Essay

The Truth Behind My Grandma's (Not-So-Secret) Corn Casserole

And how I found out that everyone eats it too.

October  1, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

I grew up eating what I know of as corn casserole and what you may know of as spoonbread or corn bowl. It’s not quite cornbread, but also not a layered casserole or gratin. To call it magical might be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Every Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember, my grandmother served corn casserole as a side dish alongside other classics: mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, dinner rolls, the works. But corn casserole is in a league of its own. Grandma always serves it in an opaque brown glass Pyrex bowl with a large spoon for serving big scoops. You don’t have to do it this way, but in my book, it’s the only way to do it. It’s Grandma’s way.

If you’ve never tasted corn casserole, it’s creamy and soft, golden brown on top and pale yellow beneath the surface. It’s studded with whole corn kernels so you get a slight crunch without distracting from the uber-moist casserole. On Turkey Day, I help myself to seconds and thirds and take some home for a late-night snack (aka 8pm on Thanksgiving night, approximately five hours after we finished eating).

I thought I was in an elite class of 11 family members who had the distinct honor and privilege of eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving.

For years, I thought corn casserole was something that my grandma invented. After all, she is the superstar behind other Caron family chart-toppers like anise sugar cookies at Christmas, a perfectly meaty, cheesy, saucy lasagna for Father’s Day, and banana cream pie for my grandfather’s birthday (it’s his all-time favorite and one of mine too). I thought I was in an elite class of 11 family members who had the distinct honor and privilege of eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving.

I was shocked that it wasn’t an entirely from-scratch recipe she had made up.

But when I was 10, I asked my parents to help me film my own home cooking show. I was thoroughly obsessed with Giada de Laurentiis and wanted to play the role of Food Network host. The show was titled “Seasonal Cooking with Kelly Vaughan” and the theme song was performed by yours truly on a clarinet. (Naturally, I won a few Emmys and Grammys.) In the first of just two episodes, I decided to try my hand at making Grandma’s corn casserole. I asked her for the recipe and she gave me a handwritten card that called for just six ingredients—Jiffy Corn Muffin mix, sour cream, eggs, melted butter, a can of creamed corn, and a can of whole kernel corn. I was shocked that it wasn’t an entirely from-scratch recipe she had made up.

The History of Cornbread

Let’s rewind a bit to the 16th and 17th centuries. Long before Grandma was making corn casserole with corn muffin mix, long before a regular cornbread recipe called for buttermilk, eggs, sour cream, and melted butter and was cooked in a cast-iron skillet or muffin tin, Native Americans were making bread with ground corn, salt, water, and bear or hog grease, according to Charles Reagan Wilson, editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that home cooks started making other variations of cornbread like hushpuppies, griddle cakes, and corn muffins, and would experiment with adding ingredients like sugar, eggs, self-rising flour, and onions, says Wilson.

The bread would either be baked in a fireplace with coals (a style of bread known as “pone”), on field hoes (for what we now know of as hoecakes), or cooked in boiling water (for a version of a johnnycake). It wasn’t until the 19th century that home cooks started making other variations of cornbread like hushpuppies, griddle cakes, and corn muffins, and would experiment with adding ingredients like sugar, eggs, self-rising flour, and onions, says Wilson.

Spoonbread (aka corn casserole) made with butter, milk, and eggs wasn’t introduced until after the Civil War. However, it made a big splash once it debuted in society. “Spoonbread is perhaps the highest culinary attainment of cornbread,” writes Wilson. “[Writer] Redding S. Sugg Jr. called it ‘the apotheosis of cornbread,’ and [restauranteur and author of Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking] Bill Neal referred to it as ‘an elegant soufflé; the fabled spoonbread, a mainstay of the aristocratic southern table.’ [Journliast and Civil Rights activist] John Egerton has described it as a ‘steaming hot, feather-light dish.’”

Seems like I’m not the only one who is mesmerized by cloud-like creation that is spoonbread aka Jiffy’s corn casserole.

Wilson explains that as cornbread recipes evolved throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, southerners were more likely to make theirs with yellow cornmeal and northerners gravitated towards white cornbread. Cornbread became integral to American cuisine, particularly in Black American culinary traditions. And if you’re wondering, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix is made with yellow cornmeal, which means that their corn casserole recipe is more traditionally southern.

Along Comes Jiffy

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Jiffy invented their now-treasured recipe for corn casserole. At the time, it was developed under the name “Corn Bowl.” The Corn Bowl recipe first appeared in the 1960s as a recipe tear-off sheet in retail grocery stores. In 1976, the recipe was renamed “Spoonbread” and re-published in Jiffy’s first-ever recipe book. In 1995, I was born and probably started eating corn casserole as soon as my pediatrician okay-ed solids.

Although it feels like I’ve been eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving for my whole life, Grandma doesn’t remember exactly when she started making it. However, her most epic feat was making a triple batch for the Vaughan’s Oktoberfest, an annual party hosted by my parents on the weekend of Indigenous Peoples' Day, our own version of the German festival. “I made a triple recipe in a big lasagna pan for the Oktoberfest,” she said. When I told her she should make a triple batch every year for Thanksgiving, she laughed and said “As long as I don’t have to do the turkey.”

If you’re not going to make Jiffy's Original Corn Casserole in a lasagna pan, Grandma has some tips for making a more manageable portion. “It could be done in any four- or five-inch casserole. I wouldn’t make it in a pie plate because it needs to be thick. But you could also do it in a bread pan.” A loaf of corn casserole?! I think we just invented something new, Grandma! A few years ago, I tried making my own version of corn casserole entirely from scratch, no Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix needed. I added fresh sage, swapped in crème fraîché instead of the usual sour cream, cooked it in a cast-iron skillet, and even demonstrated how to make it on a local TV show in Connecticut (my Food Network hosting dreams were finally coming to fruition). The recipe was good, but not nearly as good as Grandma’s.

But once again, we’re not the only ones trying to reinvent the classic. Forty-five years since the first recipe for “Corn Bowl” was published, Jiffy has updated the recipe with a brand-new Street Corn Spoon Bread recipe, a modern iteration of a mid-century side dish staple. It’s the first time the brand has ever changed the recipe. But I’m still sticking to Grandma’s. Whether or not she invented it, she has perfected it.

Have you ever made Jiffy’s Corn Casserole recipe? Is it a staple in your family? Let me know in the comments below!
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105 Comments

Rebecca H. November 15, 2022
This really does sound like a great recipe! I've always made a corn custard that uses fresh ears of corn. This sounds very different and delicious. I've always lived in New England and was surprised that white cornmeal is mentioned being the prevalent type of cornmeal in New England. I don't remember having anything made with white cornmeal. I think the only place I've ever seen it was on grocery store shelves. If you like your corn muffin or bread yellow be assured, all the bakeries & restaurants around here serve it that way.
 
Karl November 17, 2022
White flint cornmeal is traditional for Rhode Island jonnycakes, and is native to the area. There's a connection in the Triangle Trade with the South, and RI may have provided the corn type that became dominant in grist mills in southern port areas.
 
Rebecca H. November 17, 2022
That's very interesting. So the white corn meal is part of RI history. We still have gristmills in the Massachusetts area that are open for people to see how they worked. A few good ones are found in Plymouth, Sandwich, and Brewster. You may purchase the cornmeal stone ground from their mill. It's much coarser than what we're used to. I've only been presented yellow corn. The gristmill in Plymouth is now part of the Plimouth Patuxet Museum which does try to be historically accurate to how things were done back when the Pilgrims arrived to the area in 1620. Interesting to see the difference from the two states that are side by side.
 
Karl W. November 17, 2022
It's not just RI. Grey's in Wesport MA is one of the very old (17th century founding) grist mills producing meal from this heritage corn (in addition to Kenyon's and Carpenter's in RI's so-called South County):

https://www.graysgristmill.com/
 
Dave November 14, 2022
I very much enjoyed your story. As I am a crusty old fart I have never used canned corn in any form, but your tale sells the recipe, I'll give it a shot. Though I might have to use my corn that's in the freezer, make some of that into cream corn and make my own corn quick bread. Am I straying too far?
 
dpogoda November 14, 2022
This is a yummy must on our Thanksgiving table... I was introduced to the Paula Deen version by a friend who said if she doesn’t make this at the holidays, her family would disown her! 😂 Now it’s a staple for us, too. Paula’s recipe doesn’t use eggs (good for us because of an allergy) and she adds cheddar cheese -- I think it’s rich enough without. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!
 
Joy H. November 14, 2022
One of my favorite Thanksgiving side dishes as well! I was introduced to it as "corn souffle". I love making pies from scratch but the simplicity of this dish makes it so easy to add to the menu.
 
Gray F. November 13, 2022
Of course, spoonbread, in various guises, existed long before Jiffy Mixes appeared during the Great Depression. The name has covered a wide variety of actual recipes.

In my Mississippi and Alabama family it is essentially a very lightly sweetened cornmeal mush soufflé. Very light and airy, served fresh from the oven with butter and a drizzle of honey, it is a bread/biscuit substitute.

The next day it is a somewhat denser but still tasty pudding-like left over that can be served hot or at room temperature. Personally, I like it for brekky with jam and butter.

-Gray
 
chefrockyrd November 13, 2022
I have never made this but eaten it many times as quite a few people make it. It's good, don't get me wrong but after eating Light Corn Custard from Marian Morash's The Victory Garden Cookbook, its spoiled me to eating this heavier version of cornbread. It's much lighter and a different recipe altogether but if you get a chance please try it. BTW its a wonderful book of fabulous vegetable recipes and photos from the 80's.
 
Nancy H. November 15, 2022
The Victory Garden Cookbook is indeed a wonderful one and you've just given me a new recipe from it to try! There are so many recipes in it and relatively few pictures, so it might be tempting for some to pass it over in favour of jazzier-looking collections. It's actually one of the best vegetable cookbooks out there for omnivores, although a lot of the recipes could easily be adapted for vegetarians and vegans. Marian Morash's Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage is one of our all-time favourites and with the price of lettuce going through the roof this winter, I will be diving more deeply into the cabbage section for sure :))
 
Hooperfoodie November 13, 2022
Unfortunately, Jiffy makes its mixes with lard.

Alternative, please, for those of us who eschew lard in our food!
 
Kristin N. November 13, 2022
They actually have a vegetarian version! I imagine not every store carries it, but I have definitely seen it around. Good luck!
 
Texas E. November 13, 2022
Jiffy does make a vegetarian version, which is supposed to be interchangeable with their "original" version.
 
Marc L. November 13, 2022
Fleishman’s has a non-lard version
 
Lillak November 13, 2022
I just made it yesterday, and it was delish!
 
Dale M. November 13, 2022
This Jiffy Cornbread is not available in Canada. Sounds like we are missing out. Happy Thanksgiving to my American neighbours.
 
susan C. November 13, 2022
Can this be made in advance, and if so, how many days before serving?
 
Helmax November 13, 2022
I would love to know what the baking dish in the picture is! This recipe is a very simple crowd pleaser! Can’t have Thanksgiving without this!
 
Lydia November 13, 2022
I have been making the Jiffy corn casserole for - I hate to say! - 40 years! It is always a family favorite. I used to just make it for Thanksgiving, not any more! Easy and so delicious!
 
Marc L. November 13, 2022
I separate the eggs and beat the whites so the corn soufflé is light.
 
AdrienneWhyte November 13, 2022
Thank you for publishing this! It brought back memories of perfect Thanksgivings, all produced by my mother, a native Washingtonian—back when DC was still the South. Thanks to her, I had wonderful Thanksgivings! She made it look effortless. After she got too old to stand on her feet all day cooking, I took over the duties and learned the pain of trying to replicate Mom’s productions. My dinners were always “late,” according to my nasty sister, who was too self-centered to understand how everything must be cooked correctly and timed perfectly to be ready all at once. I will never forget my mother’s love for good food.
 
Dolly D. November 14, 2022
You should suggest to everyone that your sister hosts next year’s feast. Let’s see how well she pulls off what she’s been scoffing at!
 
AdrienneWhyte November 13, 2022
My mom made it. Delicious!
 
Anne Y. October 11, 2022
In my Virginia family, we've always made something called corn pudding: Melt a stick of butter in a glass casserole dish--size depends on how big a batch, probably not more than 9 x 11. Beat together eggs, milk and maybe some sugar (depending on taste), a touch of vanilla. Then mix in thawed frozen corn. Tip the dish around to coat it with butter and pour the rest into the corn mixture. Bake at 350 or 375 until firm.
 
Mere D. October 10, 2022
We have it every year, and add red peppers! Yum.
 
haleh F. October 16, 2021
My sister-in-law made this during a family vacation over 20 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since!! She didn’t put sour cream in it but I’m tempted to add some in next time I make it. I appreciate the comment about finding a GF recipe…my daughter needs GF meals and she’ll be so happy to be able to enjoy the casserole again!
 
Louise C. October 13, 2021
Corn Pudding (what we call it) has been a staple at Thanksgiving for close to 40 years. I prefer frozen corn kernels to canned and of course I use butter and not margarine. As a dedicated scratch cook and baker, it's the only (you'll pardon the expression) semi-homemade thing I ever prepare. Every year I swear I'm going to try a scratch version and every year I wind up asking myself why. My family used to have big TG dinners with all the long-distance family members we never see. I miss those big feasts. Fast Forward to 2021 and I'm introducing this delectable dish to a whole new generation. Whenever I share the recipe, I always include the caveat "Make a double batch. You'll thank me."
 
janet V. October 13, 2021
Say what you want about Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, but I'll bet just about every chef and/or serious cook has a box in their pantry.
Thanks for the article, recipe and entertaining controversy that followed.
 
Toni November 1, 2021
You would be correct, as I am a chef and 99% of the time cook everything from scratch. Still…that box of Jiffy is always in my pantry. Just in case. 😁