Texas Tales: Arguing the merits of Texas cornbread

Cornbread is a staple among Texans, but there are many variations today in how it should be made.

After reading about a fight between two San Antonio police detectives, a Galveston News editorial writer soon expressed his indignation in print.

“People who are sworn to keep the peace and paid for executing the laws do not always obey them,” the anonymous journalist lamented in his newspaper’s Nov. 25, 1886 edition. “News comes from San Antonio of a disgraceful row between two detectives, which commenced in a saloon…One detective challenged the other outside for a fight and then fired a pistol shot at him, which fortunately missed the mark.”

Neither officer had been seriously injured, but the Galveston editor saw no need to dwell on that.

“These two worthies,” he continued, “one of whom is credited with being ‘the finest detective in the state,'” are shining examples of the material of which the police departments of cities are often, if not always, composed.”

Had the booze-fueled difficulty between two Alamo City cops arisen over how to proceed with a criminal investigation? Rough handling of a prisoner? Professional jealousy? Politics? A gambling debt? A woman?

No, the point of contention was more serious than any of those things. According to the Galveston article, the argument had been over “the relative merit of northern and southern cornbread.” Well, no wonder. Certain things are worth fighting for. Everyone knows that southern cornbread, particularly Texas cornbread, is superior to any cornmeal-based bread baked north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Other than overall quality, what is the difference between cornbread prepared in the sunny South as opposed to Yankee cornbread? It’s simple: Southern cornbread then and now is baked without sugar. Back in the day, way back in the day before the Emancipation Proclamation, putting an expensive commodity like sugar in cornbread would have seemed a foolish extravagance. After all, everyone understood that all anyone needed to do to enhance cornbread was slather it in butter and then pour on the molasses. Northerners, however, preferred cooking their cornbread with the sugar included. Which makes it a cake, not cornbread.

Most early Texas settlers hailed from the South, so Texas cornbread was prepared sans sugar. Only later did Texans start tampering with tradition by Tex-Mex-ing cornbread with jalapenos and red peppers. (A perversion in the minds of cornbread purists, as is folding kernels of corn into the batter.)

Evidence supporting the sugar-free Southern preference is not hard to find. Three years before the San Antonio officers duked it out over cornbread correctness, in 1883 the First Presbyterian Church of Houston published what is believed to be Texas’s first cookbook. On page 66 is a recipe for cornbread:

“One pint of [corn] meal, mixed very thin with water, three eggs, one tablespoon of lard, one-half tablespoon of butter, one teaspoon of yeast powder, and a little salt. Have the pan greased and hot. Bake in a quick oven. When the meal is fine, it is not necessary to scald it.”

While buttermilk is a better choice than water in preparing cornbread, the Victorian era recipe makes no mention of sugar.

I cannot remember the first time I ever had a piece of cornbread. Surely it must have been about as soon as I was able to eat solid food. It would have been made by my late grandmother, who could produce cornbread from scratch with about as much thought and effort as someone expends in sticking a bag of popcorn into a microwave. She had been cooking cornbread since before World War One and continued to do so for as long as she had strength to stir the ingredients, light the oven and lift a pan.

As a native Texan, I am embarrassed to admit that many decades passed before I finally tried making cornbread with ingredients that didn’t come out of a box. Nothing to it, I thought. All you do is mix cornmeal, flour, a little salt and some baking powder with an egg, milk and cooking oil.

When a norther blustered in recently, I essayed to produce a pan of “home-did” cornbread muffins to go with Navy beans. I followed the directions on the bag of meal, poured the batter into the pan and baked my first-ever from-scratch cornbread for 15 minutes.

Graciously, I insisted that my significant other enjoy the first golden brown muffin.

“Yum,” she said. But then her face fell. “Did you put baking soda in this?”

Oops, instead of the can of Calumet baking powder I had grabbed the Arm and Hammer baking soda box. When I took a bite, my from-scratch cornbread tasted like it had been made with saltwater. The next batch, mixed correctly, tasted just fine.

A lesser issue involves whether cornbread is baked in a round pan, a square pan or muffin tin. And that brings to mind the only cornbread joke I’ve ever heard.

An East Texas farm boy whose family considered cornbread an essential element of any dinner (early Texas speak for “lunch”) or supper (early Texas speak for “dinner”) was startled one day when his teacher began explaining the geometric formula of “pi r squared.”

Frantically waving his hand to be recognized, he couldn’t contain himself. “No,” he blurted defiantly. “Pie are round, cornbread are square!” And not made with sugar.

1 COMMENT

  1. I make my cornbread from a mix , Martha White Sweet Yellow Cornbread and bake in an oval two sided pan on top of the stove. It’s cake like and not dried out. So delicious. It melts in your mouth. I love it mostly with my gumbo.

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