Thursday, September 6

Kitchen to Classroom: Can You Say "Cornbread"?

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Add a new field to the interdisciplinary conglomerate that is food studies—Anthropology, History, Literary Studies, Gastronomy, American Studies, Geography, Folklore…and now Linguistics. Last year, University of Mississippi Modern Languages professor Allison Burkette published an article in American Speech exploring connections among food, history, and culture based on various ways of saying “cornbread.”

In North America, according to Burkette, there are 332 different terms to describe bread made with cornmeal including cornbread, cornpone, johnnycake, hoecake, dodger, and crackling. Burkette examines how these words reveal cultural knowledge about contacts between Europeans and Native Americans, technological and culinary innovation, and English perceptions of American Indians.

Photo courtesy of America's Test Kitchen

Burkette divides cornbread history into three eras. In the first “native” period, colonists prepared bread with indigenous ingredients and methods. The terms “hearth cake” and “ashcake” suggest native practices of cooking bread beside a fire or concealed in ashes. The second “era of hybridization” reveals a fusion of native recipes with ingredients familiar to colonists—adding flour and eggs, for example, to create “corn cakes” or “egg bread.” In the final “culinary era,” white Americans added other grains and used new methods inspired by post-colonial cookbooks for “brown bread” or “griddle cakes.”

A common theme is the European tendency to identify Native Americans as an “exotic” other. Colonists held corn in low esteem because of a high regard for wheat and an ambivalence toward natives who consumed the grain. Anything “stamped Indian,” Burkette explains, held “low prestige” for white colonists. With this article, Burkette makes a significant contribution to the study of Southern foodways. Whatever you call it, cornbread is culture.

—Angela Jill Cooley

Burkette, Allison. “‘Stamped Indian’: Finding History and Culture in Terms for American ‘Cornbread.’” American Speech 86, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 312-339.