Black History

The No-Fail Cornbread That's Slightly Sweet & Very Divine

February 27, 2018
Photo by Chioma Ebinama

Some joke that the AME—an acronym for the African Methodist Episcopal Church—actually stands for "Always Meet and Eat." So be it: The Black church has been an important source of physical and spiritual nourishment, from chattel slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the present day. In the first half of the 20th century, Black churches responded to the chronic hunger experienced by many African-Americans through free-food banks, church-affiliated restaurants featuring inexpensive meals, and glorious spreads for special occasions. This was a critical dining option in urban settings where poor Blacks lacked adequate cooking facilities and the space to grow their own food.

Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church ("Campbell"), my home church, has played that role in Denver, Colorado, for several decades, and my late mother, Johnetta Miller, was called upon many times to help cook food for those glorious spreads. Some members would check if my mother cooked something before they served themselves a generous helping.

But my mom wasn't the only culinary star in my church's firmament. All that I've written about my mother applies to Minnie Utsey, one of my many "second mothers" at Campbell. Minnie Utsey came to Campbell in the 1950s, six months after her husband, Archie Utsey, moved from rural Arkansas to Denver. Archie Utsey, a lifetime AME member, scouted worship places in his new home city for a few months before he ultimately chose Campbell. He soon moved his young family to Denver—three daughters (Delessia, Wherda, and Cynthia) and one son, John. Many of the Utsey children remain faithful members of Campbell.

In 2009, during the early stages of researching and writing my book on the history of soul food, I reached out to many church mothers to assess the past and current. My mother and Minnie were friends, two of the more involved members of the church, and two of my church’s more renowned cooks. Minnie was active in Campbell’s hospitality club, so when they decided to publish a cookbook in 1984, it featured a liberal sprinkling of Minnie’s and Johnetta’s recipes. In addition to the cornbread recipe below, the cookbook included Minnie’s recipes for Cauliflower Savory Stew, Spoon Bread (a cornbread souffle), Sweet Potato Pie, and Salt Substitute (a mixture of various spices). One recipe that didn’t appear in the book was something she called “Upside Down Cornbread,” where cornbread was baked on top of a medley of vegetables. I tried for years to get that recipe, only for Minnie to tell me that she really didn’t remember because she didn’t follow a recipe. She did admit that it might have based on a recipe that she once saw in a healthy soul food cooking pamphlet, but finding that document proved just as elusive.

Cornbread was the 'glue' that held stewed vegetables together, so that diners who couldn't afford utensils could eat with their fingers.

Like my mother, Minnie was very supportive and happy to answer my repeated, annoying questions about soul food. I learned that cornbread was an everyday staple in the Utsey household, especially for dinner. Minnie usually served some type of greens or field peas for family meals, and cornbread was always a necessary accompaniment. Archie also loved to snack on buttermilk and cornbread. The primary place that cornbread had in the Utsey household reflected the food habits of Blacks living in the rural South. In some instances, cornbread was the "glue" that held stewed vegetables together so that diners who couldn't afford utensils could eat with their fingers. On some occasions, Archie would crumble that cornbread in some buttermilk and drink it—a real throwback to country living.

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When Campbell’s members feast, the grandest occasion is something we call “The Harvest Rally.” Church lore states that this annual event began in the 1930s as a fundraiser to help the church cover anticipated heating expenses during Colorado winters, and still happens the Sunday before Thanksgiving. This festive meal has always been held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, with members encouraged to bring canned goods, family and friends, and a generous offering. After church, a big meal prepared by a team of several cooks took place. The members formed a long line, and methodically made their way through the base meal of roast turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry jelly. Just to make there was enough to go around, the church mothers served the guests controlled portions. Once past that table, diners turned to their left to peruse the choices on the next long table which was pure potluck items, savory and dessert. Though the selection varied, soul food favorites reliably rounded out the meal: golden fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pies, peach cobbler, pound cake, and some sort of red-colored drink to wash it all down. And, of course, a number of cornbreads.

The cornbreads had various hues (from light yellow to a deep golden brown), shapes (circles, squares and triangles), and textures (gummy to crumbly). Yet Minnie Utsey's cornbread stood out from the rest. It follows a classic soul food formula, particularly with the use of yellow cornmeal and sugar. For many white southerners, the latter is sacrilege, for they believe that cornbread should be completely savory—otherwise, it's cake. Vive la difference! The slightly sweet taste, not as pronounced as with so many of today’s commercial mixes, contrasted with the savory cornmeal. Her recipe is also versatile (it bakes well in a cast iron skillet, muffin tin, or corn stick mold), and so proven (it’s not called “no-fail” for nothing). I thought it would be so perfect for cooks unfamiliar with soul food that I had to have it in my book’s recipe collection.

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Top Comment:
“This past year I was asked to bring cornbread. I struggled with what recipe should I use as I refused to use a boxed mix as suggested. Finally I resorted To ordering a few dozens from a local cafeteria that serves very good cornbread muffins, Luby’s. This year, I’ll use this recipe. Thanks for sharing!”
— Andrea

Unfortunately, Minnie Utsey died in 2010, so never got to see my book. So many of my church mothers have “gone on to Glory,” but I’m glad they left us their recipes. Minnie’s daughters do a lot to carry on the Utsey tradition of serving our church and serving up good food when the occasion calls for it. I honor Minnie’s loving memory, and shining example, with this cornbread that lives up to its title.

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Adrian Miller is a food writer, attorney and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, CO. He is currently the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and, as such, is the first African American and the first layperson to hold that position. Miller previously served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and a senior policy analyst for Colorado governor Bill Ritter Jr. He has also been a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Miller’s Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. His next book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas will be published on President's Day, 2017.


Eileen March 12, 2018
I'm excited to try this with "coarse cornmeal". I've believed that the reason our household cornbread (simple Joy of Cooking recipe, doubled and baked in a cast-iron skillet) is so delicious because of the cornmeal we use: organic cornmeal ground very fine, almost as fine as wheat flour.
Andrea March 4, 2018
Excited to try this recipe sometime soon! I don’t like the boxed mixes. Yearly we have a “Soups On” luncheon at work. This past year I was asked to bring cornbread. I struggled with what recipe should I use as I refused to use a boxed mix as suggested. Finally I resorted To ordering a few dozens from a local cafeteria that serves very good cornbread muffins, Luby’s. This year, I’ll use this recipe. Thanks for sharing!
George H. March 3, 2018
Can I replace vegetable shortening with coconut oil, flavor aside?
Lk G. March 4, 2018
i, too, wonder this.
soulfoodscholar March 4, 2018
Yes, that should work. I did it once with good results, though that version seemed more crumbly.
Eileen March 12, 2018
I've used melted coconut oil in my usual (Joy of Cooking) cornbread recipe with success. I've also used bacon grease, and honestly, I feel more comfortable using that than I do vegetable shortening which is hydrogenated (bad for you). I've discovered coconut oil is the best "releaser" for greasing the pan for homemade yeasted wheat bread loaves, the toughest test, so now I use coconut oil as a pan greaser for all home-baked breads. When used to season cast iron pans, coconut oil doesn't eventually get rancid like some other oils do. I like to double a cornbread recipe and bake it in a cast-iron skillet for a crunchy crust. This is just my experience, but I hope it's helpful.
soulfoodscholar March 12, 2018
Thanks for the heads up!
Barbara S. February 28, 2018
I can actually feel the love and care and faith in your story. Is there any chance your books are on Amazon? I would love to both read and cook from them. Thank you for the caring and inspiration.
soulfoodscholar February 28, 2018
Thank you! Yes, it's available on Amazon, or you may order from my website.
Deborah February 28, 2018
Such a heart warming story— I’m inspired to make this corn bread to honor the memories of these ladies.
soulfoodscholar February 28, 2018
Thank you! Much appreciated.
scruz February 28, 2018
that was so well written and interesting. so much love in that story. thank you so much. made my evening, before i go off to bed.
soulfoodscholar February 28, 2018
I appreciate it!
GeekKnitter February 27, 2018
What a wonderful story. Thanks so much for it, and for the cornbread, I can't wait to try it.
soulfoodscholar February 28, 2018
AntoniaJames February 27, 2018
Gorgeous writing, and what a recipe! On my plan for this weekend . . . . ;o)
soulfoodscholar February 28, 2018