My friend’s mother, Miss Sylvia, is making cornbread. Her house is alive with the smell. The 72-year old woman cooks cornbread the old-fashioned way. An iron skillet in the oven. Lots of butter.

Sylvia tests the hot bread by poking it with a broom bristle. If the bristle is gummy, she licks the bristle then returns the skillet to the oven. If not, it’s Cornbread-Thirty.

I watch this bristle maneuver. She breaks a piece of straw from her broom. And I don’t want to ask, but I have to.

“Is that broom clean?” I say.

“Relax,” Sylvia says. “It’s just one bristle.”

“But is it clean?”

“Define clean.”

“Has it been used to sweep your floor?”

“This particular broom? Yes.”

“Your dusty, residential, hepatitis-C floor?”


So this cornbread is contaminated and will probably kill me. But then, I’m a dinner guest, I must eat it even though the old woman’s floors are frequently used by a family dog who is nicknamed “Egypt” because wherever he goes he makes little pyramids.

Still, I love cornbread. I was raised on the stuff, just like everyone else in America.

My mother used to make cornbread a few times per week. Sometimes more. Primarily because it was cheap, and my family ate cheap food.

You always knew when it was cornbread night because my mother would make a fresh pot of boiling bacon grease with a few navy beans floating in it. She called it bean and ham soup, but I call it cardiac arrest stew.

Either way, you would use your bread to sop the sides of the bowl. Occasionally, while doing this you would get so giddy that you’d break into song and sing a number from “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” or in extreme cases “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

All my life, I considered cornbread to be the fingerprint of a good cook. No two cooks make it alike, and I love that.

The ladies in my childhood church, for instance, made skillet cornbread. The Methodist women across the street made cornbread sticks.

Methodist cornbread sticks were legendary. They were cooked in corn-cob-shaped pans, and crispy on the outside. I would sneak into Methodist church suppers simply to steal corn sticks. At the Methodist door, you had to fill out one of those sticky name tags before they would let you inside. My nametag would usually read:

“HELLO, MY NAME IS: Been Changed To Protect the Guilty.”

My wife’s mother used to make cornbread with jalapenos and cheese. It is good with a capital “G.” I was prohibited from going anywhere near her cornbread because I could not control myself. This is how I got voted out of the family.

I have eaten cornbread in almost every state in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, it was johnnycakes. And in West Virginia, hot water cornbread.

The cornbread I had in Kentucky was made with pork cracklings and swimming in grease. They called it cracklin’ bread. I called it “Yes please, don’t mind if I do.”

The stuff in New Mexico was served with a bowl of five-alarm chili. This chili was so hot it almost killed me. And I do not mean this figuratively, as in: “Ha ha! That stuff almost killed me!” I mean the waiter went to get a priest.

My Mexican waiter told me to drink a glass of milk to make the burn go away. I drank three glasses. It didn’t help. Finally, the Mexican kid said—and this is a verbatim quote—“You gonna have berry bad toilets in the morning, señor.”

I’m sorry I brought that up.

The cornbread in Texas was ten inches high, like birthday cake, slathered in sweet butter.

The cornbread near Sand Mountain, Alabama, was lace cornbread (hoecake), like pancakes, only with more fundamentalism.

The cornbread I had in South Carolina was crumbled and drowning in a Mason jar of buttermilk. The way Daddy liked it.

I ate a cornpone in Virginia that was unlike anything I have ever had. The man prepared it over a campfire. He said his ancestors had been eating this pone for hundreds of years. It looked almost like an English muffin. He served it with whiskey.

And of course, my wife’s cornbread moves me in my deepest parts. Not just because it is perfection, but more importantly because she will probably read this.

When she brings her cornbread to covered dish suppers, it is still in the skillet, piping hot, covered with a dishrag. People usually smile at her cornbread because they know it’s going to be good. You can see it on their faces.

Just like the face I’m wearing right now.

Miss Sylvia brings out plates and one large dish of butter. Her cornbread is soft, tall and delicate. This cornbread is not just bread. It is her bread.

It is made by the hands of a woman who has reared children, packed a million school lunches, given midnight advice around a kitchen table, planned weddings, and prepared the food for her late husband’s funeral.

Her cornbread is everything I love about America, and then some. And even though it is contaminated by a broom bristle, I’ve decided that I don’t think it will kill me.

Which is exactly what I once said to myself before I ate that chili.


  1. Susan H Poole - August 12, 2022 7:23 am

    Not to worry ~ the oven heat & the hot cornbread killed any germs from that broom straw😊

  2. Bonnie - August 12, 2022 7:58 am

    Yes, cornbread is very ‘regional’! Just FYI, New Mexico has chile(s) (with an ‘e’ referring to the chile peppers which are ingredients or the basis for numerous different dishes); Texas has chili (with an ‘i’ referring to a stew or soup kind of dish which can be consumed as an entree or used with other ingredients to create a dish).

  3. Ed (Bear) - August 12, 2022 8:01 am

    I’ll never take cornbread for granted again!

  4. Leigh Amiot - August 12, 2022 8:08 am

    Look up Lee Bailey’s sour cream cornbread online. I’ve not met another cornbread yet which lives up to that one, and there is no broom straw involved. My tweaks include mixing cheese into the batter instead of layering it and using sweet onion instead of yellow. Pouring the batter into a greased and oven-heated cast iron skillet is a must-do.

  5. Jimmy Pool - August 12, 2022 9:24 am

    Never, never, ever put sugar in cornbread, lest thee be smitten by the Jiffy Virus!

  6. Terry - August 12, 2022 10:11 am

    Oh Sean! I ADORE cornbread! Now I need to go make some. Thanks for the tour of cornbread- it was delicious!

  7. AJ Dodds - August 12, 2022 10:20 am

    Kenny Rogers Roasters (I’m that old) had sweet corn muffins with sweet corn kernels baked in. Don’t know if they used sugar, but the muffins were a great dessert

  8. Paul McCutchen - August 12, 2022 10:28 am

    Cornbread is still a staple around my house. My wife learned to make it from her mother (or the back of a corn meal sack) and the one thing you forgot to mention was a “Cast iron” skillet. You get the best golden edges and bottom with a cast iron skillet. You might ask “what if I didn’t want that much”? Well you get a small cast iron skillet for two or a cast iron corn stick pan. Yea we have the all. If my wife cooks a big pan that means cornbread dressing is in my future especially close to Thanksgiving. No matter if you use margarine, butter, pot liquor, the juice of some crowder peas or warm buttermilk, the stuff is “finer than frog hair split three ways.

    • TerrieM - August 16, 2022 12:28 am

      Well, Paul, he said his sweet wife made hers in a skillet, right? And to a Southerner, there really is no other kind. Having to say, “cast iron skillet” would just be a triple redundancy.

  9. Cheryl - August 12, 2022 10:54 am

    Cornbread…mmm. I have a cast iron skillet used only for cornbread. Not sweet at all, unless it’s covered in molasses for desert.

  10. Anne Arthur - August 12, 2022 11:00 am

    LOL, oh Sean, you made my morning.

  11. Ann Thompson - August 12, 2022 11:07 am

    🌟 column.
    here in New England we mix corn bread mix with cream corn, egg and butter and make a side dish.
    You must visit New Hampshire some day…I check for doneness with a toothpick! Won’t kill you here.

  12. David Britnell - August 12, 2022 11:10 am

    Love me some ham & beans and cornbread! Sometimes I’ll have just milk and cornbread for supper.

  13. Greyn - August 12, 2022 11:16 am

    Grew up in Alabama eating world’s best cornbread. Amen. But I gotta say, referring to 72 year-old Sylvia as “ this old woman “ would get your fundament booted up over your belt by women of this age in many quarters, suspect broom bristles notwithstanding.

  14. Sheilla - August 12, 2022 11:21 am

    There is nothing better than “conebread” (the way my grandma said it) cooked in a black iron skillet in the over with LOTS of butter! I make mine just like she did and it is a celebratory event when it turns out as good as hers!

  15. ka - August 12, 2022 11:21 am

    I made cornbread last night. In a cast iron skillet. It’s real cornbread– no white flour or sugar.We ate half of the round with our chili.

  16. Jean Sherrill - August 12, 2022 11:24 am

    Cornbread is the south…..I, being southern have eaten a lot of it and I never turn it down either!

  17. Te - August 12, 2022 11:36 am

    I’m rolling on the floor!!! And I know about that Mexican cornbread. It’s a religious experience!

  18. Oliver Rhett Talbert - August 12, 2022 11:45 am

    Was surprised not to see a Cajun alternative in your list. The version I had from Sho-nuff Contry had sautéed Vidalia on-yons and jalapeños, shredded sharp cheddar, and an occasional crawdads nugget mixed into the batter before baking. Sprinkled with hot sauce, a slab of butter stuck inside as it went on your plate, it was slap-yo-mama good t-d-lass crumb!

  19. Elizabeth - August 12, 2022 12:07 pm

    I needed a good laugh Sean thank you! I love cornbread being from Michigan (where Jiffy cornbread in a box is from) I plead the 5th. 😳🤣 I still remember when I first went grocery shopping at a small IGA store in Fort Langley BC (I was in school) and I could not find Jiffy cornbread.🤯 It shocked me I had not yet figured out how that it can be made from scratch. I bet anyone who eats Jamie’s cornbread suddenly is transported to foodie heaven 🥰

  20. Trudy - August 12, 2022 12:10 pm

    Always have cornbread with pinto beans. Your picture looks exactly like my Momma’s cornbread. What I would give to have a slice of her cornbread. Growing up she used a broom bristle too. I use a toothpick. Maybe that is why my cornbread is not as good as hers.

  21. suzi - August 12, 2022 12:16 pm

    Your columns block the hate, crime, fear and misinformation news in this world. Thank you for embracing the “broom bristle” stories with love and humor.

  22. Kathy - August 12, 2022 12:23 pm

    It’s sooooooo good. My mother in law made the best in Tennessee

  23. Kathryn - August 12, 2022 12:29 pm

    I’d rather have cornbread than cake!

  24. Priscilla Rodgers - August 12, 2022 12:57 pm

    Makes me hungry, might just have to cook a pan of cornbread tonight!

  25. Vivian Holmes - August 12, 2022 1:04 pm

    Just remember that broom bristle was stuck into a hot pan of cornbread in a 450 degree oven. It’s clean now. 😉😊

    • throughmyeyesusa - August 12, 2022 5:31 pm

      The broom bristle used to test doneness actually goes into the cornbread after it’s (hopefully) finished cooking and, thus, no longer going to be subject to extended periods in “hot cornbread in a 450° oven”. There goes the “It’s clean now” theory! 😅
      That doesn’t stop me from using a broom bristle, mind you….just sayin’.

  26. Cheryl - August 12, 2022 1:06 pm

    I love all the different corn breads you talked about but just don’t put any sugar in my cornbread!!

  27. chris - August 12, 2022 1:07 pm

    come to Nashville and eat at Jimmy Kellys. Nashville tradition since 1934. BEST corncakes ever!

  28. Linda - August 12, 2022 1:16 pm

    And now both my husband and I want cornbread!

  29. Nancy - August 12, 2022 1:20 pm

    Hushpuppies would be a great follow up to today’s read. Love ❤️

  30. Larry Ratliff - August 12, 2022 1:21 pm

    My wife and I have this on going battle on how to make cornbread. I use the directions on the side of the Martha White cornmeal bag that calls for the use of a single white chicken egg. My wife says that’s wrong, she doesn’t use an egg but that makes her cornbread dry as the Sahara desert. Mine on the other hand is moist and holds together under the crushing weight of a large bowl of hot lima beans. Either way both batches of cornbread are edible………but mines better!

  31. Christy Keyton - August 12, 2022 1:22 pm

    It is just SO good- it deserves an entire column just about that amazing southern food!

  32. Donna LaForge - August 12, 2022 1:37 pm

    Starting the morning with coffee and Sean of the South always gives me an uncontrollable smile, a chuckle, a laugh and sometimes a tear or two. My mom’s cornbread was iron skillet, slathered in butter and as delicious as any cake. My preference, still steaming from the oven!

  33. Dee Thompson - August 12, 2022 1:42 pm

    Nice column, and you avoided the entire subject of whether or not to put sugar in cornbread. I’ll state the truth so you can avoid the controversy: sugar does NOT belong in cornbread. Not ever. Not even a teaspoon of it. You’re welcome.

  34. Mo - August 12, 2022 1:58 pm

    We had cornbread last night with sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, fried taters and black eyed peas. For dessert I had cornbread crumbled up in a glass of milk! Soooo good!

  35. Dianne Deavours Shafer - August 12, 2022 2:20 pm

    Loved this!! All through the reading of your story, a “fixin’ to eat” song by the immortal Little Jimmy Dickens kept flowing through my mind:
    Just a bowl of butter beans
    Don’t want no collard greens
    All I want is a bowl of butter beans

    Just a piece of country ham
    Pass the butter and the jam
    Pass the biscuits if you please
    And some more of them good ol’ butter beans

    Bread and gravy is all right
    Turnip sandwich a delight
    But my children all still scream
    For another bowl of butter beans

    When they lay my bones to rest
    Place a rose upon my chest
    Plant no blooming evergreens
    All I want is a bowl of butter beans

    • Babs - August 12, 2022 2:24 pm


  36. babs - August 12, 2022 2:22 pm

    You have this one just about right, thank you, Any way corn bread is made or served it is so Heavenly good…..

  37. Linda - August 12, 2022 2:29 pm

    Absolutely LOVE cornbread in any way, shape or form. Think I’ll be making some for dinner tonight …..

  38. Judith Preuter - August 12, 2022 3:57 pm

    My father would have buttermilk with cornbread crumbled in it as a midnight snack!!

  39. Lynda - August 12, 2022 4:01 pm

    Yes! To cornbread everywhere! I like mine tall, piping hot, slathered with butter and drenched with enough honey to nearly empty a full jar!

  40. Dawn Lockmiller - August 12, 2022 4:08 pm

    Have you ever been to the Cornbread Festival near Chattanooga, Tennessee? If not, it’s a must. They have Cornbread Alley, and for $5 you get a sample of 10 different cornbreads made by organizations competing for the best cornbread votes (vote by putting a dollar in the jar of your favorite organization). You also get the recipes. It’s heavenly! The festival is next door to the Lodge cast iron plant, which you can tour. The Cornbread Festival is the last weekend of April each year.

  41. kip carter - August 12, 2022 5:07 pm

    Egypt !!! Thank you. I am 79 years old and when my Grandmother went out to the outhouse she would say that she was “going down to Egypt” I never understood why she said that until your column today. it is never too late to learn something.

  42. Stacey Patton Wallace - August 12, 2022 5:36 pm

    I can make comments again, hurrah! For a long time, there was an error which didn’t allow me to do so. Sean, my Grandma Patton also used a broom straw to check if something was done. However, she used the end which wasn’t sweeping the floor, so it was okay. My sweet Mama, who went home to be with the Lord on May 19, taught me to make cornbread. Hers was the best, of course. Love to you and Jamie.

  43. Gordon - August 12, 2022 5:44 pm

    As I read your post, I was reminded of the delicious cornbread my mother and grandmother would make during my “growing up” years. Mama made “pone cornbread” usually three plops in her iron skillet. It was baked in the oven in lots of oil. She would also make individual fried cornbread “patties” on the top of her stove using lots of grease in her iron skillet. Grandmama would make hers on top of the stove as well, but hers was more flat and “lacey”. Such wonderful, wonderful memories. Oh yea-I would frequently slather my fried cornbread with good ole’ Kraft mayonnaise. Daddy liked his in buttermilk.

  44. pattymack43 - August 12, 2022 6:13 pm

    Love, love, LOVE cornbread!! In ALL of its delicious forms!!! Thanks for your salute to an all American icon!! Blessings to you and Jaime…..

  45. Pat in eastern NC - August 12, 2022 6:22 pm

    Cornbread in a cast iron skillet… amen and amen. We will have some tonight with our chili. A dishrag? Lord, I love a good ol’ Southern boy.

  46. Joe - August 12, 2022 6:42 pm

    Wonderful documentary on a wonderful dish. Love it and your descriptions.

  47. Sheila - August 12, 2022 7:17 pm

    You spoke to my Kentucky heart. Cornbread!!!

  48. Sheila E - August 12, 2022 7:18 pm

    Cornbread. This speaks to my Kentucky heart and soul.

  49. Randy - August 12, 2022 7:31 pm

    I love your story about the chili and cornbread in New Mexico. I had chili I Albuquerque, nearly killed me too, even though I was from Texas, I thought it was hot. I think I had cornbread too, but the chili left such a burned in memory that I cant remember if there was cornbread or not. The burn went away about a day later. The rest of the trip is a very good memory, thank you for reminding me.

    • Karen - August 12, 2022 10:51 pm

      Cornbread brings back memories of my mom and grandmas. They all made great cornbread.

  50. Linda Moon - August 12, 2022 8:24 pm

    Iron-skillet cornbread and butter…it don’t get no better’n that! My mother-in-law from Sand Mountain made lots of biscuits to feed her 12 children and all the extended family she acquired too. I was happy to be one one of ’em!

  51. Lindsay Abee - August 12, 2022 8:44 pm

    Sean … I Love this. You are my brother from another mother.

  52. MAM - August 12, 2022 11:48 pm

    Cornbread and biscuits, my favorite breads. They are delicious with whatever is for supper and just as good left-over the next morning for breakfast, slathered with butter and honey or molasses. My mouth longs for one or the other. Too late to make it tonight. Maybe for supper tomorrow. And dishrag. First time I said that my Yankee husband looked at me like I was crazy. When we got married 54 years ago, one of his friends gave him a Texas “dictionary,” so he could understand me. He puts dishes away. I put them up. 🙂 Thanks, Sean.

  53. Bob E - August 13, 2022 12:43 am

    Uhhhh… get Miss Sylvia a box of toothpicks.
    She’ll know what they’re for.
    Keep writing – I’ve enjoyed your stories for a few years now.

  54. Melanie - August 13, 2022 1:19 am

    Dang I’m fixin to slather this phone with butter and dig in. Enjoy, Sean! P.S. We’re still waiting on Jamie’s cookbook 😉

  55. Dottie Doherty - August 13, 2022 3:45 am

    You have to know you use the clean top end of the broom straw not the dirty end you sweep with. That’s the only cake tester we ever had growing up

  56. vivian - August 13, 2022 4:19 am

    Thank you, Dee Thompson and Cheryl! My Arkansas hillbilly upbringing said no sugar! My dad said that’s cake, but not to say it out loud as people get in fights over the subject. I grew up with everything cornmeal – Aunt Jemima white cornmeal. I miss Aunt Jemima’s and Uncle Ben’s forever friendly faces, by the way. Hoecakes were handy in any era. They were also called Johnny Cakes or Journey Cakes because they could be stacked in a knapsack for traveling or in a lunch box. I still make cornbread in my large iron skillet to assure us of leftovers crumbled in a glass of milk or in dressing any time of year. Okra, green tomatoes and sliced eggplant are coated with it before frying, the latter two first being dipped in egg. Mother would make hoe cakes fried in a skillet, stack them on plates and layer them alternately with chili. Oh yes, they were called hoe cakes because if you were out camping or traveling by “footback,” in the early days, you could build a fire and cook by putting the cornmeal patties on a garden hoe blade held in the fire. I also had the same reaction as MAM did to “dish rags.” No paper towels back then and they were saved from formerly useful towels or t-shirts. Thrown in the wringer washer after using for a week for children’s and grown-ups tears, and wiping down counters or lifting heavy pots. And yes, my 100+-year-old grandmother’s cornbread recipe calls for one egg whether the recipe is halved or not.

  57. thomas penn montgomery - August 13, 2022 4:29 am

    Ain’t nothing like good cornbread !

  58. lfry1220 - August 13, 2022 2:30 pm

    I loved this! I grew up on cornbread of all kinds . . . depending on whose table you were lucky enough to be invited to eat. I learned how to cook cornbread from my mother — in the very well-seasoned iron skillet. I look forward to your daily thoughts. Thanks!

  59. steveleachman - August 13, 2022 6:09 pm

    I like day old cornbread and sweet milk. My wife, a Yankee from Miami, FL, thinks it’s disgusting when I eat it. I tell her “we all make compromises in a marriage.” Her compromise it to not watch me eat it.

  60. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 15, 2022 6:11 pm



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