Cornbread has been the most common daily bread in South Carolina since its founding. Sarah Rutledge included thirty-four variations in The Carolina Housewife in 1847. By then, the traditional hoe cake, or johnny cake, or pone—a simple hearth bread of cornmeal and water—had evolved into many elaborate forms. Recipes traveled up and down the eastern seaboard and along the trading routes inland. Corn from Virginia—a white dent corn, which dries well in the field—was preferred. Robert Beverley described the wealthy Virginia planters preferring corn pone to wheat bread as early as 1705. In Savannah, Georgia, just across the river from South Carolina, a letter from 1738 describes the “large, broad, and white” Virginia corn, which would not grow well in the lowcountry.
Corn, like rice, was much less expensive than wheat, and both grains filled breads of all sorts. But cornbread—whether made with cooked grits, coarse meal, or fine corn flour—has maintained its popularity, from the Piedmont to the coast, throughout South Carolina’s history, whereas virtually all of the rice breads have disappeared from Carolina tables. Recipes for simple hearth cakes made with ground cereals appear in all cultures where grains are grown. English settlers in the colonies replaced oats with rice or corn. Mary Randolph published two recipes in The Virginia House-Wife in 1824, both certainly from the Carolina lowcountry: boiled rice was used in one; “homony”—what Charlestonians call cooked corn grits—“boiled and mixed with rice flour” was used in the other. Just over twenty years later all of Sarah Rutledge’s recipes would point to modern forms, with milk or buttermilk, eggs, and leavening added to this classic quick bread that is served alongside pilaus and gumbos, and with salads and greens; only two of them contained sugar.
Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705. Reprint, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
Randolph, Mary. The Virginia House-Wife. 1824. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
Rutledge, Sarah. The Carolina Housewife. 1847. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979.