September 2016

Cornmeal: The Southern, Soulful, Staple

Author: Kitty Bartell

Indigenous foods are ones first discovered, prepared, and eaten in the region of the world from which they hail. Asia has rice; in Europe it’s apples and hogs; the Middle East has lentils; for Africa it’s watermelon and guinea fowl; the Mediterranean has figs and olives. The Americas have peanuts, cranberries, and maize … glorious maize … a.k.a. corn. Made from ground, dried maize, cornmeal dates back 5,500 years and is arguably the world’s most versatile ingredient. And, 5,500 years later, cornmeal is still a staple in kitchens around the world, particularly in the United States, where corn is grown more than any other crop, and more notably in the South where cornmeal has been requisite for centuries. Its popularity has increased in both home and commercial kitchens, and is no longer just used for grits or in Mama’s cornbread. Cornmeal is cooked in cast iron skillets, it is used to prepare finely-crafted polenta cakes in star-worthy restaurants, and is the main ingredient in the Southern stalwart, hush puppies.

Combined with water and salt and baked into a cake, record of the first use of cornmeal was in Mexico. Later introduced to Colonial America, corn was their most accessible crop and was used as currency. Native Americans taught the early settlers to make a cornmeal mush, which evolved into porridges and hasty puddings. Served with butter, milk, or meat drippings for breakfast and supper, mush with drippings was the early ancestor of today’s grits with red eye gravy or sausage gravy.
Grits. Most self-respecting Southerners love grits, know how to throw down a creamy plateful, and have definitive requirements for said plate, even under the most trying of circumstances: power failure (fire up the grill), bare cupboards (when there’s nothing else, there’s always grits), an extreme case of the morning-after (even fuzzy-headed, party girls remember the 4:1 ratio of liquid to meal taught at a very young age and never forgotten).

“My grandmother had me standing on a stool measuring cornmeal into water before I could count past one,” said Amy Lutz, an Andalusia, Alabama, native and self-described Lowcountry grits expert. “I’ve had them in all kinds of way, but my go-to is still a big slab of butter stirred into a hot bowl full— that’s it.”

The 4:1 ratio is standard: four parts liquid (water, milk, cream, or stock) to one part coarsely ground cornmeal (a.k.a. grits). Water-only allows the corn flavor to shine through. For a savory taste, stock is best, and the addition of milk or cream brings a luxurious aspect to the preparation. The basic recipe: Bring liquid and one teaspoon of salt for every cup of grits, to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Whisk in the grits, decrease the heat to low and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Finish with a pat of butter and splash of cream. From breakfast joints to linen tablecloth joints, from the deep South to cosmopolitan cities in the north, grits are adorned with everything from eggs and bacon to shrimp, from the most pedestrian shredded cheeses to the most far-out, pesto, roasted vegetables, and gravies from the Southern staple red eye to exotic tomato.

Grits’ first cousin, polenta, is primarily credited to the ancestors of Roman warriors and gods, where starchy ingredients such as farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt, and chickpeas were used before cornmeal was introduced to Europeans by early Americans. Served as a porridge or allowed to cool in a pan or loaf, sliced and then baked, fried, or grilled, polenta is the perfect partner. Made from ground cornmeal, it is served much like grits with all manner of toppings: creamy with a mushroom ragu, with Nona’s secret sauce and parmesan, or transformed into crispy croutons under a roasted chicken or on top of a salad or soup.

Another incarnation of this hallowed grain is also the perfect side: cornbread. Usually leavened with the addition of baking powder, the base recipe is fairly simple. Like grits and polenta, this standard bearer provides a blank canvas on which every cook and chef has put their stamp. Records of cornmeal-based breads date back to when the dough was baked on hot rocks over open fires.

Eventually, the more civilized cast iron pan became the essential cooking vessel and is still the traditionalist’s method of baking this rich bread. Classic, unadorned cornbread is paired with chili and saucy dishes and used to soak up the flavors of the plate. More elaborate preparations with added flavors complement everything from refined fish dishes to rustic meats. Chef Clayton Rollison’s cornbread recipe from Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar, his Hilton Head Island restaurant, is elevated with flavor and texture, and pairs perfectly with his soulful, Lowcountry, comfort food sensibilities.

Cornmeal-based hush puppies are the Southern embodiment of history and frugality. Whether you believe the name and dish derive from cooks finding a way to quiet the hounds at the back doors of restaurants (a cute tale, but generally debunked), or the more evidence-based story of South Carolina red horse bread, made with cornmeal, salt, water, and egg, the use of leftover fish-fry batter to make yummy balls of deep-fried dough dates to a time when resources were scares and thrift was prized. Used to batter-fry fish, the term hush puppy was used on the Georgia side of the Savannah River instead of Carolina-based red horse bread. The name hush puppy caught on because the press used it more frequently, and let’s face it, who doesn’t love a puppy? Today, many restaurants across the Lowcountry offer a hush puppy or two to guests as a complimentary appetizer, and others include them on their menus. In the right hands, the taste of corn comes clearly through, and the hush puppy is elevated to holy proportions.

Cornmeal has come a long way since its early gruel days. Used in doughs, batters, dressings (where would we be without cornbread stuffing!?), cookies, tamales, tortillas, and as a base for deliciously encrust whole fish or filet mignon, it is found in home kitchens and on menus around the world. The quintessential gluten-free ingredient, and with all the varieties and possible grinds, cornmeal allows for a whole lot of culinary creativity. Maize, glorious maize. 

Cornbread
Courtesy of Chef Clayton Rollison
Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar

½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ tsp. baking soda
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt

Method:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
*Melt butter and temper in the eggs. Add to dry ingredients.
Pour into 8-inch pie tin and bake for 30-40 minutes.

*Allow the melted butter to cool slightly before adding the eggs one at a time (if you add the eggs to hot butter, the eggs will cook, which you do not want to happen).

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