Cornbread Festival Preview
Chances are you’ve never heard of South Pittsburg. It’s a small town with a population of less than 3,200 on the southern border of Tennessee, just west of Chattanooga. However, for one weekend each year, the town swells to nearly seven times its usual population as food lovers from all over the country flock to the National Cornbread Festival.
The festival is sponsored by the company that makes the products that much of the country’s cornbread is cooked in: Lodge Cast Iron. Lodge has been located in South Pittsburgh since it began as The Blacklock Foundry in 1896, and most of the company’s cast iron is still made there, making it the only manufacturer of cast iron still located in the United States. During the festival, which takes place on April 23-24 this year, Lodge offers free tours of its foundry, an opportunity unavailable to the public the rest of the year.
Traditional American Food
No one knows exactly when cornbread was invented. Corn has been an abundant crop in North America for hundreds of years, and Native Americans shared corn-based recipes, including cornbread variants, with European settlers during the 17th century. When it became evident that the more delicate European grains couldn’t survive in America, cornbread became a staple while wheat-based breads were relegated to special occasions only.
When you picture cornbread, you probably envision the modern-day yellow variety, but up until the Great Depression, regional differences in corn resulted in blue cornbread in the southwest and white in the south. While industrial processing has made yellow cornmeal ubiquitous, for those who wish to try more traditional cornbread recipes, there are companies resurrecting and protecting those heirloom grains. South Carolina’s Anson Mills produces the white southern corn that fans claim produces a richer flavor than other modern options. In the West, Texas’ Arrowhead Mills offers a blue corn meal with its own adamant devotees, who claim it tastes like a fresh ear of sweet corn.
The Cast Iron Crown
The main attraction of the National Cornbread Festival is the Lodge National Cornbread Cook-Off. This past winter, hopeful cooks from all over the country submitted their best cornbread recipes, and Chef Shannon Johnson got started testing each and every one. These recipes are to be for a main dish, and must include at least one cup of Martha White cornmeal and be cooked in a Lodge skillet or Dutch oven. Only five finalists are chosen, with this year’s finalists traveling from Colorado, Maryland, Florida, and Texas to compete in a cook-off. The winner receives a $5,000 prize, a professional gas range, and the coveted cast iron skillet crown.
In addition to the Lodge National Cook-Off, the festival is also host to two other cornbread cook-offs: the Martha White Past Judges Cook-Off is open to, as the name suggests, bloggers and past judges of the national cook-off, and for younger cooks, the 4-H Cornbread Cook-Off offers a chance for 9-year-olds to compete.
If you’re more interested in eating cornbread than cooking it, you’re in luck. Cornbread Alley features cornbread from nine local nonprofit organizations, with options including savory and sweet recipes. You can taste all nine options for just $4, with all proceeds going to the organizations serving the cornbread.
More Than Cornbread
The National Cornbread Festival doesn’t restrict itself to its namesake when it comes to food and entertainment. These are some of the events and attractions attendees can look forward to in the week leading up to the 20th annual National Cornbread Festival and during festival weekend:
- Saturday, 4/16: Miss National Cornbread Contest
- Tuesday, 4/19 – Sunday, 4/24: Carnival rides and concessions
- Friday, 4/22: Street dance with a live band followed by a fireworks show
- Saturday, 4/23:
- •5K run/walk
- •Traditional jamming tent
- •Historic neighborhood tours
- •Classic car cruise-in
- •Lodge foundry tours
- Sunday, 4/24:
- •Pancake breakfast
- •Community worship service
- •Historic neighborhood tours
- •Lodge foundry plant tours
- •Traditional jam tent
In addition to the activities mentioned above, the festival will feature many musical acts throughout the weekend, including Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Bryan White, and Red Roots. Vendors will also be on hand selling arts and crafts, and a variety of foods in addition to cornbread. The kids’ corner will include activities to keep younger attendees entertained, including bounce houses, slides, face-painting, and games.
Celebrate at Home
If you can’t make it to South Pittsburg this year, get in the spirit to celebrate at home by cooking up your favorite cornbread recipe or trying something new. Last year’s winner, Karen Shankles, came out on top with her Festive Good Luck Cornbread Skillet, the recipe for which we’ve included below for you to try.
- 1 lb. smoked sausage
- 1⁄2 c. chopped onion
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 (15 oz.) cans black-eyed peas, drained
- 1 (141⁄2 oz.) can uncondensed chicken broth
- 10 oz. frozen chopped collard or turnip greens, thawed and drained
- 1⁄2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
- 1 c. Martha White Self-Rising Enriched White Corn Meal mix
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 3⁄4 c. buttermilk
- 1⁄4 c. vegetable oil
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
- 1⁄4 c. finely chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
- Sour cream
- Pickled jalapeno slices
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut sausage in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1⁄4-inch slices. Add sausage, onion, and garlic into a 12-inch cast iron pan or ovenproof skillet. Stir occasionally and cook until sausage is browned and onions are tender.
- Add remaining filling ingredients and mix. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Mix all topping ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Pour batter around the outside of the filling mixture in the skillet.
- Bake 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown, then add garnish as desired.