Having already deflated everything fun about summer 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has moved on to collapsing the joys of fall. The 24th annual Berea Spoonbread Festival, where about 40,000 Kentucky residents and hungry gadabouts from neighboring states would be slathering butter, honey, and sorghum on the event’s namesake entrée, was scheduled to take place later this month. Instead it was canceled in June by organizers due to safety concerns.
Spoonbread, for the uninitiated, is a wet, naturally sweet, and sometimes savory corn soufflé that has a texture somewhere between grits and cornbread. It’s a dish that “sits atop the food pyramid as the richest and most delectable result of the corn bread art,” according to the Southern food writer Joseph E. Dabney, and its most well-prepared versions are described loftily by John Egerton in his classic Southern Food as “testimony to the perfectibility of humankind.” Stan Woodward’s 1978 documentary It’s Grits takes its name from a comment by chef Pierre Franey, who proudly recalls impressing United Nations dignitaries at a shmancy New York dinner party with a version of simple American spoonbread. The historic Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, not too far from Berea, serves a classic version of it daily.
It’s also beloved among home cooks. “You want it piping hot, just right out of the oven,” says Berea Spoonbread Festival board member and 10-year Festival kitchen volunteer Linda VanWinkle. “I prefer just extra butter.”
Served both as a side dish and a main, this Southern classic can be dessert-ified and sprinkled with powdered sugar and caramel, as it is in Edward Lee’s Smoke & Pickles: Recipes And Stories From A New Southern Kitchen, or made decadent with sharp cheddar cheese and pork crackling, as it is in Paul Fehribach’s The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes For Savoring The Heritage Of Regional Southern Cooking.
Recipes for the dish can be traced back through Appalachia, Virginia, and the Carolinas all the way to Mary Randolph’s 1824 compendium The Virginia House-Wife, considered the first Southern cookbook. Since then, there have been almost as many variations of spoonbread as there are Southern cookbooks that feature its name as part of their title. If there’s one common thread, though, it’s references to Sarah Rutledge’s recipe in the 1847 collection The Carolina Housewife. And even that recipe, called “Owenda,” alludes to a pre-dairy, pre-colonial version of the dish. Charleston, South Carolina grain wonk and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts clarifies that “there’s no such thing as ‘spoonbread’ in our region.... It was ‘Awendaw’ in my house,” made by his mother from fresh duck eggs. “Everybody forgets it was a Native food, and it was here before any European settlers came.”
The most ethereal preparations, says Roberts, are made with the coarsest corn particles. “The tradition back in the day was coarse grits, because you wanted large, very soft pieces of corn to be bursts of corn flavor.” Hominy grits or nixtamal work well, though home chefs are more likely to find stone-ground white grits and meal in grocery stores.
The official Berea Spoonbread Festival recipe, available here, is an easy, straightforward treat. For home cooks who don’t mind a more involved approach, though, I highly recommend Fehribach’s version from The Big Jones Cookbook, which uses two different expressions of corn and both milk and buttermilk. “You can use any kind of hominy grit,” says Fehribach, “[though] you can certainly use white cornmeal or even polenta in that particular application.”
No matter what sort of ground kernels you’re able to get your hands on, homemade spoonbread is a fluffy, decadent taste of summer that can be enjoyed long after the farmers markets close up shop for the winter.
Serves 4 to 6
Prep Time: 2 hours
Equipment Needed: 2-quart cast-iron or enamel casserole, 1-quart saucepan, wire whisk, wire mesh skimmer or slotted spoon, 4-quart mixing bowl
- 1 ¾ cups whole milk
- ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- ½ cup stone-ground hominy grits
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into bits
- ½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
- 4 large eggs
- 1 ½ cups lowfat buttermilk
- ⅓ cup fine stone-ground cornmeal
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ½ cup sliced green onion, optional
- 1 cup crackling, optional (Note: Making crackling in a home kitchen is akin to making pork napalm, so consider picking some up already fried at your local butcher shop.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter a heavy 2-quart cast-iron or enamel casserole.
Place milk, cayenne, and salt in a 1-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, whisking occasionally to prevent scorching. Sprinkle the grits into the hot milk and whisk in. Pause, allowing the germ and chaff to rise to the top. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to skim it off. Resume whisking and continue until the milk thickens measurably, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to a low boil and continue whisking regularly to prevent sticking and scorching. The grits will take about 40 minutes to cook: they are done when the larger grits have a nice bite to them but no hard starchy center, and the overall mixture is heavy and creamy. Whisk in the butter and cheese until fully incorporated and creamy. Remove from heat and proceed immediately to the batter.
In a 4-quart mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy, then beat in the buttermilk. Combine the cornmeal and baking powder in a small dish, and then sprinkle over the buttermilk and whisk in. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot grits into the buttermilk and beat until smooth. Add the optional green onion and crackling, and pour batter into the buttered casserole. Bake on the top rack of the oven until light and fluffy, yet set in the center and nicely browned, about 50 to 60 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the spoonbread jiggles as a whole mass when gently shaken. If it makes liquid waves in the center, it needs more time. Top with butter and serve with jam or sorghum molasses.
Recipe reprinted from The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes For Savoring The Heritage Of Regional Southern Cooking with permission from Paul Fehribach.