Throughout my life I have watched my parents enjoy cornbread and milk. It was never something I partook of regularly, and to this day have rarely had it. But it has always been a big part of the West Alabama culture in which I was raised. It always seemed to be the evening meal or snack for the older generation. Some crumbled the bread in the milk, some ate them separate, some added sliced onions, while others had onions on the side.
My Aunt Faye Brown conducted an unscientific survey on the topic of eating corn bread and milk in her book Foot Logs, Franch Harps and Fox Grape Jam. She concluded that those seniors who had lived through the great Depression were more likely to have recently had milk and cornbread as a snack or, for many, as a meal. Regardless of its lack of popularity among younger Southerners, it does have a significant place in the annals of Southern Food.
I think one of the reasons it is still a popular dish among older Southerners is that it is the quintessential “get by” meal. For many, milk was always available from the milk cow. Cornbread doesn’t require many ingredients at all and in fact it is made from readily available ingredients. Even the popular addition — onions — are also readily available in the rural Southern kitchen. When you have nothing else for a meal — break out the milk, cook up some simple cornbread, slice a few onions … and dinner is served.
But this is a Sweets Showdown, let’s not forget! How is this a sweet? Granted, it may be the least sweet of the sweets in our bracket, but it is sweet nonetheless. While many folks swear by crumbling their cornbread into buttermilk, we are considering the sweeter cousin — sweet milk.
Sweet milk, for those of you who are city-bred, is regular whole milk. Some like the milk ice cold with piping hot corn bread. Others like cold milk and cold bread. No matter the strategy of the eater, each one enjoys the savory saltiness of the corn bread complementing the creamy sweetness of the milk.
One thing that Real Southern Men will simply not tolerate, however, is sugar in the cornbread. That is decidedly not Southern, even though some Southerners (even a few Real Southern Men) produce such an aberration. Cakes are meant to be sweet, cornbread is meant to be savory. Basically, the sweetness in this dish comes from the milk, not the bread.
So, if you are looking for a sweet bite that is not too sweet, or you are looking for a “get by” meal in these trying economic times, cornbread in sweet milk may just be an option. Just don’t dare put any sugar in that cornbread — the Real Southern Men will be watching!
A great (sugarless) cornbread recipe from Birmingham Chef Frank Stitt is found here.
For a look into the “Cornbread and Milk” habits of Southerners, see Foot Logs, Franch Harps and Fox Grape Jam by Faye Brown.