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Evolution of cornbread

in Culinary Traditions & Food Ways by

Cornbread is a staple in the US cuisine. The journey of it becoming an important dish transports cornbread between Africans, Natives and colonies of the Americas.

In the past, harvests and geography determined holiday food traditions.

In the United States, three major factors decided your food consumption: location, the type of food grown and the animals raised. However, cornbread or meals made from corn meal were commonly eaten throughout homes in the U.S.

Nowadays, cornbread is prepared in a variety of ways. From sweet, cake-like versions to a coarse renditions with a savory taste, cornbread embeds itself into the history of the country.

But, I must emphasize that cornbread, traditionally was not sweet, and had very little salt, if any. Back then, spices were premium luxuries that enslaved Africans did not have, nor once freed, rarely could afford.

Nonetheless, today’s vast culinary industry flips cornbread in many ways.

Evolution of Cornbread

During Colonial America, corn became an essential ration. As soon as colonists settled (or stole) a plot of land, the planting of corn was almost immediate.

Pumpkin, beans, sorghum and millet were crops indigenous to the area and found in Africa. Although, millet, a more digestible grain could easily switch out corn, settlers preferred corn’s ease of growing even in distressed soil. As a result, corn quickly became a cash crop.

Photo credit: Roderico Y Diaz

Before the Civil War, travelers detailed meals in personal diaries, journals and travel logs. In their journeys in the wilderness of the South, they spoke of a fried Indian corn cake as the regular staple in food. Rather than European-styled breads, Natives prepared a fried cornmeal mixed with water—a precursor to Southern hoecakes and probably the tortilla.

On a side note, Dr. Joseph Holloway says that traditional grits comes from Africa. Originally, grits were kernels of dried Indian corn hulls grounded and cooked in water. This food is a direct descendant of Nigerian ẹbà, a dried, grated cassava cooked in hot water and stirred with a spoon and often eaten for breakfast.

Low Country Cornbread

Stuffing Made with cornbread and herbs

Around the late 1700s is when Kush, Gullah kush or Cush emerges. The ancestor to modern cornbread stuffing, kush was probably around before then, but records of the dietary habits of Americans started after the Revolutionary War.

Kush, is a dish made from leftover crumbled cornbread cooked in butter of fatback with herbs, onions, garlic and peppers. A savory delicacy, the term Kush derives from the Hausa word kusha. As well, Kush is the ancient name of the one of the first nations of African peoples out of the today’s Egypt, Sudan area.

West African woman preparing a dish made from cassava. Photo credit: Annie Spratt

Often food from Africa transformed in the Americas.

Like fufu or akpu, a West and Central African staple that became a South Carolina dish called “turn meal and flour.” Traditionally, fufu consists of boiled cassava roots, yams or green plantains. Pounded into a mortal and pestle into a dough-like consistency, fufu is eaten with flavorful, often spicy stews and soups.

Sometimes cooks add chives or onions to enhance flavor, but it is mostly flavorless because soups contain a complex combination of spices.

In the U.S., Africans used corn and maize to substitute cassava, beloved yams and plantains. Eventually, the mixtures evolved into hotwater cornbread, which is cornmeal mixed with hot water then shaped into patties and fried.

Creole Cornbread

Moving from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf Coast is another take on corn bread called Coush Coush. Similar to kush, it derives from leftover cornbread crumbled then placed in milk, condensed milk or buttermilk. A creole dish eaten either warm or cold and sometimes sweetened with molasses or sugar straight from the cane, it is a hearty breakfast food.

Ironically, when crumbled, Coush Coush resembles Moroccan couscous.

Another way creole culture uses cornbread is crumbling it over red beans as a substitute for rice or an added a sweet-and-savory taste.

There are so many more ways cornbread is prepared throughout the world. The next time you eat some, know that it carries a deep, rich and diverse history, just like soul food.

Chef Cassandra Loftlin travels around the world digging into sumptuous dishes.

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