by Channing Mathews
When I think of cornbread, I am immediately transported to my maternal grandma’s Floridian kitchen, where both my grandma and eldest Auntie were always cooking up a storm. My grandma’s tiny house would be filled with the delicious smells of collards, stewed catfish, and saffron rice, with gravy bubbling nearby. But nothing beat the cornbread. That curiously warm mostly-bread-but almost cake always had me on my tippy toes, peering into the kitchen hoping that I would get that warm corner bite…you know, the one with crunchy edges. And that sweet savory bite of yellow goodness and golden sunshine hitting my tastebuds is ingrained in my memory forever…and is my standard for excellence.
My momma took crunchy edges to the next level when she introduced a cornbread variation, cracklin’ bread, into our lives and into my always hungry belly. In this version, my momma used yellow cornmeal and added in pieces of pork crackling, which is essentially pieces of crispy and chewy pork skin– think of bacon with more emphasis on the lard– and jalapeño…whew, chile! You talk about DELICIOUS!
Though my momma’s side of the family stuck to yellow cornbread, my papa is notorious for his skillet white cornbread. I would watch in fascination as he made what Southerners call “hoe-cake bread.” Using a black skillet, I would watch him pour the white cornmeal batter into the hot pan, sizzling as it landed. As bubbles percolated the top of the gooey mixture, he would flip the cake in one swoop, exposing a crispy brown underside. Once done, the dense brown cake was ready to serve, and I’d be salivating over every crispy crunch.
As an adult I still love cornbread in its many varieties, and the stories that come with them. Even in my own family, you can see the evolution of cornbread and its many varieties. Cornbread is a traditional food that can be found across many Black holiday dinner tables across the US. Whether we are celebrating Thanksgiving or just having a regular Sunday dinner, you will often hear a “Pass the cornbread” as you pile your plate with deliciousness.
The three versions of cornbread that capture my childhood– yellow/sweet cornbread, crackling bread, and hoecake bread– are all representations of a blended history between Indigenous and Black enslaved people’s cooking that have been passed down through our generations. As food historian and author Michael Twitty notes in his book, The Cooking Gene, cornbread is rooted in the cooking practices of Indigenous peoples across what is now known as the Southeastern United States and Mexico. Twitty outlines how teosinte seed, the ancestor of the corn/maize varieties that we know in America today, was grown by hundreds of Indigenous groups to nourish the masses. Simultaneously, corn remained a staple across many African cultures, traveling with enslaved groups to the Americas where our ancestors recreated dishes reminiscent of the lands they once knew and blended them with Indigenous practices that form the roots of Southern cooking today. My dad’s hoecake bread comes from our enslaved ancestors who mixed white cornmeal, water, and occasionally a little salt, which often came in the form of ash, to form a dense pancake-like batter that was cooked on a hoe in an open fire. My mother’s cracklin’ bread could be considered a “wealthy” version of the hoecake bread, where small bits of meat available to our ancestors could be stretched by mixing it with cornmeal and preserving its nutrients to feed the endlessly working bodies who tended local crops. In reading Twitty’s book, I continue to be amazed at what our people were able to do with so little, and how much we have yet to discover about our contributions to Western culture.
My emerging journey as a food and drink writer is a search for uncovering more of these stories, of how our most beloved foods came to fill the spaces of our most beloved communities. Furthermore, I seek out the ways new food spaces are honoring the ways of our ancestors, springing us back to the memories of our childhoods, and, in my case, on the floors of my grandma’s kitchen.
This week, my search took me to check out The Ridley, an upscale, Black-owned restaurant in Charlottesville on Main Street that serves Southern cuisine. As expected, the Ridley featured a skillet cooked cornbread packed with sweet and savory bites, among them honey, whipped butter, cracked pepper and chives. And HONEY! You talk about good! As my friends and I enjoyed our meals, I was transported to my grandma’s kitchen as I savored every sweet and savory morsel…melded together perfectly with a good dollop of butter. Though the Ridley boasts a solidly southern menu featuring seafood, burgers, steaks and our favorite veggie sides, the cornbread was by far and above my favorite choice of the meal. What made the meal extra sweet was knowing that some of the proceeds from our meal were going towards the Ridley Scholarship Program, a merit-based scholarship program that recruits talented Black students to attend the University of Virginia. The program, along with the restaurant, is named in honor of Dr. Walter N. Ridley who earned a doctorate of education from the University of Virginia, becoming the first Black graduate of the University in 1953.
Thanks to The Ridley for transporting me back to my grandma’s kitchen, and for celebrating the legacies of our ancestors.