're on the right track. You might even try adding a small amount of all-purpose flour--1/4 cup--to help prevent the separation.
Sandi Haste's picture

Michael's picture

My family found it really salty and eggy tasting. I Have an old Joy Of Cooking that I usually get the corn bread recipe from, but I could not find it. I tried this recipe but was disappointed. Did I mention it was salty?
meg's picture

Thanks for the feedback, Michael. We're sorry that you found it salty. Did you use bacon grease? If so, this could be the problem. We also use kosher salt for cooking, which may have impacted your cornbread if you're using iodized salt (which would be saltier than kosher by volume).
C Wagy's picture

Glad to find this old favorite recipe online. I've made this hundreds of times as my wife is sensitive to gluten. I think the separation problem can happen for 2 reasons: 1. pan not hot enough 2. old cornmeal - let your batter rest a few minutes and whisk it again I also cook mine on the stovetop for about a minute with the flame on high before putting it in the oven.

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Trim and slice very, very thinly on a mandoline or with a sharp knife:
           1 large fennel bulb