I can’t imagine Appalachia without cornbread. It’s as much a part of this place as the hills and hollers, as the Cherokee and the rhododendrons. It’s as essential a food as ramps and fiddlehead ferns and wild ginsing. A batch of cornbread tells the story of this place.
First off, it’s important to note that Appalachian and Southern cuisine aren’t exactly synonymous, much like squares and rectangles. Southern cooking is as broad a category as the region itself, encapsulating everything from low country boils to Cajun gumbos to Virginia ham to Alabama catfish. Appalachian cooking is full of flavors and ingredients unique to the area, with dishes like poke sallet, vinegar pie, greasy beans, and more. It’s a culinary legacy built on thrift, foraging, and ingenuity.
Jane Black writes for the Washington Post of Appalachian cuisine:
It’s a scrappy, intelligent way of cooking that, out of necessity, embraced preserving, canning, fermenting and using every part of the animal long before all that was trendy. The short growing season in the mountains put a focus on preservation of all kinds: smoked meats, pickled vegetables, fruit turned into jams and jellies. Many families were poor, so little was wasted.
Many of the dishes we associate with traditional Southern cooking, like fried chicken, pimento cheese, and biscuits, didn’t become common on Appalachian tables until the Great Depression. That’s around when marketers, charities, and government aid programs promoting processed foods like refined white flour and jarred pimentos encouraged residents of Appalachia to try new ways of cooking and eating.
Those dishes we think of as Southern staples were more labor intensive than traditional Appalachian dishes like barbecue, cowpeas, and, of course, cornbread. Biscuits took a long time and plenty of rolling and kneading to make— the kind of work busy farmers didn’t have much time for, but that a well-to-do family who could afford help could have on the table. Cornbread, in contrast, was simple to throw together and get in the oven.
Cornbread, like many Appalachian staples, has its roots in American Indian foodways. Native peoples throughout the Americas used cornmeal as a staple. Maize, after all, is native to the Americas, not Europe. In Appalachia, it was the Cherokee and Shawnee who taught Scotch Irish settlers and free blacks how to use this versatile ingredient. Like the region itself, cornbread has since evolved into an incredibly diverse dish. You will hear people hotly debating adding sugar, molasses, or honey, advocating for cheese or meat in the mix, or various greens, peppers, and herbs.
At its heart, though, cornbread is little more than cornmeal, fat, liquid, a binder, and salt. It can be leavened into a fluffy light cake or unleavened as a quick bread also known as corn pone, hoe cakes, or skillet bread. How you grew up eating it—crumbled into a cold glass of milk, with honey or molasses, with whole corn kernels added in or not—says a lot about where you’re from.
In Appalachia, cornbread is typically unleavened and cooked in a well-greased iron skillet. And the recipes are often passed down orally, without exact measurements. In that spirit, here is the gist of how to make your own sage cornbread with the fresh herbs from your share.
3 cups cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat flour
Handful fresh chopped sage
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt
3 cups buttermilk (or yogurt mixed with water to consistency of cream)
Generous amount bacon grease, lard, olive oil, or butter
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients and sage. Then add the egg, liquids, and fat. Mix until well blended, and pour into a well-greased cast iron skillet, glass baking dish, or muffin tins. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden brown and slightly pulling away from the edges of dish.