As any elementary school student knows, corn was first cultivated in the "New World" by natives. This was one of the first great foods taken back to Europe by explorer's and a staple of colonial cooking. Cornmeal is simply ground dried corn. Early Americans took to corn quickly and began figuring out ways to make bread and whisky from it. Corn is actually more "American than apple pie", as it was a staple crop that enabled the independence of settler's from British and European imports.
Today, when one shops at a grocery store, one is likely to see several different brands and varieties of cornmeal. There will be "Plain Cornmeal" in white and yellow varieties and "Self Rising" cornmeal also in yellow and white. Most of these will be fine ground. If you go to a specialty store (or gristmill), you may see medium and coarse ground options, as well as other colors of cornmeal. But, the average person only comes into contact with a few major national brands and only the white and yellow varieties, in fine or medium grind. This is a relatively new phenomenon.
For centuries, corn has been grown in America and ground in small grist mills. Usually, in a rural community, one family would own land on a body of water and build the mill, using a river, creek or "mill stream" to turn a water wheel, which would provide the power for grinding. Other families would grow the corn and take it in to be ground "on halves." The mill owner would keep half the ground corn and the farmer would take half home. The mill owner would then sell his half of the corn to make a profit. This led to regional preferences for the fineness or coarsens of a grind, as well as, the varieties and colors of corn. Variations aside though, there was only one variety of cornmeal as we would see it today and that variety was "plain." Self rising cornmeal would not come on the market for at least 200 years after the Southern states were settled and founded.
In the coastal and "low country" areas of the Southern United States, cornbread is still usually made the same way as our ancestors made it hundreds of years before, only with modern equipment. This is fried cornbread, which is simply a mix of plain (usually fine ground) cornmeal with a bit of salt and water, stirred into a slurry and fried in oil in a cast iron pan. Any type of oil can be used, from vegetable oil to bacon drippings and the cornmeal may be white or yellow. The grind varies to taste as does the color and thickness of the cornbread patties. My family (which has been growing and grinding corn, and frying cornbread in eastern NC, SC, VA and GA since the 1600s) prefers white, fine ground (plain) cornmeal mixed with a bit more water than many recipes call for, so that our patties form crispy, lacy edges when fried. A drier slurry makes a patty with more rounded, softer edges, with more density int he center.
Baking powder was developed in 1845 and soon after, it was added to plain (all purpose) flour to make a self rising flour. Sometime later, it was added to plain cornmeal to make the self rising version, but it would be decades before it became popular in the South. By the time Self Rising Cornmeal came to market, the Civil War was on the horizon. Soon, would come blockades which prevented the import of any goods into the South. Following the War, came Reconstruction in which many Southerners were kept at starvation level poverty for years as punishment for secession. It would be nearly 1900 before the Southern economy had recovered enough, and railroads had expanded enough, for non-regional foods to come to market in most Southern Communities. Even then though, the super market/ grocery store that we know today was yet to come. Back then, one bought their staples at a general store. The general store usually carried only one brand of each item. You gave your list to the store manager and your goods were brought to you at the register - you didn't select them and variety was not an option.
Piggly Wiggly introduced the modern super market in 1916. This was the first time Americans in the Southern United States had the opportunity to shop or themselves - to walk the isles and choose the products that most appealed to them and to put them in their own baskets for purchase. No longer did people have only the option of the one variety of cornmeal available at the local mill, but they had a shelf stocked with various brands and varieties. With the advent of the super market came the modern marketing of national, brand named goods. Flour and cornmeal companies were among the first companies to make effective use of radio advertising for their products to the South, through sponsoring live country music programs. In Texas, W. Lee O'Daniel, owner of the "Light Crust" flour company would not only sponsor radio shows, but form the "Lightcrust Doughboys".... which evolved into both Milton Brown's Musical Brownies and Bob Wills" Texas Playboys (which became among the most, if not the most popular band in America in its time). O'Daniel rode this fame to becoming both Governor of and US Senator from the State of Texas. In the Southeast, WSM's Grand Ole Opry came to dominate the airwaves and Martha White became its longest running sponsor. Most southerners are familiar with this tune by the legendary bluegrass band, Flatt and Scruggs: https://youtu.be/ZxgBycCuqVQ
Although other brands, like White Lilly, were popular, Martha White came to dominate the Southern market.... and with it, came "Hot Rize".... or, baking powder. By 1950, Self Rising Cornmeal had a strong foothold in the Southern kitchen. This, however was the beginning of risen cornbread. So, lets talk about rising (or leavened) breads.
For thousands of years before cornbread was developed, Europeans had been making bread with flour (and other grains). Flour contains gluten, which is nothing more than a type of protein. Yes, I know that millions of people are worried about gluten these days and that "gluten free' foods are the current trend marketing to said ignorant people.... btw, less than 5% of Americans are actually gluten intolerant... probably less than 2% in reality. For everyone else, gluten is just a plant based protein and is just as nutritious as any other natural food. But, I digress.....
Gluten is the aspect of wheat flour that gives it its chewy texture and allows it to rise. Yeasts are bacteria, that when added to flour and water (sugar, eggs, milk etc) eat the available sugars and starches. The byproduct of yeasts eating and multiplying is carbon dioxide gas. Little bubbles form in the dough and become trapped in the strands of gluten. Traditionally, this is what causes bread to rise. Unleavened bread does not rise and is "flat bread", crackers, etc.
Wheat bread may also be made to rise with chemical leavening such as baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda produces carbon dioxide when exposed to an acidic liquid. Baking powder rises twice, the first time when liquid is introduced and a second time when the bread becomes hot enough in baking.
Cornmeal contains no gluten. Therefore, on its own, no leaving agent can truly make it rise. Whether plain cornmeal is mixed with yeast, baking soda or baking powder, there is no gluten to hold the bubbles. A few bubbles may last long enough to form little chambers in the cornbread, it will essentially turn out as a flat bread.
Before the advent of Self Rising Cornmeal, some folks began using baking soda to make cornbread that would rise somewhat. Usually, this was in regions that were way from major cities, where reliable yeasts and wheat flour were less readily available. They added eggs and buttermilk into their batter, along with baking soda. This gave protein from eggs to allow rising and acid to activate the baking soda and cause rising. When baking powder came on the market, this gave even a bit more rise. This was "skillet cornbread". It was especially popular where people did not have ovens and relied on dutch ovens or open fire cooking, which made it the easiest bread to make at home or on the trail.
When Self Rising cornmeal became readily available, and the national companies had access to nearly every kitchen in the South, they found the opportunity to dominate the market. The promoted Self Rising Cornmeal as a convenience food and as a superior product to Plain Cornmeal. They purchased "advertorials" in magazines and cookbooks, conjuring the old-fashioned, Southern Cooking images along with western campfires and creative recipes. They also promoted their products as more modern, implying that only the uneducated and unsophisticated would use any other brand... and only a moron, backwoods hick would use plain cornmeal from a local mill.
Their marketing was amazingly effective... and, it was not completely false. Wonderful cornbread can be made with Self Rising Cornmeal. However, wonderful cornbread can also be made from Plain Cornmeal. In reality, both types are delicious and ideally suited for their own applications. The problem is that too many people who were brought up on heavy brand marketing stopped using Plain Cornbread from their local mill.... and many of those mills went out of business. Today, we actually have fewer choices in brands and types of cornmeal than our ancestors did just 100 years ago and fewer of us know how to cook properly with cornmeal.
To put it simply:
1) Plain Cornmeal is for making fried cornbread or for breading fish (etc) for frying.
Self Rising Cornmeal may be used for making fried cornbread, but it will not rise. The texture will be a bit drier and more crumbly than fried cornbread made with Plain Cornmeal. It will not form crispy, lacy edges. And, because salt comes pre-added, you can only add more, not less.
2) Self Rising Cornmeal is ideal for making baked loaves of cornbread or cornbread muffins.
With the addition of eggs, water or milk and sugar, it produces the cornbread that is most often served in restaurants and which has probably come to be much more popular in recent years.
3) Skillet Cornbread is not fried cornbread.
It can be made with either Self Rising Cornmeal of amended Plain Cornmeal (as can baked). It is usually mixed like a baked cornbread batter, poured into a hot, heavily greased skillet and finished in the oven. This gives a crispy, fried bottom and a baked bread consistency throughout.
4) Many things can be added to basic cornbread recipes, but the fundamentals remain.
5) Hoe Cakes, Corn Pones and Indian Fry Bread are traditionally made with plain cornmeal. Corn dodgers, dumplings and hushpuppies vary.
6) Masa is a type of cornmeal in which the corn has been treated with lye. The lye makes the corn more digestible and nutritious. It also yields a softer cornmeal, which is generally used for tortillas, tamales and other delicious items originating in Mexico and South America.
In closing.... our tastes delight in variety. Why just have one type of cornbread made with only one brand, color and texture of cornbread? You may have a favorite (I certainly do - the same fried cornbread made with Plain cornmeal that my great grandmother taught my grandmother to make, that she taught my mother, that she taught me, etc..... btw, we like the House-Autry brand made in Four Oaks, NC). The problem is that too few people, these days, received family food traditions passed down. They know southern food as only what they eat at a restaurant chain and learn their recipes from the back of a ready mixed package..... if they even learn to "cook." The result is that small producers and older recipes are lost. I believe that is to the detriment of us all. "Hold fast to tradition!"
- Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_Park