A People's History of Cornbread Stuffing

If it’s Southern and it predates Civil War, it means we’re talking about slavery. The fact is that enslaved people’s hands crafted the most popular American stuffing out of old cornbread.

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Nov 20 2015, 5:00pm

Photo by Sydney Kramer.

In Western gastronomy, people have always loved a good forcemeat. The Roman chef Apicius favored stuffed dormice drizzled with honey. Later, on other Mediterranean shores, the world saw an explosion of stuffed foods from Damascus to Jerusalem: carrots, eggplants, and chicken stuffed with rice and meat. Along the Silk Road came stuffed pockets, rolls, and leaves moving from the Orient and Central Asia into Slavic Europe and across to medieval Spain, where everything from gefilte fish (from a Middle German word for "stuffed") to stuffed cabbage to the rudiments of empanadas quickly gained popularity. Italian recipes crept up into France, which in turn spread across Britain and other parts of northern Europe. Everybody was getting stuffed.

Now, if you're a Whovian, still watch too many episodes of Are You Being Served?, or are some other type of near-Anglophile, you'll know exactly how naughty that last turn of phrase was. This is why in the South, for reasons we can only guess at, some Victorian-age antebellum plantation lady decided to exchange the terms of insertion for terms of modesty. Thus, "stuffing" became "dressing."

If that shift in meaning entertained you, perhaps you'll be ready for this one. Americans have long enjoyed their forcemeats, stuffings, and dressings. As fall and winter celebratory traditions became more formalized and menus more fixed, regions developed ways to dress up the no-waste treat of stale bread, fat, and flavorings baked inside or alongside the main protein of the moment. Oysters (the Big Mac of the 19th century), wild rice, the now-endangered American chestnut, and even sauerkraut have made appearances with the holiday bird. New England, the Midwest, and the Eastern Seaboard expressed their regional identities through the crumbly delight.

N

obody is asking you to feel guilty or call cornbread stuffing racist. Nobody is asking you to imagine Paula Deen dancing with the stars in blackface with a piping-hot plate of Stove Top. So cut that out.

In the South, however, we saw the birth of a type of dressing that has now taken a life of its own—so much so that some people favor it over the old English stuffing of bread cubes sprinkled with sage and pepper. Much like "stuffing" vs. "dressing," its heritage and story have been largely forgotten, suggesting a quaint legacy of "making do" while ignoring the burdens of a very real and tragic history. You guessed it: If it's Southern and it predates Civil War, it means we're talking about slavery. The fact is that enslaved people's hands crafted the most popular American stuffing out of old cornbread.

Now, nobody is asking you to feel guilty or call cornbread stuffing racist. Nobody is asking you to imagine Paula Deen dancing with the stars in blackface with a piping-hot plate of Stove Top. So cut that out.

We're simply talking about the origin story of a dish that speaks to how far we've come, and how ingenious enslaved Africans and African Americans were, taking what little they had and turning it into delicacies that crossed the color line. For me, it's also the story of how one dish can show connections between groups of people believed to be irreconcilably divided.

It was called kush—no relation to the recreational stuff. This was a grainy type of corn dish, made either from meal or crumbled cornbread. In both cases, its origins lie in Senegambia and the Sahel, where Islamic West Africa was born. Kusha is the Hausa name for one of many dishes that reflected a dual transfer of cuisine and culture between North and West Africa. We are still unclear who got there first, but it was most likely West Africans—who once shared the green Sahara with their cousins to the North—that came up with the idea for couscous-type dishes. Kusha (or "kush" in the mouths of their descendants in the United States) was shorthand for "couscous," the steamed or boiled grains of millet or sorghum eaten as a staple in savanna areas of West Africa, where the influence of Islam was felt.

Kush was a cornbread scramble made from the basic elements of the ration system that spread from the enslaved person's quarters outward to the Big House and the kitchens of whites high and low.

Senegambians came in large numbers to early America. In the Chesapeake, they dominated the slave trade to Maryland and northern Virginia. In the Carolina Lowcountry, they were brought to work because they were considered expert craftsmen and growers of rice, cotton, and indigo. In Louisiana, they were brought for the exact same reasons, and during the French slave trade they came to dominate the culture of the Black population of the region. That's important because French settlers—especially Acadian refugees from Canada, later called Cajuns—adopted many of the Senegambian people's foodways including okra, rice, the liberal use of hot pepper, and a breakfast cornmeal preparation they came to know as "couche-couche," eaten with milk and cane syrup.

RECIPE: Cornbread Kush

In other parts of the South, kush (also spelled "cush") was a cornbread scramble made from the basic elements of the ration system. Enslaved people were given a ration of salt pork, corn or cornmeal, salt, and other staples as slaveholders saw fit. It was obviously a plebeian diet meant to meet only the most basic need for food. The salt meat was more condiment than it was entrée; its grease was used to season cast iron pots and skillets and provided a bit of cooking oil. In this oil would go crumbled-up, leftover cornbread—often made of white cornmeal without much more than water, and if they were lucky, a pinch of salt. This mixture—fried quick and sometimes flavored with onion (often wild and freely available) as well as hot peppers and herbs from their gardens—spread from the enslaved person's quarters outward to the Big House and the kitchens of whites high and low.

Kush was, without question, a widely spread dish. The last generation of African Americans interviewed by the Works Progress Administration of WPA during the 1930s certainly remembered kush well. One man from North Carolina reported, "Did yo' eber eat any kush? Well dat wus made outin meal, onions, salt, pepper, grease an' water. Hit made a good supper dish." A woman from Virginia stated, "Honey, we was crazy about kush!" The pepper was usually red, and there were often bits of wild or cultivated herbs in it to give it an extra bit of savor. If there were any cracklings or bits of bacon, salt pork, or ham, they too went into the kush.

At first, hearing about everybody's favorite Black nanny (or worse, in the parlance of some older visitors to my presentations, "mammy") was a nauseating trigger. But I've changed my perspective, welcoming these moments as opportunities to learn more about cooks that might otherwise be forgotten.

Now, if you look this up on Wikipedia, some writers have reinvented this dish as "Confederate Cush," with no reference to the origin of the word "cush" nor with any reference to its original creators. In the mind of the author of the article, "cush" isn't just "cush"—it's "Confederate," and its creators were resourceful Rebel soldiers doing their damndest to make do and survive the invasion on the homefront. This is a clear example of culinary injustice, and revisionist histories have already sought to remove kush from its cultural origins in the slave quarter. The article neglects to remind the reader that hundreds of Black cooks accompanied the Confederate army.

As I have prepared this dish over the years, it never fails to evoke memories of cornbread dressing as prepared by Black women who worked for Southern white families. One white woman from North Carolina wrote me a very nice letter asking me for a recipe for kush because it was her father's "favorite cornbread dressing." At first, hearing about everybody's favorite Black nanny (or worse, in the parlance of some older visitors to my presentations, "mammy") was a nauseating trigger. But I've changed my perspective, welcoming these moments as opportunities to learn more about cooks that might otherwise be forgotten.

That so many people can recall eating a form of this recipe tells us that kush is a critical part of Southern folk cuisine. It's a dish that is simple, plebeian, and has a heartbreaking emotional history. It is based upon an ingredient first domesticated and perfected by Native Americans. Kush was carried in the memories of the minds of people who survived the Middle Passage. It was a loving treat from enslaved mothers to their children, and was often eaten by white and Black children side by side on Southern plantations. It was shared in the bayous of Louisiana as Acadian refugees encountered freedom-seeking Africans living in the wilderness. It was a dish made by Black cooks that fed Confederate soldiers, Black sharecroppers, white sharecroppers, rich white folks, and folks like my family, who made cornbread dressing in a way not much different from the way it had been passed down from generation to generation.