If you stop by La’Wan’s Soul Food Restaurant in south Charlotte for collards and macaroni & cheese, there’s something important on your plate.
It’s a small cornbread muffin. Soft and tender, almost cake-like, with a bit of chewiness to the crust and a flavor that’s just a little sweet.
Now drive over to Lupie’s Cafe on Monroe Road and you’ll get a big square of cornbread, 3 inches across, white with a yellow tinge. Firm, almost coarse, with a crisp top.
Sweet? Not a bit. It’s defiantly not sweet.
La’Wan’s corn muffin and Lupie’s cornbread are humble things. But they represent something deeper: The dividing line between black Southerners and white ones. As examples of one of the defining staples of Southern food, they also are a marker of food history that speaks volumes about origins and identity, about family and what we hold dear.
It also raises a question: So many Southern food traditions are shared by both races. Most Southerners, black and white, revere fried chicken, pursue pork barbecue and exalt their grandmothers’ garden vegetables. So why is there such a fundamental difference between two styles of one basic bread?
Culinary historians have debated this one for years: Did the descendants of slave cooks who were exposed to British baking styles come to value cornbread that was lighter and softer? Did the children of farm-based white Southerners get used to unsweetened cornbread that tasted more emphatically like corn? Whatever caused it, the line is drawn.
“You have to have sugar in your tea and your cornbread,” says La’Wan Adams, the owner of La’Wan’s. “People will ask, ‘Is it like Jiffy? Is it like cake?’”
If you are white, you likely fall into the camp of Lupie Duran, the retired owner of Lupie’s.
“To me, sweet cornbread is like Jiffy mix. And that’s not the Southern kind. No sugar. It’s not my thing.”
My friend in SC sent me this interesting article on the differences between “White” and “Black” cornbread down that way.