In November of an election year, with so much talk about red and blue, let’s turn our attention —
and our appetites — to a more harmonious, healing color. To the amber-edged, glorious gold of hot-from-the-oven cornbread.
Simple yet soulful, cornbread is the edible equivalent of a hug. It offers warm and welcoming relief when the weather or the world seems cold. Authentic and unpretentious, it’s abundant at family gatherings and an essential ingredient of holidays and memories.
So significant is cornbread to Arkansans that we enjoy it — with its golden color representing prosperity — alongside black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. And we have a yearly celebration to honor it: The Arkansas Cornbread Festival, held each fall in the SoMa (South Main) section of downtown Little Rock. That is, until COVID-19 caused the cancellation of this month’s milestone 10th anniversary festival.
Says Lori Ducey, festival chairwoman, “Cornbread has been a staple food for generations. And when you think about cornbread, you think about family. And so it’s just the idea of bringing people together who are family — or friends who consider themselves family [sharing]the Southern staple of cornbread.” She adds cornbread “just makes
you feel good. It brings back good memories. And everyone has a different recipe for cornbread, right? You’ve got sweet and savory, and you’ve got really unique things.”
Ducey says at last year’s free festival, amateur and professional competitors cooked up everything from “basic greens and cornbread” to “upscale stuff, like crawfish cornbread” for 5,000 carbohydrate-cravers to sample.
While we will have to wait until next year to feast at the festival, we certainly don’t have to wait to appreciate cornbread. It is always available through Arkansas recipes and restaurants, and will be making an appearance on many Thanksgiving tables in the form of cornbread dressing this month.
The Cornbread Gospels
James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon, who lives in Fayetteville,
wrote the book on cornbread. More like the bible. In 2015, she released The Cornbread Gospels, which includes more than 200 recipes — from Two Grandmas’ Creamed Corn Cornbread to Bourbon-Banana Cornbread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce — as well as history, definitions, stories and delightfully corny plays on words (“Once a Pone a Time”).
Explaining her book’s title, Dragonwagon says cornbread is personal, not unlike religion.
“One big decision in the title of that book was to put an ‘s’ on the word ‘Gospel’ because there isn’t just one.
“It’s the way you grew up. Whichever one you believe, that’s your gospel.”
Some testify cornbread should be savory; others believe it should be sweet or spicy. Some prefer it dry; others drench it with milk or buttermilk. Some insist on cornmeal only, but others sprinkle in flour. Some use skillets; others select corn stick pans, muffin pans or casserole dishes. Some use ovens, and others use griddles for variations like hot water cornbread or hoecakes.
“She occasionally made a sweet cornbread, but not very often,” she says. “And usually it was the kind from a mix.” She elaborates in the book, “When you opened the box, a cellophane bag with the mix itself rested neatly in a flimsy, very shiny aluminum pan, good for one use only. Could you get any more ’50s, any farther from cast-iron skillets and from-scratch, than that?”
Before she moved to the South, Dragonwagon was introduced to the skillet method by the friend of a neighbor, a Georgia native named Viola.
“I had never tasted anything — I mean, that cornbread in the skillet with the butter melted in the bottom of the pan!” she says. “I took one bite of this cornbread, and I said, ‘You’ve got to teach me how to make this.’ And she did.”
That buttermilk cornbread, incorporating flour as well as cornmeal and a touch of sugar, would become the signature Dairy Hollow House Skillet-sizzled Cornbread (see recipe, page 16) that she would serve at the popular inn and restaurant she owned in Eureka Springs.
But not without a bit of “corn-troversy.”
She writes in her cookbook, “I hadn’t fully realized … that while cornbread was traditional much-loved Ozark family fare, it was also what you ate when the family had no money. Leftover cornbread was what the poor had for breakfast, lunch and dinner, what the poor kids brought to school in a lunch pail: a line of demarcation.” Furthermore, she writes, “Go back to slavery times when cornmeal (far cheaper than wheat flour) comprised the bulk of slave rations.”
Dragonwagon recalls that at her restaurant, “Cornbread was always in our bread basket. … A woman who is a native of the Ozarks, who grew up just outside of Eureka Springs, took me aside one day, and she said, ‘You know, people in town just don’t understand why you’re serving cornbread at a white-tablecloth restaurant.’ … And, I said, ‘But you love our cornbread. You eat it every day!’ And she said, ‘I know, I know, but people are talking about it.’” And not entirely favorably.
But cornbread remained in the bread basket and was the restaurant’s “single most requested recipe.”
Dragonwagon concludes today as she did then, “If you taste it just for itself, without all that connotation, what a delicious food it is!”
No run-of-the mill cornbread
Like Dragonwagon, James Beard Award-nominated chef Matthew McClure finds cornbread
upscale-restaurant-worthy and serves it to his guests at The Hive in Bentonville’s 21c Museum Hotel.
Says McClure, a fourth-generation Arkansan originally from Little Rock, “I grew up with Jiffy (mix brand) — that’s what my mom used to make. … At The Hive, I really want guests — Arkansans or out-of-towners — to have this nostalgic sort of Arkansas culinary experience. I feel like cornbread is a very important part of that.”
The recipe that he uses and shares freely is one adapted from an old Southern cookbook he purchased about 15 years ago at an estate sale.
“My philosophy on cornbread is it’s savory,” he says. “I think that ours is unique because of the fresh ground cornmeal that we get from War Eagle Mill. It’s got a little bit of flour in it, and it’s got a pinch of sugar — I would say not enough to make it sweet, just enough to smooth it out.
And we serve it with sorghum butter, and that’s where the sweetness comes in. So you’ve got this sort of hearty, earthy, intensely flavored cornbread made with buttermilk. When you put the sorghum butter on, it gives you this complex flavor. And there are all the textures because it’s coarse-ground. That’s what I feel like belongs on a typical Arkansas table. … I don’t put jalapeños in it; I don’t get weird with it.”
Before batter goes into the restaurant’s rectangular cast-iron pans that he estimates weigh 25-30 pounds by themselves, melted butter is poured in. He says, “It sort of fries a little bit and develops that really great crust.”
When the restaurant reopened from its pandemic closure, McClure says he and his team reevaluated their service and questioned keeping cornbread “because we’re in such a crazy time.” But immediately they decided, “We’ve got to do the cornbread. That is just a big part of who we are.”
Because we’re still in Northwest Arkansas, and because it has just been mentioned, our next stop on our state cornbread caravan is Rogers’ War Eagle Mill, with a history dating back to 1832. Today, War Eagle Mill produces organic cereals, corn products, flours, baking mixes and a variety of other foods that it sells in stores, as well on its website, wareaglemill.com.
Unfortunately, we won’t be dining at the mill’s Bean Palace restaurant, as the eatery and tours are currently closed (and likewise, the October War Eagle Mill Fall Arts and Crafts Fair was canceled) due to the pandemic. But eventually the restaurant will reopen. And when it does, Catherine Snelgrove, War Eagle Mill’s sales and marketing manager, shares, “One of the big specialties is the bean soup, which is served with the cornbread. … It’s Southern and country and simple, but you can make a great bean soup and great cornbread and make people happy.”
Recipes for Bean Palace Bean Soup and various cornbread recipes — from BT Cornbread (bacon and tomato) to Orange Pecan Cornbread — are available on the aforementioned website for home enjoyment.
In north-central Arkansas, a charming spot for a cornbread fix is The Skillet Restaurant at the Ozark
Folk Center in Mountain View. Although here, the cornbread takes the form of corn muffins, baked fresh daily with a smidge of sugar. Says restaurant manager Jessica Sterlin, “Half the people want sweet, and half the people don’t want cornbread sweet.”
Sterlin ought to know. She has worked at The Skillet for 28 years (“We’re all family here”). She says, “People will want to come in and try beans and cornbread, and they love it. The secret to our cornbread is our in-house oil that we put in it, which is infused and made at The Skillet.”
As for what it’s infused with, Sterlin is not talking. She says with a laugh, “Well, that’s our in-house Skillet secret! It makes it very special and unique.”
Unique to the South is the hot water cornbread method, which involves softening cornmeal with boiling liquid before forming it into patties for frying.
The hot water cornbread at T’s Place in Pine Bluff is what Arkansas Living’s “Let’s Eat” restaurant columnist Rob Roedel answered when asked to recommend the best cornbread in Arkansas.
As Michelle Smith, who owns T’s Place with her husband, David, describes the discs of deliciousness: “They’re really soft and moist inside, but it has that crispiness on the outside. And actually, a lot of people eat them for breakfast because the minute they come off that grill — you put some butter and honey on it — and it’s better than a pancake. A lot of people think we have pancakes on the line, but actually, it’s cornbread.”
Further south and east in Monticello is where Jack Sundell, owner of Little Rock’s Root Café, grew up eating cornbread, which he describes as “definitely more of a savory cornbread, more traditional Southern cornbread.”
“My mom cooked a lot, and we had family meals together, which, was a very important part of my childhood,” he says. “Cornbread wasn’t always on the table. It was just something that accompanied a certain meal, every week or two weeks.”
One can easily find The Root, located in SoMa, because it has a giant cornbread mural next to it. The vibrant work appears on the north wall of the ESSE Purse Museum, owned by Arkansas Cornbread Festival founder Anita Davis.
The Root, nearly 10 years old, is the three-time winner of the Arkansas Cornbread Festival.
“Eat your heart out, Michael Jordan,” jokes three-time champion Sundell, referring to the basketball star’s “three-peat” championship titles in the ‘90s.
As for what separates The Root’s standout cornbread, Sundell says, “What we do at The Root is a cast-iron cornbread. One thing that’s special about our cornbread: it is a vegan and gluten-free cornbread. A lot of people don’t realize that because it’s so delicious.”
Although, of course, his cornbread won’t be available this year at the canceled festival, Sundell says, “You can taste our award-winning cornbread anytime we’re open,” referring to his homey restaurant.
The feeling of home is ultimately what cornbread is all about, Dragonwagon expresses in The Cornbread Gospels.
She writes, “If cornbread, even momentarily takes us back to the home we had, or the home we wish we had had, or the best parts of the home we did have, no wonder it is powerful. …“And no wonder cornbread tastes so very good to us.”
We asked some Arkansas foodies for their cornbread preferences and recommendations.
“I am sooooo not a sweet cornbread person. My grandmother (Nonnie) made the very best cornbread I have ever eaten. It was always with yellow cornmeal and was made in a thin black pan sizzling with bacon grease. She and I shared a love of the crispy edges.
I make several versions of cornbread — plain, with extra sharp cheddar cheese, corn and sour cream, spicy with jalapeños, broccoli cornbread — it’s endless. I always use my cast-iron skillets, corn stick or muffin pans. … I seldom eat cornbread away from home. When we’re at The Hive, I do eat Matt McClure’s, served with sorghum butter. … For hot water cornbread, I like it from Mather Lodge on Petit Jean Mountain.”
Debbie Arnold, Dining with Debbie blog, diningwithdebbie.net
“I love all cornbread — savory, spicy, sweet — it all has a place at the table. I‘m a firm believer one can never have too many cornbread recipes, but I especially love the Dairy Hollow House Skillet-sizzled Cornbread recipe in The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon. I make it with regular milk and omit the baking soda. I’m also a big fan of cornbread waffles — just cook the batter in a waffle iron on the dark setting. The War Eagle Mill Bean Palace has amazing cornbread.”
Kelly Brant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette food editor, arkansasonline.com
“To me, sweet yellow is the staple. My mother, she did do buttermilk, but mostly it was sweet yellow. … There’s just something about cornbread. It’s warm and just one of those comfort-type dishes.”
Pat Downs, Sweet Yellow Cornbread blog, sweetyellowcornbread.com
“No sugar! That’s not Arkansas cornbread. Great cornbread at The Skillet at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View to go with their beans. Also Cotham’s by the State Capitol and War Eagle Mill in Northwest Arkansas.”
Rex Nelson, Southern Fried blog, rexnelsonsouthernfried.com
“Cornbread is at the heart of my favorite Thanksgiving dish, my mom’s cornbread dressing. Whole pans of unsweetened cornbread are sacrificed to a pot of chicken broth, grits, sage and egg to be slowly cooked into a moist, scoopable substance. It is the flavor of Thanksgiving for me, and I want every bit of it at that time of year and no other time at all.
Many restaurants do cornbread well, but none are so consistently good at it as War Eagle Mill. …
The finest appetizer you can get at The Bean Palace on the mill’s third floor is a square of cornbread and a smear of butter. … I have also become quite fond of Ruth Pepler’s gluten-free cornbread served at Dogwood Hills Guest Farm up by Harriett, particularly when served with the buttermilk from the farm’s cows. If you are looking for a good cornbread recipe, that’d be it. The recipe appears in my fifth book, Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State.”
Kat Robinson, Tie Dye Travels blog, tiedyetravels.com
“I definitely lean towards a slightly sweeter cornbread but also enjoy it with a little heat. Bottom line, just as long as it’s not dry. I love the cornbread at The Hive in Bentonville. Very classic. My absolute favorite is The Root. Definitely sweet, and they win the Cornbread Festival every year.”
Kevin Shalin, The Mighty Rib blog, themightyrib.com
Arkansas Cornbread Recipes
Each recipe makes one pan of cornbread. How many servings it makes depends
on how generously the cornbread is sliced.
The Hive’s Buttermilk Cornbread
By Matthew McClure
2 cups War Eagle Mill organic cornmeal
8 tablespoons War Eagle Mill organic all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Heat oven to 350. Place cast-iron skillet in oven to warm. In a large bowl, sift and mix together cornmeal, flour, baking soda, salt and sugar. In a medium bowl, beat eggs, stir in buttermilk, and add mixture to dry ingredients. Add 2 tablespoons melted butter to mixture.
Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in warm skillet. Pour batter in skillet; bake for about 35 minutes. Remove from oven when a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve with Sorghum Butter (recipe follows).
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sorghum molasses
1 teaspoon salt
Allow butter to soften at room temperature for 30 minutes. Place butter, sorghum molasses and salt in bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix at low speed until ingredients are incorporated, stopping to scrape sides of bowl and mix again at medium speed to whip butter slightly. Once well-mixed, use a rubber spatula to scoop out butter on to a piece of parchment paper. Roll butter into a tube, seal and place in refrigerator to chill.
Keeps up to 1 month.
Dairy Hollow House Skillet-sizzled Cornbread
By Crescent Dragonwagon, The Cornbread Gospels
Vegetable oil cooking spray
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup mild vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter or mild vegetable oil
Heat oven to 375. Spray 10-inch cast-iron skillet with oil and set aside.
Sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.
In a smaller bowl, stir baking soda into buttermilk. Whisk in sugar, egg and vegetable oil.
Put prepared skillet over medium heat; add butter and heat until it melts and starts sizzle. Tilt pan to coat sides and bottom.
Pour wet ingredients into dry, and combine quickly, using as few strokes as possible. Scrape batter into prepared pan, and bake cornbread until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly and slice into wedges to serve.
Sweet Yellow Cornbread
By Pat Downs, sweetyellowcornbread.com
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Heat oven to 400. Spray or lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan or a cast-iron skillet.
In a large bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and baking powder. Stir in egg, milk and vegetable oil until well-combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Eat and enjoy!