My friend’s mother, Miss Sylvia, is making cornbread. Her house is alive with the smell. The seventy-two-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 HAVE to 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: Not Important Because I Am Hungry.”

My wife’s mother makes cornbread with jalapenos and cheese. It is good with a capital “G.” I am prohibited from going anywhere near her cornbread because I can 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 I like 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 said to myself before I ate that chili.


  1. Anne Arthur - January 25, 2023 7:12 am

    As you still had the time to post this column, I assume you are still alive. Happy cornbread day!

  2. Dolores - January 25, 2023 11:11 am

    Seriously, while you’re gathering stories collect some of those recipes for a book!

    My brother and I were lamenting the other day about the tiny little dumplings mom added to a pot of navy beans. Neither one of us knows how they were made and Mom’s gone now. Surely it was a way to stretch already cheap food from her parents Depression days. So it was a no brainer for Mom to do likewise.

    I went down a rabbit hole looking on the internet for a similar itty-bitty dumpling. Knoepfle is the Swiss version of Spaetzle, but both originated in Germany. It seems more like the ingredients. Originally Grandma probably got the recipe from her Mom because of their German roots is my theory.

    Mom rubbed it between her hands over the pot (imagine you’re cold) causing it to crumble into the beans. So it wouldn’t have been a very wet dough. It’d be various sizes in the beans but nowhere near the size of a traditional dumpling. They were little pearls of deliciousness.

    The knoepfle recipe says equal parts egg and flour with enough milk to make it workable. We always had fresh eggs on the farm. It was a way to add a little more protein to the dish for a family of seven. Mom cooked most of our beans with a piece side meat (from our own hogs) also known as salt pork. It was for flavor purposes but in Dad’s world waste was a sin. He’d eat that fatty, salty slab covered with Mom’s horseradish. Yes, we grew and jarred our own.

    All this to say if you have family recipes make sure to pass them down. They are a treasure!

    PS. Mom never made cornbread often but her homemade bread and rolls were heaven. And I remember Mom using a broom straw to test cakes. Great memories are made right along with food: both provide nourishment.

  3. Steve McCaleb - January 25, 2023 11:29 am

    Today’s post instantly brought to mind the classic Jerry Clower story. When told by an algebra teacher in Amite County, Ms. as a young student that “ pi r squared” young Clower told her “pie are round….cornbread are square”. They don’t make ‘em like Jerry no more. Sad……

  4. Julia - January 25, 2023 11:51 am

    All the cornbread. My Mom & Ollie made some of the best cornbread on the earth. Then there was my husband’s cornbread. Another spiritual experience. The first social gathering of sorts I attended in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, I put what looked like a huge square of cornbread on my plate. I took my first bite. The angels sang. I said what is this & who made it? That was my first experience eating crawfish cornbread. That was THE BEST! Try Emeril Lagasse’s recipe. Your welcome. Thank you Sean.

  5. June McPherson - January 25, 2023 12:13 pm

    My cornbread is the best!!!!!Made in a small iron skillet!!!!June McPherson

  6. Jean Sherrill - January 25, 2023 12:16 pm

    Nothing better than cornbread. My mother liked it cooked in an iron skillet and thin so it would be more crispy. Personally I like it any way you can fix it. Certain dishes say SOUTH…..this one does.

  7. Susan - January 25, 2023 12:17 pm

    Thank you for the memories! ❤️

  8. Steve Godfrey - January 25, 2023 12:19 pm

    Woo wee! As the late, great Jerry Clower used to say, “Son! You done flung a cravin on me!”

  9. DeDe Harris - January 25, 2023 12:48 pm

    I absolutely love the way you make me LAUGH OUT LOUD!!!

    BTW: I REALLY HOPE you read this, because I’m gunna need you to get to work on writing BOOK 2 the sequel to “Stars Fell on Alabama”! I’m going to keep bugging you until you DO!! 😜

    I’m going to meet you in person soon! Brace yourself 😊

    Your fellow Alabamian,
    DeDe Harris

    P.S. I live in Saraland, Al!! You had our city in “Stars Fell on Alabama”!! That’s not why I REALLY need Book 2, the characters came alive and I NEED to hear more 🙏🏻

  10. Suellen - January 25, 2023 12:50 pm

    My husband forwarded to me your interview on The Habit podcast. I enjoyed listening to your voice and hearing you describe how you go about writing. You always disparage yourself but you certainly don’t speak like an uneducated man. You’re leastways educated in all the ways that matter.

  11. mccutchen52 - January 25, 2023 12:53 pm

    I had soup and cornbread last night and sausage, eggs and biscuits this morning. My wife is an artist when it comes to breads. She also does great things with about everything she does in the kitchen. In case you are wondering she doesn’t read your column. Sorry.

  12. Cate - January 25, 2023 1:08 pm

    I am originally from Chicago and had no idea what cornbread was until I married my husband who is from KY. My mother-in-law introduced me to cornbread, made in an iron skillet. I tried it and LOVED it! At home I decided to make it. Not a great moment in my young married life. My husband was kind enough to eat it but informed me it really wasn’t cornbread but cake. The next time we were in KY, after I explained to her how I made it, I asked my mother-in-law what I did wrong. She told me in no uncertain terms that “Ya’ll nevah put sugah in cornbread!” Learned my lesson well and good. Cannot say I am an expert in cornbread but I do make it in an iron skillet with absolutely no sugah!

  13. Edward Willis - January 25, 2023 1:13 pm

    In our house it was called “corn pone” most often served with mom’s veggie-beef stew. Makes my mouth water just writing this. I went in the Army ’68, I found a REAL Southern girl in Panama City, Panama in ’72, brought her to Georgia in ’75…..she put her Latina touch on mom’s Corn Pone and it is legendary. Thanks for the memory Sean.

  14. Priscilla Rodgers - January 25, 2023 1:41 pm

    Yum! Just had some with a pot of dry beans on Sunday and here you go making me want some more!

  15. Kathy - January 25, 2023 2:09 pm

    I know you write essays, but they seem like sheer poetry to me.

  16. rdo333 - January 25, 2023 2:18 pm

    Great comment about my favorite food. And I have eaten most of them

  17. David Britnell - January 25, 2023 2:23 pm

    I remember my mom eating cornbread and milk for supper many nights. She could have had anything she wanted but that was something she loved. I grew up with loving it too so now I can make a pretty good pone of cornbread myself.

    • Susie - January 25, 2023 4:50 pm

      David, we eat warmed sweet cornbread in milk with honey on it often! Yummy!!!!

  18. Maggie Priestaf - January 25, 2023 2:35 pm

    Sean, my Texas grandma made cornbread in an iron skillet even after she moved to Michigan in her 80’s. It was divine. When her son, my Dady, moved to Michigan after marrying my mom she made cornbread for dinner as a treat for him. His negative reaction almost ended their marriage! He informed her that she had made Johnny cake and not cornbread. She had put sugar in her recipe and ruined it! Fortunately for me they remained married for 49 years. Mom didn’t make anymore cornbread.

  19. Brenda Lynch - January 25, 2023 2:38 pm

    Goodness, I’m 72 also and I have done so many of those things you mentioned about her–I, thank heavens, have not prepared food for my husband’s funeral–I’m hoping we go together. Now I can tell you I have gotten to this age and I can remember seeing my mama test cakes with a broom straw–only taken form the top of the broom above where it gathered with the red binding–well, it was red them. I’m still here and I bake cakes just like my mama did, but I do have a special little cake tester thingy that came form the store and has touched the floor. Sometimes I think my cakes are missing something, maybe I’ll try testing with a broom straw!

  20. LynnB - January 25, 2023 2:59 pm

    I’m running over to your Facebook page, hoping Jamie will have pity on us and post some of these great recipes! PLEASE?!

  21. Marie - January 25, 2023 3:03 pm

    Ah, yes………..the broom bristle tester. My mother did it all the time for cakes or cornbread when I was growing up. She would send me to go break one off. I never, ever, gave a thought to the sanitation of it! None of us got sick or died! I would NEVER do it now! I used to use toothpicks till I found the metal “cake tester”. Toothpicks in a pinch though. Cornbread……….I’m Southern to the core but never really cared for cornbread till the last couple of years…….and it needs a little somethin’ in it……..onions and/or, blasphemy I know……sugar! But, hushpuppies are another thing. I LOVE a hushpuppy……..preferably with a little onion and sugar. Good hushpuppies are an art and are appropriate to be served with any dish! I can make passable cornbread at 65 but………your article makes me want to practice till I get it swoon worthy.

  22. jjsgem1995 - January 25, 2023 3:04 pm

    How about a hushpuppies! My late aunt visited the radio show “The Breakfast Club” with Don McNeal when it was on a tour in Mobile Alabama. Aunt Marie had heard Don in a previous episode mention he did not know what a hushpuppie was. So, she made up a batch and took them to the show. Don interviewed her on the nationally broadcast show in 1956. I was proud of my aunt for a number of reasons – but never prouder than when she made the hushpuppies for Don.

    I discovered you when you were on Bookmark w/Don Nobles. I began to look around and discovered your books (I read “will the circle be unbroken?” and loved it). “the Okayest Southern writer is on my kindle now. I go through your podcasts when driving with my wife (we need to laugh right now as Betty my wife of 53 years is facing breast cancer surgery and treatment.) Last evening, we were almost late getting to bed as we watched your presentation at Hoover Public Library (AL) and then watched you @1st Methodist in Brewton. Would you call yourself “Preaching” in the Methodist church?

    I am a retired SBC pastor and county missionary. However, i do not consider myself fun-damn-mentalist SB. It is my life mission in retirement to “See others and Jesus sees them and treat others as Jesus treated me.’

    Bless you, brother! I hope to get to meet you someday – maybe in Opelika (about 45 minutes from where we live. Did i hear you or read you say that you may be moving to Columbiana? That is where I met the love of my life.

    bro jim

  23. Oliver Rhett Talbert - January 25, 2023 3:11 pm

    … and here you are, mostly alive, to tell us about it. Great column – I gotta do more traveling. My SC Dad was a crumbled-in-buttermilk guy. I could never get past the buttermilk.

    • Susie - January 25, 2023 4:58 pm

      Oliver, my dad loved buttermilk, but as a kid I couldn’t “handle” it. Lol. Now, as an adult, I absolutely LOVE it!! I think it’s one of those aquired tastes. Like blue cheese, etc. But, now I’m going to try my sweet cornbread in it. I know I going to love that, too!!

  24. Jeff Corkran - January 25, 2023 3:17 pm

    My wife is from southeast Alabama, where our cornbread is usually fried and crispy. But I agree – cornbread is a gift from God, however it is prepared.

  25. Bob - January 25, 2023 3:18 pm

    Your stories are almost as good as my mother’s cornbread.

  26. Stacey Wallace - January 25, 2023 3:22 pm

    Sean, I love cornbread, too. My sweet Mama taught me how to make it the correct way, in an iron skillet. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.

  27. Selena Baker - January 25, 2023 3:44 pm

    Something so simple but oh so good, cornbread and the writing!

  28. Henry Puckett - January 25, 2023 3:47 pm

    You didn’t say whether any of these cornbreads were made with sugar in them. My Mom NEVER put sugar in hers. My family is divided these days on cornbread. My wife and youngest daughter like cornbread made with sugar. Me, our son and our oldest daughter prefer it the right way. No sugar. My Dad (Pop) always said “If I wanted sugar I’d eat cake.”

    • Susie - January 25, 2023 5:04 pm

      Oh, PLEASE, people, it’s kinda what you were raised on, amirite?!?! I was raised on sweet cornbread, so naturally, when I bit into one with no sugar in it a few years back, I had to discreetly spit it into my napkin. 😂. I will try ANYTHING TWICE, but I JUST have a feeling I’d be spittin again! 😂😂

  29. Jo - January 25, 2023 3:57 pm

    Made me longing for my Aunt Mary’s cornbread. Broom bristle testing as well.

  30. Tim Peace - January 25, 2023 4:13 pm

    Growing up in Magnolia, KY…cornbread was a daily staple in my house….twice a day….lunch and supper. To this day…garden-fresh corn, butter-beans, etc., dried beans, homemade vegetable or tater soup, meatloaf or beef stew…it just doesn’t taste as good (and should be against the law) if it isn’t accompanied by some iron-skillet-baked cornbread!

  31. Peggy M. Windham - January 25, 2023 4:35 pm

    I love cornbread too! I make my mother’s recipe in an iron skillet. There is nothing better than a slice with butter!

  32. Tommy - January 25, 2023 4:43 pm

    Nope. Make mine thin with a brown crispy crust. Fully done on the inside. And after it’s cold, crumble it up in a bowl of cold milk.

  33. virginia westlake - January 25, 2023 4:53 pm

    It’s not traditional, but I make the jalapeño cheese cornbread that is the best! I’ve had the recipe since I got married 58 years ago.

  34. Kathy L. Wilson - January 25, 2023 5:12 pm

    Dear Sean,
    Your column always gives me enjoyment – whether laughs or tears.
    When my husband and I first started dating, the conversation somehow got around to cornbread. He asked me if I liked cornbread. Of course I like cornbread. My aunt made the best cornbread, but I didn’t have much to compare it to. My mother wasn’t much if a cook. If it didn’t come in a can, she didn’t cook it. Anyway, I told him my Aunt Charlote’s cornbread was the best I ever had. This led us to some competition. He said he made the best cornbread and invited me to his house to have ‘cornbread and milk’. I took him up on it.

    A few days later I showed up for supper at his expecting Cornbread, milk, and something else to go with it maybe a meat, or another vegetable? Nope, just cornbread, a glass of milk and a spoon.

    I really am a Southern girl, born in Georgia and lived here my whole life. However, I never saw anyone crumble hot cornbread in their glass of cold milk. Soggy cornbread did not sound good to me.

    After we were married I did learn how to make very good buttermilk cornbread. My husband never made his again. Not sure if that’s because he would rather not have to cook or if he really did like mine best.

    He is a good husband. He always tells me my cornbread is better than anyone’s.
    I think I’ll keep him. 46 years and counting.

    Keep your stories coming! It is the first thing I read every morning.

    Newnan, GA

  35. Trudy - January 25, 2023 5:34 pm

    My mother always used a broom bristle but never used the end that touched the floor. Always the top of it. I did the same thing but eventually changed to toothpicks. I would love to have some of my mother’s cornbread right now. You got me having a hankering for cornbread. Guess I’ll do my best and try to make it like Momma’s. The love in it will be missing though.

  36. Patricia Gibson - January 25, 2023 5:43 pm

    Love cornbread!

  37. Jim Duncan - January 25, 2023 5:43 pm

    My wife with Mississippi Delta genes makes cornbread the way you described; iron skillet and then also the Methodist women way.
    I agree with your column of being blessed to enjoy the cornbread-thirty time. Thank you for some of your termonolgy that brought a few chuckles.

  38. SweetOnion - January 25, 2023 6:08 pm

    Cornbread always reminds me of the time many years ago that up I was asked to make batches of cornbread for a church soup night. I made it from scratch the way my momma always did…..never a Krusteaz or Jiffy box mix….it was the real thing. Thick and full of flavor with butter and honey on the side. Not a crumb was left by those who partook. I was later told by a young elders wife, next time I am asked to make cornbread, bake it in muffin tins. I never did….I figured the Lord was pleased with my offering to feed the multitude just as it was.

  39. Grace - January 25, 2023 8:38 pm

    I love cornbread too. Would you ever share your wife’s recipe?

  40. Linda Moon - January 25, 2023 8:46 pm

    I married into a Sand Mountain cornbread family. After all these years I still can’t make Grandma Victoria’s cornbread, but her son stuck with me nonetheless!

  41. Tiffany - January 25, 2023 10:00 pm

    This made me laugh. Thank you. I love cornbread.

  42. Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 25, 2023 10:09 pm

    Sean, this ‘Urn was one of my favorites, completely Southern with s capital S! And in this one nobody died (I guess you survived the “berry bad toilets!”). Hongry jus thinkin about it. They say its time to eat Mexucsn cornbread when your You know what quits burning!

    Your friend,


  43. Linda - January 25, 2023 10:23 pm

    Cooking cornbread in a seasoned black skillet is not the old fashioned way. It is the correct way.

  44. Sybil Blanton - January 25, 2023 11:54 pm

    Sean, I am from Alabama, married and moved to GA in 1996. I have made almost all of the types of cornbread you mentioned. We moved to CO in 2019 and I have not made a decent cornbread since then. Not sure if it is the altitude or not but I will keep trying. Love your columns. Thanks!

  45. Barbara - January 26, 2023 4:37 am

    Check out the Shaved Duck in STL. To die for. As one who grew up with sweetened cornbread.

  46. Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 26, 2023 12:51 pm

    Sean just got you a new nick name, like a fighter pilot. Gone start calling you “Pone!”. Wear it proudly!

    Your friend,


  47. Tara Spain - January 26, 2023 5:53 pm

    I love cornbread! I make it like my sweet momma did in a cast iron skillet and her corn stick pan. Nothing else is cooked in either of these pans. If my momma cooked vegetables cornbread was always with them. She cooked old school every night and taught me as well. My favorite is cracklin cornbread! I waste no cornbread, if any is left over, I freeze it until I have enough to make cornbread dressing. Waste not, want not. Just like my momma taught me. I think of her every time I cook. Some of my best memories were of cooking with my precious momma.

  48. George Robert Leach - January 26, 2023 6:48 pm

    In my part of Kentucky we were fortunate to have fried corn bread at Cracker Barrel. It’s delicious! Don’t bother to ask for it though. They stopped making it. Guess we asked for it once to often.
    My Granny made water corn bread and sang a verse in the song Billy Boy about “can she make a pone of bread” in it. To her corn bread was just bread, biscuits were biscuits and store bought bread was light bread. For supper they usually are bread and milk i.e. buttermilk.
    Mom made white meal cornbread, corn sticks (not corn ear shaped), crackling bread and gritted bread. Gritted bread is the best. Use a piece of tin to hammer nails into one side. Mount it on a board 8 inches wide, spike side up, and grit or grate the older corn ears, the ears too tough to boil and eat, but not dried yet, to make a corn fresh corn addition to the corn meal. It will smack you twice on the way down.

    That is cornbread at its finest.

    Keep up the good work, Robert

  49. Gayle Kelly Garrison - January 26, 2023 7:10 pm

    I make corn bread with self rising corn meal in a cast iron skillet that is “older than dirt”. California is not generally corn bread country, but one restaurant made corn bread, but it was with sugar in it, and was too sweet……

  50. SUSIE Bartley - January 27, 2023 2:17 am

    Well I make hot CB for my good friend whom I miss dearly and soon she will have more but no broom straw ha

  51. Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 28, 2023 8:31 pm

    Pone, before this thread dies off, if you’re ever in Atmore, Al area check out a dinner restaurant called Gather. It is a high end restaurant with a fantastic chef and menu. And they offer pan fried cornbread served at the table. It’s in an old service station with a great atmosphere and servers. Really worth the drive from about a 90 mile radius- Mobile; Pensacola, even Montgomery and all points south. Whatever you do, get the Brussel sprouts! Not only is it good, it’s good for ya!

    P.S. Tell em Pubert sent you!

    Your friend,


  52. Jim Sirman - January 30, 2023 3:53 am

    I do looooove cornbread.They all sound delicious.


Leave a Comment