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

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

43 comments

  1. Nancy - September 4, 2019 6:56 am

    Yum! I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother’s corn stick pans that are shaped like ears of corn. And yes, she was a Methodist – even if she converted to Methodism after being raised a Baptist!

    Reply
  2. Chris W. Spencer - September 4, 2019 7:26 am

    Buy a large box of toothpicks and take them to Miss Sylvia and tell her I said they will work just as well as the broom thistle, plus they are clean.

    And be sure and tell her there are plenty of extras in the box and there is no reason whatsoever to EVER use the toothpick she has in her mouth to check her cornbread with.

    Reply
  3. Amanda - September 4, 2019 9:57 am

    We called it a straw: a broom STRAW. And it was also used to test cakes and pies. Did you know there is actually a Cornbread FESTIVAL? I think it’s in S. Pittsburgh, TN. I am not making this up. I have never been, but I’m thinking of adding it to my bucket list!

    Reply
  4. Naomi - September 4, 2019 10:24 am

    My husband grew up on cornbread, not me; we had white loaf bread with dinner except when we went to Morrison’s for lunch on Sunday, I don’t know if you ever ate at Morrison’s or not, but they had great corn sticks. I used to make corn muffins from a box mix but my husband didn’t like them because they had sugar in them. He quoted Lewis Grizzard to me; “If you put sugar in your cornbread, it’s not cornbread; it’s cake”, so I started making it the way he likes it. We eat or big meal at noon since we retired and I had already planned a big lunch yesterday but all he wanted was cornbread drowned in beans. I had made a pan of cornbread a few days before. He cuts it into pieces and puts them in a zip-lock bag in the freezer so that he can eat it whenever the spirit leads him. I also have a pantry full of different kinds of canned beans; I don’t make them from scratch anymore. He likes all kinds of beans, except pork and beans because they’re too sweet. The chili has to wait until winter. It’s too hot here in Georgia to eat chili in the summer.

    Reply
    • dragons4me3 - September 4, 2019 10:51 am

      My family has always said the same thing. Sugar is for dessert, not for bread, vegetables, or meat. I had rice in Pennsylvania once and wondered why my hosts were looking at me funny when I put salt and pepper on it, till I took a bite. I wondered why they were serving rice pudding as a side dish.

      Reply
  5. Jean - September 4, 2019 10:35 am

    We agree…cornbread is essential to life. We always had cornbread..no sugar and I have all sorts of corn stick pans. In fact I would rather have cornbread than cake…and in a glass of sweet milk….heaven!

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth - September 4, 2019 10:35 am

    Grew up on beans and cornbread, with slaw and corn as sides. Everything we grew. My mom’s skillet cornbread was incredible. The perfectly brown crust was so thick you had to rip it with your teeth but perfectly moist on the inside. The crust softened perfectly in the juice from the beans.

    We’ve tried and tried to recreate her crust and it’s just not right. We’ve tried, grease, lard, vegetable oil, hot oven, hotter oven, thicker batter, thinner batter etc. (She also didn’t use eggs.) We make damn good skillet cornbread after all the experiments, just not her crust!

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    Reply
    • dragons4me3 - September 4, 2019 10:48 am

      I always got a pretty good crust by making sure the pan and the grease in it was frying pan hot before I poured the batter in. It cooks the crust faster than the inside that way.

      Reply
    • Joyce Anne Bacon - September 4, 2019 1:55 pm

      Elizabeth. To get a good crust you must heat the skillet and shortening on top of the stove til real hot before pouring the batter in. Quickly put it in the oven to bake and you will have a beautiful golden brown crust.

      Reply
    • Jean - September 4, 2019 9:49 pm

      skillet and grease must be hot….when you put your cornbread in it. Hot oven….

      Reply
    • Tommy C - September 5, 2019 8:40 am

      My bride of several decades gets the skillet good & hot before she pours in the batter, then bakes. Makes for a good crust on the bottom. I prefer it shallow so it isn’t doughy inside.

      Reply
    • Bette - September 5, 2019 9:06 pm

      Bacon grease. Put plenty in the iron skillet and get it HOT before putting in the batter. Great crust.

      Reply
  7. Maria - September 4, 2019 10:50 am

    I laughed until I cried… thanks for making my day, every day.

    Reply
  8. Meredith Smith - September 4, 2019 11:11 am

    Sean, I have a sad cornbread story. What? You say? Those two words don’t belong in the same sentence!! Yes it’s true. My grandfather died when my dad was 12, they lived on a farm, and my grandmothers cornbread was legendary. She used the pans that were shaped like ears of corn. When she passed after a long life, I inherited misc items, one being those cornbread pans. To this day I must confess-I have never made cornbread in them! I don’t know why. I bet they’d be just magical, I don’t even think you can find them anymore. I guess it’s time to get baking. Give it a whirl.

    Reply
  9. G. Reyn - September 4, 2019 11:17 am

    You write pretty good cornbread literature and this piece deserves inclusion in the sacred halls of. That said, there is this; you described Miss Sylvia , variously, as 72 years old and as “This old woman”. You been taught better than that. Had she been, say, 92, why then you nudging up against acceptability. 72 is the new 52. You are hereby confined, for the next spell, to white bread and olestra.

    Reply
  10. Pam - September 4, 2019 11:42 am

    My mouth is watering! When momma died, there went the cornbread and biscuits. I’m not much good at either. Thank you for your heartfelt words every day. You have a great gift.

    Reply
  11. Sandi. - September 4, 2019 11:58 am

    Reading this post has made me very hungry for a piece of hot, buttered Southern conrbread! I’ve always heard that only folks who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line add sugar to their cornbread batter!

    Reply
  12. Billy Joe Bowling Jr. - September 4, 2019 12:08 pm

    When I was a small boy we were poor. (I did not know it though.) My mother fried corn bread in an iron skillet. It was majical. After supper, before the family left the table my father would take a piece of fried cornbread, break it up on his empty plate and the spoon pot liquor (pea juice) on top of it. He would look at me and very seriously say “This is for the dog”…………… then he would eat it.

    Reply
    • Sandi. - September 4, 2019 1:36 pm

      Billy, your comment wins top prize for humor today! Love what your father said about, “This is for the dog” before he ate his cornbread and pot liquor!!

      Reply
  13. Steve - September 4, 2019 12:09 pm

    I am smiling. Literally. It’s just an article about cornbread. I guess a good writer can do that. How? It’s about cornbread. But then again, when slathered with a giant slab of real butter, and honey – made in a 100 year old black iron skillet; that makes me smile as well. I don’t know why this is one of my favorites. Maybe because I read the title and didn’t think anyone could write an article about cornbread and make me smile

    Reply
  14. Dianne - September 4, 2019 12:11 pm

    I grew up on cornbread at least 2-3 times a week and make my cornbread the same way that my mother and my grandmother made it…..in a hot cast iron skillet in the oven……….I also use buttermilk, not just milk, when making it. My husband, who grew up in Nebraska, loves my cornbread.

    Reply
  15. Connie Havard Ryland - September 4, 2019 12:56 pm

    My mom used to test cakes with a broom straw. We lived. Cornbread didn’t need testing. You can see if it’s done. She made all kinds-hoe cakes, skillet (best thing ever), light as cake, dense and moist in the middle with crusty outside from cooking in a cast iron skillet. That’s the way I make mine. And how I taught my kids and grandkids. Nothing better than cornbread with fresh turnip greens or collards or peas… ah, now I’m hungry and missing my momma. Funny how food brings us all together. Love and hugs.

    Reply
  16. Estelle - September 4, 2019 1:14 pm

    I love cornbread. Give me a glass of milk to crumble that bread into and that a great meal on a hot summers day. I have diabetes and so I have to watch my carbohydrate intake. Now corn turns into sugar in the body so why in the Sam Hill would you put sugar into the corn meal batter? My husband and I argue about this all the time. But since I’m the cook, I fixit the way I like it. Also he doesn’t eat it with the meal but waits till the end of the meal and eats the cornbread for dessert, covering it in honey. He was born in Tennessee but I tell him he’s a yankee at heart because he doesn’t like grits. He says they were invented to make Yankees turn around and go back home rather than eat them. Some people even eat them with sugar and milk. IT’S CORN. Try a little butter, salt and pepper. If I eat very much corn it tends to drive my blood sugar up. Ahhhh! It’s great to be a southern in the summer. It’s sweet tea, sliced tomatoes, potato salad and fried chicken wiith cornbread. P.S. you must have banana pudding or chocolate meringue pie. I think I gained five lbs just writing about this.

    Reply
  17. Ala Red Clay Girl - September 4, 2019 1:32 pm

    Oh, how this makes me miss my daddy’s cornbread. I grew up eating his cornbread and pinto beans. He never added sugar because that was “Yankee cornbread”. I almost fell out of my chair when I read “a family dog who is nicknamed ‘Egypt’ because wherever he goes he makes little pyramids.” I’ve had dogs like that; they also created Nile Rivers as well. Thanks for a wonderful read this morning!

    Reply
  18. Joyce Anne Bacon - September 4, 2019 1:50 pm

    I don’t make cornbread often because like you I can’t have just one piece with lots of butter. When I do make it I use my granny’s iron skillet and make just like she did with NO SUGAR! Sometimes I make corn pone cakes like my Mama did. Thank you for reminding me how good it is. I think I’ll bake me a pan of cornbread..DIET BE DAMNED!

    Reply
  19. Linda Moon - September 4, 2019 2:02 pm

    Your illustration and your descriptions of cornbreads made me want to sing The Hallelujah Hymn so I can carry on with good cornbread of all kinds!!

    Reply
  20. Kelly Pywtorak - September 4, 2019 2:03 pm

    TOOTHPICKS!!! 🙂 they work great to test baked goods.

    Reply
  21. Tara - September 4, 2019 2:15 pm

    Love this article, Sean! Great read. My mom made cornbread several times a week and still does. Delicious! She also makes the corn sticks as well. Her cast iron skillets are older than me and I just turned 50. She and I love to work together “putting up” vegetables during the summer to have to eat this winter. We just put up 3 bushels of purple hull peas and today we are busy with 20 lbs of turnip greens. You can bet cornbread will be served with each of those meals. By the way, my sweet momma is celebrating her 82nd birthday today!

    Reply
  22. Ginger Smith - September 4, 2019 2:47 pm

    Homemade vegetable soup….cornbread. Fresh greens….cornbread. My husband is our cornbread maker. I can, but why? He does it so well. A sizzling hot iron skillet, your own recipe, nice crust on the outside. Sugar, never!

    Okay, Shaun, keep your notes, keep doing road trips, then we need a cornbread book, with pictures. Cornbread of the US. I started to to say Cornbread of the South, but you can include more. We need to know. Who knows, we may want to try to make a few of your discoveries. Experimental only. Make us appreciate what we already have!

    Reply
    • Ginger Smith - September 4, 2019 9:28 pm

      The book title can be “Cornbread With Foods That Love It”. Sorry, I can’t underline here!

      Reply
  23. Edna B. - September 4, 2019 3:23 pm

    I remember my mom using a piece of straw from the broom to test whatever she was baking. Hmmm, I never even gave it a thought if the straw was clean. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  24. Mary T. - September 4, 2019 3:28 pm

    I make my cornbread in an iron skillet. I put bacon grease in the skillet and put it in the oven while the oven is preheating. I mix my cornmeal, eggs, salt, milk, baking powder, and a little flour. When the skillet is hot I pour the grease into the cornbread mixture then pour it back into the skillet to bake. My husband calls this egg bread. When we got married 55 years ago he told me, “Mama doesn’t make it like this.” One word of advice: never tell your wife that! I learned to make fried cornbread like my sweet mother-in-law but we still have a running argument about which is better. Put either one on the table and we both are happy.

    Reply
  25. Pat - September 4, 2019 3:39 pm

    Mix self rising corn meal and hot water from the faucet and let it sit for a few minutes then drop by spoon into a skillet of hot oil that just covers the bottom of the skillet. You get a lot of “frilly” on the edges and is delicious!

    Reply
  26. Beth Stewart - September 4, 2019 6:22 pm

    Awesome. My husband told our daughter that she needed to learn to make cornbread & iced tea if she expected to get a decent husband!

    Reply
  27. Joe Patterson - September 4, 2019 6:45 pm

    My wife is a good woman not a great cook but her cornbread is special thanks again

    Reply
  28. Judy - September 4, 2019 10:04 pm

    Help please. I need to know a good corn meal brand. Wonderful Louise who taught me said the meal wasn’t good anymore. Also a student of broom straw,black skillet and country butter,no sugar. Love to cut it likes pieces of pie from the black skillet .

    Reply
    • Sandi. - September 4, 2019 10:54 pm

      In my opinion, Aunt Jemima is the best cornmeal brand. But opinions are like
      noses … we all have one.

      Reply
    • Ginger Smith - September 5, 2019 12:38 am

      White Lily Buttermilk cornmeal mix

      Reply
  29. throughmyeyesusa - September 4, 2019 11:08 pm

    Of COURSE you use a broom straw to test the doneness of baked goods! Doesn’t matter if the broom is clean or not. Women have been doing it that way for generations without killing anyone. Besides…..
    Five second rule.

    Reply
  30. Martha Black - September 5, 2019 2:20 am

    You’ll be fine. The trick is when they break off the broom straw they pierce the cornbread crust withe the broke end instead of the swept end. Besides anything as wonderful as cornbread was blessed by God and therefore Sanctified.

    Reply
  31. Paula Pace - September 5, 2019 7:55 am

    I just wanted you to know that reading your column is one of the highlights of my mostly mundane day. You have a way of cutting to the heart of what ordinary people are feeling and how they are dealing with their own problems and triumphs. You have a God given gift to lift us all with your writing and I, as well as too many others to count, bless you and thank you for brightening our days with your wonderful take on the moments of our collective lives. Thank you.

    Reply
  32. Kathy Leikauf - September 5, 2019 2:57 pm

    Hi Sean, I love this story! While reading this I can envision my mom picking a straw off the broom and sticking it in the cornbread, or the cake, or anything else she would’ve baked.. Thank you for reminding me, such a sweet memory.

    Reply
  33. That's jack - September 7, 2019 1:48 am

    RElax, you know that NO GERM can survive the heat of 350-450 degrees in a black iron pan. I love corn bread, yep I’m 80+ and my favorite food in the world is corn bread and milk (sweet or butter milk). My wife makes the best. But I can’t remember any BAD cornbread.
    Good noe dude. I have missed a few but hope I am back.
    Sherry & jack now in NC

    Reply

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