Story by Tara Leigh Parks
Cornbread is a quintessential American dish with many different interpretations, from savory to sweet. For many Americans, it’s a tradition, a reminder of home, a family recipe, a tasty way to bring memories of meals with loved ones to life.
Cornbread, which has roots in Native American and African culinary traditions, is considered an essential part of the Thanksgiving feast by many Americans. It is especially common in Texas and central Southern states, where 40 percent of survey respondents cited cornbread as an essential dish compared with only 28 percent nationwide, according to ABC News’ FiveThirtyEight. It can be served in slices, wedges, or squares to enjoy plain or slathered with butter, drizzled with honey, or smeared with molasses, but it can also serve as the base for a more elaborate creation like cornbread stuffing or dressing, a Southern favorite.
Of course, cornbread is also served throughout the year in a myriad of styles. To learn more about this American classic, we checked in with three chefs.
Pastry Chef Sarah Wall – Chattanooga, Tennessee
Pastry Chef Sarah Wall has worked at some of the hottest bakeries in Chattanooga, Tennessee, including Niedlov’s. She’s getting ready to begin a new job where she’ll be making a variety of baked goods, but cornbread holds a special place in her heart.
“I feel like, historically, cornbread was a nice, hearty, cheap bread to make—not much to it unless you jazz it up, otherwise it’s cornmeal, fat, and eggs, which most Southerners had at the ready,” she says.
“Nowadays, I think the tradition has endured for the same reason that pinto beans in the fall has,” she says. “There’s something nostalgic and simple about it. Most of us would have grown up eating it, probably because it was a simple enough side for Mom to throw together.”
Specific styles of cornbread—savory or sweet—have historically gained popularity among class, race, and geographical lines. Odds are, you prefer the familiar flavors of the type of cornbread served by your mom.
Executive Chef Michael Lutfy – Durango, Colorado
Executive Chef Michael Lutfy gives his cornbread a Southwestern flair at Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen, the restaurant in Durango, Colorado that he owns and operates with his wife Birgette who runs the front of the house.
Chef Lutfy developed his cornbread recipe by “thinking about what he doesn’t like,” he admits, as well as finding ways to reflect the culture of Durango and its geography. Since Durango’s high-altitude tends to dry out bread, he makes his cornbread exceptionally moist by adding creamed corn and grated cheese to his recipe. He also adds roasted jalapeños then bakes it in a sugar-rimmed cast iron skillet for a succulent combination of sweetness and spice.
Chef Lutfy has eaten cornbread in places ranging from Georgia and the Carolinas to New England and understands the important place it holds in the American culinary experience. He believes that cornbread is an American food tradition because it aligns with certain aspects of the country, such as being corn-centric and populated with different ethnicities. “Corn is like meatloaf; both are considered American food,” he says. “Cornbread’s open to a lot of regional interpretations and it works for all ethnicities.”
Sous Chef John Ronk – National Harbor, Maryland
“Cornbread is one of those comfort foods that everyone craves,” says Sous Chef John Ronk of Redstone American Grill National Harbor.
At Redstone American Grill National Harbor, the cornbread is “infused with green chilis and cheddar cheese so it does have some Southwest flavors,” says Chef Ronk. It is cooked and served in a cast iron skillet and accompanied by compound butter with maple syrup—another favorite flavor that’s native to North America.
With day-old cornbread, Chef Ronk says that he loves to make cornbread stuffing or dressing. Currently on both the brunch and dinner menus at Redstone American Grill National Harbor, cornbread is made into croutons that are sprinkled on the chicken chopped salad for flavorful crunch.
Across the nation, there’s a lot of cornbread to break and new traditions to make.
Plan A Trip
Known for its, biking, mountain climbing, and Southern hospitality. Chattanooga straddles the Tennessee River near the southeastern state line. Enjoy live music and farm-to-table dining near the river. Modern influences and tradition comingle here, offering an eclectic mix of something for everyone.
Find accommodations in Chattanooga, TN on TripAdvisor.
Durango, Colorado is known as a friendly vacation and ski town, mountain biking mecca, ‘best water town’ in the West, and home to one of the nation’s best scenic train rides. It’s located on the southwestern side of the Rocky Mountains bordering New Mexico. Come enjoy stunning views, art galleries, award-winning restaurants, and more. Note that Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen usually shuts down for a few weeks each November but is closing the entire month in 2020 to give the staff a much-needed break during this difficult year; it reopens December 2. Masks and social distancing are required for indoor dining, or you can opt for take-out.
Find accommodations in Durango, CO on TripAdvisor.
Visit National Harbor, Maryland
National Harbor is a waterfront development in Washington D.C. that features condominiums, a convention center, hotels, shops, and other amusements. Located by the Potomac River and a 20-minute drive from D.C., you can ride the National Harbor Capital Wheel, see the Frederick Douglass statue, and listen to live music at one of the many happening hot spots before stuffing yourself silly with Redstone American Grill’s cornbread. Currently, the restaurant offers indoor dining at designated times, two patios for outdoor dining, plus take-out. Masks and social distancing are required.