One day while driving outside of Richmond, Virginia, I passed a seafood restaurant called Stuart’s Fresh Catch. There was a vinyl sign outside advertising lake trout, crab, fresh fish and spoon bread. Obviously one of these things wasn’t like the others and I made a mental note to come back the next day to try spoon bread.
Spoonbread is one of the oldest southern delicacies. Done right, it’s incredibly light, though similar in texture to grits, and tastes almost like an incredibly juicy piece of cornbread. “A spoonful of bread, properly prepared, can be taken as continuing evidence of human perfection,” said John Egerton, author of southern food, wrote: The ingredients for Spoonbread are cornmeal, milk, butter, eggs, sugar, and baking powder (although some recipes call for flour), and Spoonbread’s ancestry can be traced back hundreds of years in Virginia. Spoonbread was originally called “dough bread” and a recipe for it appears in Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook, The Virginia housewifewhich is considered by many culinary historians to be the first Southern cookbook.
It is reasonable to conclude that Randoph used recipes from James Hemings, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and was chef at Monticello. Although many of the recipes and ingredients featured throughout the cookbook, such as okra and gumbo, were traditionally used and prepared by enslaved African Americans, batter bread is one of the best examples supporting this theory. Baked in small ramekins much like a soufflé, the dish pairs perfectly with the half-Virginian, half-French dishes Hemings was known for.
When Jefferson became ambassador to France in 1784, he brought Hemings from Virginia to France to learn cooking from French chefs. After Hemings returned, he worked in Monticello’s kitchen, teaching other enslaved cooks how to replicate the technically difficult dishes he had learned. These dishes and service quickly became the template for fine dining in America. “One can see the French influence in several soul food dishes like spoon bread… Most likely we owe such dishes to the French chefs who taught recipes and techniques to enslaved cooks,” wrote Adrian Miller in his book, The President’s kitchen cabinet.
The extinction of the bread spoon would be a tragic loss, not only because it is delicious, but because with the loss of the bread spoon we lose a part of our culinary history.
Born in Freetown, Virginia (about 20 miles from Monticello), famed African-American chef Edna Lewis grew up eating spoon bread and included it in her cookbook. In search of taste. She dubs the dish “Orange County Spoonbread” as a nod to her origins, and notes that she grew up with it, although her version has a lighter texture because instead of flour, she grates fresh corn and mixes it into a liquid.
Today, however, spoon bread is a rarity in a restaurant, even in the South. The extinction of the bread spoon would be a tragic loss, not only because it is delicious, but because with the loss of the bread spoon we lose a part of our culinary history. Hundreds of years of history and the fusion of diverse groups of people can be tasted in one spoonful – the interesting combination of corn grown by indigenous peoples, the European soufflé technique and the expertise of enslaved African Americans who have elevated this dish to a refined staple on southern tables . Spoonbread isn’t just cornmeal or eggs or sugar. Rather, it’s the mingling taste of countless tears and joy, and the story of how humans have adapted through the ages while holding on to the promise that life will be better for the next generation. This is the power of food to not only strengthen us physically but also emotionally.
The day after I saw the sign outside Stuart’s, I ordered a large takeout sandwich. The cashier at Stuart’s handed me a warm Styrofoam container filled to the brim with a fresh batch, and after grabbing a spoonful, I headed to the car to see what a centuries-old recipe tasted like. The spoonbread was rich, sweet and creamy and very tasty. Although I wasn’t transported to another world or filled with nostalgia, it made me slow down for a moment and enjoy what I was tasting. And maybe that was all it took.
Have you ever eaten spoonbread? Let us know what you love about it in the comments!