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The great corn divide
Some like buttermilk and others enjoy a dash of (gasp!) maple syrup in their corn bread
While Northern-style corn bread (top and bottom pieces) tends to have sugar added to it, the Southern style is flatter, crispier and usually cooked in a hot iron skillet. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan


Author Crescent Dragonwagon talks about different types of corn bread.
Southerners are passionate about their corn bread and exactly how it should be made.

From your grandmother’s family recipe to adding corn kernels, jalapeno peppers, sour cream or even a little sugar; everyone seems to have their opinion about what true Southern corn bread should taste like.

This is what inspired author Crescent Dragonwagon to write an entire cookbook on corn bread called "The Cornbread Gospels."

"It has a lot of different roots that all sort of came together. ... I was raised a Yankee but my mother was a Southerner and was born in Norfolk, Va., and I spent most of my adult life in the South (in Arkansas)," Dragonwagon said. "We ate corn bread growing up, and when I was in Arkansas I really started to understand what I only half-way laughingly refer to as corn bread mojo. And also I just liked it."

Dragonwagon said as a child she had corn bread as an after-school snack, "in a style that would probably be horrifying to most Southerners — it was sweet and square with honey and butter."

The difference between the Northern and Southern styles lies mainly in the amount of flour versus corn meal, along with how much the bread rises.

"Typically corn bread has an egg in it, but Southern corn bread we don’t put an egg in it ... because it makes it rise too much," said Rebecca Clanton, owner of Sweet Magnolia’s and the newly opened Magnolia Grill in the Main Street Market in Gainesville. "True Southern corn bread is a little thinner and crispier. We do a real Southern corn bread that is crisp and not sweet, the old-fashioned corn bread. And it’s cooked in an iron skillet."

At Magnolia Grill, the menu is Southern-inspired gourmet and traditional corn bread is served to all patrons.

Dragonwagon, originally from the Northeast, was first taught how to make corn bread from a friend named Viola in 1969 in Brooklyn, N.Y. This experience gave Dragonwagon the best of both corn bread worlds.

"African-American corn bread combines a few licks from the South and a few licks from the North and comes up with something that is both," she said. "The first time that I tasted that Southern corn bread ... I was just astonished it was so good. It was something of an epiphany."

A list in "The Cornbread Gospels" explains the rules that differentiate Northern and Southern corn bread. For example, a flour-to-corn-meal ratio is one major difference in the regional dishes.

"In general, in really broad strokes, we can say Southern corn bread is made either of all corn meal and no flour or less flour, sometimes much less," Dragonwagon said. "And Northern corn bread has a higher percentage of flour to corn meal, sometimes far more flour, sometimes like a cup and a half of flour to half a cup of corn meal.

"Then there is the question of sugar, and most people that are serious corn bread people say real corn bread does not have sugar. In the South, the vast majority of corn breads are not sweetened or they only have a little bit of sugar."

Traditionally, Southern corn bread incorporates butter, bacon drippings and a hot skillet; Northern varieties usually use oil, butter and glass baking dishes. The shape of the corn bread also varies in the South, where the pie-shaped slice is dominant. In the North you see squares or muffins, according to the book.

"It has become a really good canvas," Dragonwagon said. "People play with corn bread in all kinds of ways. They add kernels cut off the cob, they add jalapeño pepper, they add chiles and garlic, they use it as a crust for tamale pie, they use it as a topping for chicken pot pie."

Two of Dragonwagon’s recipes — the Vermont Maple-Sweetened Cornbread and Nora’s Memaw’s Alabama Cornbread — show the difference between Northern and Southern varieties.

"Vermont Maple-Sweetened is a delicious corn bread if you take it as being a different creature than Southern corn bread," she said. "(The Nora’s Memaw’s Alabama Cornbread) has a cup of corn meal to half a cup of unbleached white flour, so it does have a little flour and it has one and a half teaspoons sugar. It’s an unusual for a Southern one because it combines both sweet milk and buttermilk."

But Dragonwagon added that the real corn bread is neither Northern or Southern.

"Let’s remember we didn’t have baking powder or baking soda until the 18th century, so the real corn bread is the corn tortilla," she said.