Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, which is simple enough, but the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white.

It used to be that, in most of the cornbread-eating regions of the country, white cornmeal was the preference. It was thought in old Rhode Island, for example, that yellow cornmeal was strictly for chickens. This may have reflected some real distinction between varieties of corn, but it definitely reflected a broad belief that white foods — flour, sugar — were more refined and therefore better.1

Now, in progressive food culture, that distinction is reversed: refined is bad. White flour and white sugar are seen to be unhealthy, flavorless, and industrial in origin. And that association has, again, infected preferences about unrelated foods. Cage free or farm raised eggs, for example, must be brown, even though there are plenty of perfectly good breeds of chickens that lay white eggs. My friendly neighborhood Whole Foods stocks only yellow grits in the bulk aisle, because, I assume, the sort of people who buy grains in bulk would eschew white grits. (When I asked after white grits, the Bulk Foods Guy responded with something only slightly above a sneer.)

Some of this reversal has to do with cost. White flour was more expensive than brown until the early nineteenth century; white sugar was more expensive than brown until about 1880. The refining process genuinely cost money, but the fact of the expense also to some degree made the products more desirable. Now, of course, it’s precisely the opposite. Brown sugar is more expensive than white, and “raw” sugar is even pricier than that. And, again, the relationship of price and desirability is circular: high price not only reflects but signifies and inspires desire.

But some of it also seems to have to do with what white food signifies. White grits tend to be finer ground than yellow and to cook faster and smoother; they make a more refined dish, in the sense of being more delicate and subtle, but whiteness also signifies industrial refinement. As does, I think, the fineness of grind. Yellow grits look less industrial and therefore more natural, and the little shards that take longer to cook make them seem even purer.

The meal I buy for cornbread comes in paper bags from a mill here in North Carolina,2 and I buy it at the cheap chain grocery store up the road. (I don’t believe you can get it up North.) It is not a mill that brands itself as local to snag foodies; it just happens to be located in North Carolina and continues to grind corn as it has for ages, for people who wish to bake cornbread as they have for ages. This cornmeal is also not organic: it is not, again, that sort of mill.

Now, all things being equal, I would prefer to buy cornmeal that was not ground from genetically modified corn. But most companies that do grind organic corn don’t seem to offer the fine-ground white stuff — either because most progressive foodies don’t know how to bake proper cornbread anyway, or because fine white meal would look too industrial and insufficiently Authentic and Wholesome. When I have found organic fine-ground cornmeal, it’s come in very small, very expensive bags, at nearly five times the price of the old-fashioned meal.3 (It’s still been yellow.) Now, non-GMO corn does not cost five times as much as GMO corn, and even allowing for the fact that food is generally underpriced in this country, I have my limits. I’m simply not going to pay that kind of premium for the idea of the thing being organic.

All else being equal, though, I’d also rather support the local mill than a national company — the mill that began in 1854 doing custom milling for farmers in the neighborhood and still makes traditional products, rather than the big concern that repackages those traditions as Authentically Southern or Old Timey and charges me a premium for them.

I’d like to have it both ways. But as long as white means industrial and un-progressive and organic means expensive, urban, and snooty, I won’t. Which is stupid.

But the cornbread is good.

  1. I haven’t had time to trace the cultural history of colors of cornmeal; at the moment all I have is an item from 1838 listing yellow at 70 cents a bushel and white at 5 cents more. See New England Farmer and Gardener’s Journal 16:43, May 2, 1838, p. 338.
  2. Moss’ Water Ground Cornmeal from the Buffaloe Milling Company in Kittrell.
  3. $3.99 per 24 ounces vs. $2.99 per 5 lbs.

Recipe: Basic southern cornbread

This is an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. You must use fine-ground meal; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty. Look for “stone ground” or “water ground” on the package, and you will probably need to buy white cornmeal, since yellow is usually coarser.

    • 3 tablespoons butter

    Heat the oven to 375°. Place the butter in an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet and let it melt while the oven heats up.

    • 2 cups fine stone-ground cornmeal
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • ½ teaspoon baking soda
    • ½ teaspoon salt

    Whisk together.

    • 2 eggs
    • 2 cups buttermilk

    In a second bowl, beat the eggs until light. Stir in the buttermilk.

  1. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry. I find a wire whip useful for this; with cornmeal there’s no gluten, so you don’t have to worry about making the bread tough by overmixing.

  2. Pour the batter into the skillet with the melted butter. Bake for 25 minutes.

  3. Let cool in the skillet for about 5 minutes, then turn out onto a plate. (The cornbread will shrink a bit in the first few minutes and release from the pan, but if it sits too long in the pan it will get soggy and stick again.)