Cornbread History

Residents of the British colonies in America used the phrase Indian meal to refer to what is known today as cornmeal.  Since its introduction to Britain and Europe during the…

(Photo by House of Sims)
(Photo by House of Sims)

Residents of the British colonies in America used the phrase Indian meal to refer to what is known today as cornmeal.  Since its introduction to Britain and Europe during the 17th century, cornmeal has been used as a substitute for traditionally used grains in breads and steamed or baked puddings.  (The meal was known to Europeans as maize. In the 17th century the word corn referred to grains in general.)  American colonial recipes using cornmeal, known to the settlers as Indian meal, commonly used Indian in the title, such as Indian Bread, Indian Pudding or Indian Cake.

Corn grew easily in Indiana’s soil and quickly became the most commonly used grain in bread recipes originally calling for wheat or oats.  By the time of Indiana’s statehood corn and Indian meal were used interchangeably in recipes.  Sometimes both words were found in the same recipe. Cornbread or corn muffins became the common table bread. Interestingly, many cookbooks from the first half of the 19th century do not contain recipes for cornbread.  Each family had its own favorite recipe, most likely committed to memory by every young girl as she learned to cook at her mother’s side.

Many of the earliest settlers in the Nineteenth State were from the Upland South, that is, the western Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  The Kentucky Housewife (1839), compiled by Mrs. Lettice Bryan, contains 17 bread, cake and pudding recipes using Indian meal such as Bannock, Indian Muffins, Indian Dumplings, and Indian Flappers. The closest recipe to a classic cornbread is Indian Muffins.

Indian Muffins

Beat five eggs light, stir them into a quart of milk with a small handful of flour and a tea-spoonful of salt; then stir in as much fine Indian meal as will make a tolerably thick batter. Having buttered some little scolloped muffin pans, place them in an oven that is moderately heated, put in each a small ladleful of the batter and bake them a nice brown; then take them from the pans, arrange them neatly in a plate, lay on the top of each a slice of firm butter, and eat them warm.

Note that there is no sugar in this recipe. Although Mrs. Bryan suggested cooking the muffins in fancy “scalloped” pans the recipe itself is already generations old.  Sugar was expensive and difficult to obtain during the early years of settlement and was seldom used and then only for special desserts or food preservation. The addition of sugar to cornbread comes later in the century and interestingly mostly in recipes originating in the South. New Englanders continued to eat their cornbread “sugarless.”

For most of the 19th Century, the most plentiful crop in Indiana was corn.  When European settlers first started moving into Indiana, they discovered that the soil was so rich that in many places, corn was the only thing they could get to grow – the rich nutrients were so plentiful in the soil that they would overwhelm other seeds.  Also, corn was easy to plant and care for, and could yield far more in the fall than wheat or rye.  So, it’s not surprising that food made from corn was a staple of the average diet in 1836. 

However, eating ‘corn on the cob’ like we do today would not have been a common thing in 1836.  Many folks would have harvested some corn while it was still soft – in the ‘green’ or ‘milk’ stages, as they would call it – and cut the corn off the cob to make pudding and other dishes.  But the average Indiana settler’s teeth were far too weak and rotten to be able to comfortably eat the corn right off the cob. Instead, most corn was let to dry in the fields and then ground into meal and used for baking. 

Cornbread was especially popular because it was so easy to make and required relatively few rare ingredients.  Milk and eggs were also plentiful at most times of the year on an average farm, and the small amount of sugar could come from the store, or from maple sugar or honey raised on the farm.  The recipe is called a ‘quick bread’ recipe, since it relies on the baking soda and sour milk to make it light and fluffy, instead of yeast, which can take an hour or more to rise.  Because it’s quick, tasty, and makes use of the things you already have on hand, it’s not hard to see why cornbread was a favorite go-to recipe for all those busy pioneer moms who had to get three meals on the table in the midst of all their other daily chores!

 ½ cup cornmeal

¼ cup sugar

½ cup flour

¼ cup melted butter

1 tsp soda

2 eggs

½ tsp salt

1 cup sour milk (milk with a splash of vinegar)

Mix cornmeal, flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.  Add melted butter and eggs and stir.  Add soda to milk, then add to mixture.  Beat briskly for about one minute.

Bake at 350° for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

In the first cookbook published in the Hoosier state, Mrs. Collins’ Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery (1851), Mrs. Angelina Collins included several recipes for corn-based breads, including one for “Corn Pone” with the notation “carry me back to old Virginny,” homage to her birthplace.  She does not include a cornbread recipe in her volume but her “Corn Muffin and Pone” recipes both call for a sugar or molasses.

Post Civil War America was a boom time for the country and the ladies of the growing middle class had more time for activities outside the home.  Charity cookbooks, usually compiled and published as a fundraiser, gained popularity.  The Terre Haute Receipt Book compiled by the Ladies of the Congregational Church containing many Choice and Carefully tested receipts of Practical Value to Every Housekeeper (1872) is an early Indiana example.  On page 14, the chapter on “Plain Bread and Cakes” has a recipe for Corn Bread.

Corn Bread

1 pint of Indian meal

2 tablespoons of flour

1 pint of sour milk or cream

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of soda

2 tablespoons of sugar

a little salt

There are no instructions for the making of the bread as these fine ladies assumed any cook would know what to do with the ingredient list.

The following year, Ediblilia, a cookbook of Valuable Private Receipts published by the ladies of Christ Church (1873) was published in Indianapolis.  Christ Church was the congregation of many of the wealthiest and most influential families of the 19th century Hoosier capital.  But no matter how prominent the family, they all ate corn meal, in not one, but many ways, as witnessed by the variety of recipes using the meal.

The following recipes are from the chapter entitled “Bread, &.”  Notice that many of the ingredient measurements are given by weight, but there are still measurements using common household utensils such as “a small teacup.” References to a teaspoon or tablespoon are just that — a spoon used to stir tea or a spoon used as a serving spoon at the table.  Some even contain information about cooking method or process!

  • Mrs. Rand’s recipe for cornbread, below, and found on page 10, uses a liberal amount of sugar.

Corn Bread

Three eggs, one quart of sweet milk, one pound of corn meal and one of flour, a tea cup of white sugar, tea cup of butter; beat the sugar and butter together, add tea spoon of soda dissolved in the milk, then stir in two tea spoons cream of tarter or a heaping tea spoon of baking powder; bake in gem moulds.   – Mrs. Rand

  • On page 11, this authorless recipe is devoid of sweetener.

Corn Muffins

Three eggs well beaten, one quart of buttermilk, one quart of meal, one tea spoon of soda, lump of butter the size of an egg.

Other corn based bread recipes appearing in Ediblilia, include Corn Dodgers, Corn Pone, and corn batter cakes.

After the turn of the 20th century Hoosiers continued to love corn breads.  In Cookbook, compiled by the Ladies of The Presbyterian Church of Fowler (1909) the recipe for corn muffins reflects the change to standard weights and measures, although the cooking temperature is still vague.  Our taste for sweet cornbread is now firmly established.

Corn-Meal Muffins

1 ½ cups corn-meal

1cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 cups milk

2 eggs

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter – melted

Mix milk, butter, eggs, salt and sugar, then add flour, meal, and baking powder, and bake in a quick oven.

Written by the wives of the Indianapolis Maennachor members, The Maennechor Cookbook (1906) reflects both the German heritage of the membership and the American influence on the food coming out of these German-American kitchens.  On the first page of the chapter entitled “Bread, Rolls and Pies,” the authors included two recipes for cornbread.  Nearly identical, they both include one tablespoon of sugar, reflecting the influence of their American neighbors and the southern preference for sweet cornbread.

The Irvington Union of Clubs published Favorite Recipes from Irvington Kitchens in 1938, which showed that cornbread had transitioned from bread of necessity to one of American tradition, as exemplified by Genevieve Weems’ contribution to the collection of recipes.

Golden Corn Bread

Three-quarters cup corn meal (yellow)

½ teasp. salt

1 ¼ cups flour

¼ cup sugar

5 teasp. baking powder (tartrate)

1 cup milk (sweet)

1 egg

1 tblsp. melted butter.

Mix and sift dry ingredients. Add milk, well beaten egg and melted butter to dry ingredients. Bake in shallow buttered pan in hot oven for 20-30 minutes

[Christine Barbour and Scott Feickert, Indiana Cooks!  Great Restaurant Recipes for the Home Kitchen.  Bloomington, IN:Quarry Books, 2005, p.  68]