Why Spoonbread Matters

The souffle-like corn dish is a Black Southern delicacy, and it's become increasingly rare.

April 18, 2022
Photo by Ty Mecham

While driving outside of Richmond, Virginia, one day, I passed a seafood restaurant called Stuart’s Fresh Catch. Posted outside was a vinyl sign advertising lake trout, crabs, fresh fish, and spoonbread. Clearly one of those things wasn’t like the others, and I made a mental note to come back the next day to try spoonbread.

Spoonbread is one of the oldest Southern delicacies. When executed properly, it is incredibly light, even though it has a similar texture to grits, and almost tastes like an incredibly moist piece of cornbread. “A properly prepared dish of spoonbread can be taken as continued testimony to the perfectibility of humankind,” as John Egerton, author of Southern Food, wrote, The ingredients for spoonbread are cornmeal, milk, butter, eggs, sugar, and baking powder (although some recipes call for flour), and the lineage of spoonbread can be traced back hundreds of years in Virginia. Spoonbread was originally called “Batter Bread,” and a recipe for it appears in Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, which is considered to be the first Southern cookbook by many culinary historians.

It’s reasonable to conclude that Randoph used recipes from James Hemings, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and was the chef de cuisine at Monticello. Although many recipes and ingredients listed throughout the cookbook, such as okra and gumbo, were traditionally used and prepared by enslaved African Americans, one of the best examples to support this theory is Batter Bread. The dish is baked in small ramekins, similar to a soufflé, and fits perfectly into the half-Virginian, half-French dishes that Hemings was renowned for.

When Jefferson became the ambassador to France in 1784, he brought Hemings to France from Virginia to learn how to cook under French chefs. Upon Hemings' return, he worked in the kitchen of Monticello, and taught other enslaved cooks how to recreate the technically difficult dishes he learned. Those dishes and service quickly became the template for fine dining in America. “One can see the French influence in several soul food dishes like spoon bread… Most likely we owe such dishes to the French chefs who taught recipes and techniques to enslaved cooks,” wrote Adrian Miller in his book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet.

The erasure of spoonbread would be a tragic loss, not just because it is delicious, but because if we lose spoonbread, we lose a part of our culinary history.

Famed African-American chef Edna Lewis was born in Freetown, Virginia (about twenty miles from Monticello), grew up eating spoonbread, and included it in her cookbook, In Pursuit of Flavor. She calls the dish “Orange County Spoonbread” as a nod to her origins, and notes that she grew up eating it, although her version has a lighter texture, because instead of using flour, she grates fresh corn and blends it into liquid.

Today, however, finding spoonbread in a restaurant is a rarity, even in the South. The erasure of spoonbread would be a tragic loss, not just because it is delicious, but because if we lose spoonbread, we lose a part of our culinary history. Hundreds of years of history and the melding of different groups of people can be tasted in one spoonful—the interesting combination of corn from Indigenous people, the European technique of soufflés, and the expertise of enslaved African Americans who elevated this dish to a refined staple on Southern tables. Spoonbread isn’t just cornmeal or eggs or sugar. Rather, it is the intermingling taste of countless tears and joy, and the story of how people have adapted over the centuries while holding on to the promise that life will be better for the next generation. This is the power of food, to not only sustain us physically, but emotionally as well.

The day after I saw the sign outside Stuart’s, I ordered a large spoonbread to go. The cashier at Stuart’s handed me a warm styrofoam container filled to the brim with a fresh batch, and after making sure to grab a spoon, I headed to the car to see what a centuries-old recipe tasted like. The spoonbread was rich, sweet, and creamy, and quite delicious. Although I wasn’t transported to another world or filled with nostalgia, it did make me slow down for a moment and enjoy what I was tasting. And maybe that is all that was needed.

Have you ever had Spoonbread? Let us know what you love about it in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AllenInNMex
  • Medium Foot
    Medium Foot
  • Ironeyes100
  • Carla Owens Kirtley
    Carla Owens Kirtley
  • Caroline Nothwanger
    Caroline Nothwanger
Deb Freeman

Written by: Deb Freeman

Food writer and historian. Always hungry.


AllenInNMex November 12, 2023
I love spoon bread! My mother used to make it. Now that she's gone, I have a recipe in an old cookbook called Charleston Receipts that I use. It's perfect for a cold winter night when I want something warm and nostalgic. It's a great side for a variety of soups and stews.
Medium F. January 15, 2023
...Furthermore, nobody is "erasing" Spoonbread.
-a Richmond native (family roots to late 1600's Southampton County) who is happy to see the monuments gone.
Medium F. January 15, 2023
Neither "Black" nor a "delicacy" (as the basic ingredients found at any homestead indicate), Spoonbread (Corn Pudding or Casserole in the North) is a common Southern, albeit old-school staple. Can we please move past "Black" & "White" Southern culinary heritages? The common denominator is necessity (the "mother of invention") and poverty reinforced for generations struggling with the aftermath of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Folks made the best use of what they had. Most whites and blacks had similar diets and prepared the same dishes because of their shared culture, agriculture and ecomony. Certainly very few non-black tenant farmers, tradesmen or "hillbillies" had a black cook in the kitchen or a copy of 'The Virginia (or Carolina) Housewife', and neither black nor white home cooks were separating, whipping and folding egg whites. Also of note: as baking powder was not invented until 1856, Spoonbread would have originally been leavened with the classic acid-alkaline combination of buttermilk and baking soda, if at all.
Ironeyes100 July 29, 2022
I saw Spoon Bread and immediately thought of the bread my mother used to make in a cast iron pan on the weekend that we slathered in butter and homemade blackberry jam. Turns out that is Biscuit Bread and it is basically a great big biscuit. But as I read the article I realized that my great grandmother would make this spoonbread recipe for the big dinners at the old farm. I suppose that the recipes they cooked were gleaned when the old share croppers part of the family worked side by side with African Americans who were called share croppers as well. I don't know the full history here, but I do know that both sets of people were basically indentured to the land owners. I suspect this commonality resulted in figuring out ways to stretch things to feed the large families that they had to try to work toward getting their own acre somewhere to work. Anyway the article is a great history lesson on how we as Southerners owe a lot to the folks who were kept in slavery and indenture hood but who developed the quintessential southern dishes that have become so bougie now. Hats off to them and always remember that somebody paid for you to enjoy your life today.
Carla O. April 26, 2022
In 1985 I took an American History course at Westminster College in PA. At the conclusion of the course we took a trip to Williamsburg. We ate lunch at an old inn and I fell in love with spoonbread. I had never tasted anything like it. Creamy, sweet, nutty and delicious.
Caroline N. April 25, 2022
I remember the Evans farm Inn, was so sad when it was closed and the land built over. The spoonbread they had was delicious. We only used to have something like that on special occasions as my mother did not grow up here. I love spoonbread and have made several versions, must try the ones mentioned in the article and comments!
Louisa April 25, 2022
We grew up about 30 miles south of Boone Tavern. Our parents always made a stop there for dinner on the way back from Lexington, and the spoonbread was the first thing served. My favorite recipe has the eggs separated, the beaten whites folded in at the last. Once I only had a half cup of (white) cornmeal, so I subbed a half cup of stone ground grits to make up the cup. It was so good that this is the way I always make spoonbread now. I read that this is called Awendaw Spoonbread. Spoonbread and a salad for a perfect meal.
Robin W. April 25, 2022
Thank you for sharing this story and recipe for spoon bread. I have searched for a spoon bread recipe and this one sounds as tasty as the one I recently fell in love with at a local restaurant. Committed to learning this recipe and adding it to our family’s recipe book.
sonomahead April 25, 2022
Got kind of a creepy feeling when I opened the email with this article. I had heard of spoonbread, but I'm not sure if I had eaten until the night before this article was posted. We used a meal kit the evening before that included steaks, asparagus and spoonbread! This version had sauteed onions and spinach in it - my family loved it and I will be looking for recipes to make it in the future. Very happy to know the history and continuing to enjoy and share spoonbread.
Ellie A. April 24, 2022
I grew up on spoonbread and cornbread but preferred the lighter spoonbread! Butter just melted into it and dribbled down my chin and I was in heaven! Mmmm! I may have to make a batch just to relive those memories!
Margaret R. April 24, 2022
I grew up eating spoonbread regularly. My mother and her mother baked it quite often, we considered it a real treat, as we had biscuits, cornbread or muffins at meal time. Yeast rolls and spoonbread were both special, as they brought to the table piping hot from the oven, after we were all seated!
Sel April 24, 2022
what a beautiful story. have never heard of spoon bread until now. I surely will make this. Thank you for such history of foods
Margaret R. April 26, 2022
My brother found a spoonbread recipe in his Williamsburg Cookbook!
Sonja K. April 24, 2022
Sept 15 or 16 thru 18, 2022 is the official Spoonbread Festival in Berea, KY--the "signature event of the Berea Chamber of Commerce", per the Website, which also posts a recipe:
(Another commenter on 4/18 mentioned this festival, which is staged alongside the justly famous Berea College.)
My Washington, DC-area family has loved spoonbread for several generations--starting with my Midwestern grandparents who moved here as government employees during the WWII effort in the early 1940s. My now-19-year-old son instantly adored it the first time he tasted it as a little boy, and readily chose it for his "family recipe project" in early grade-school social studies: he learned how to cook it, write up the recipe and notations properly, and describe its regular place on our family's holiday menus. I rotate among several spoonbread recipes because I still haven't settled on a favorite, but I do always deliberately make extra so that my son & I can look forward to a perfect breakfast next morning: warmed leftover spoonbread with butter, darkest maple syrup & flaky salt. If fresh corn kernels are available to add to the batter before baking, that is another layer of perfection.
Laurie April 24, 2022
My mother grew up on a farm in southwest Virginia in the 1930s and ate spoonbread routinely. She served it for us regularly, sometimes with steak, sometimes with ham, making it with yellow cornmeal and boiling water. The only restaurants I can recall offering it were in Colonial Williamsburg and Tidewater area. You have given me an idea to encourage a local restaurateur to add it to her menu and, of course, I will have to rustle up some here at home this week!
M S. April 24, 2022
Growing up in California, the granddaughter of a Tennessee transplant, cornmeal spoon bread was always a favorite. I remember my mom making it in times when money was tight, as meat was expensive, but all the eggs provided plenty of protein for a growing family.I had no idea at the time that money was tight, I as just delighted to get spoon bread for dinner. I use my grandmothers recipe, using yellow corn meal, and real butter. I never thought to ask her what she did doing the "margarine years" of WW2 when butter was scarce or unavailable.
Betty D. April 24, 2022
I grew up eating a southwestern version of spoon bread made with additions of creamed corn and green chiles. Total comfort food!
kallingham April 24, 2022
I grew up eating the same thing, a Tex-Mex take on spoonbread! My mom got the recipe from a good friend, her version omits sugar and adds creamed corn, cheddar cheese and green chiles. We always served it as a side dish to a bowl of homemade Texas beef chili. Today, my husband and I make chili and spoonbread every year on New Years Day, and Superbowl Sunday. Totally comfort food.
Gallant7th April 24, 2022
As a young child growing up in Virginia in the early 60s, for special occasions, my father would take the family to Evans Farm Inn in McClean, VA. According to the book of recipes my mother purchased from the restaurant, Evans Farm Inn was “dedicated to the preservation and continuation of the great Classic traditions in American Cookery and Virginia hospitality - ‘the pursuit of happiness’.”

It was set on 40 acres in the midst of crowded Northern Virginia, restored in the 18th Century style. The farm raised much of the food served in the restaurant, the flowers on the tables, herbs, and more. They made their own chutneys, relishes, james, and preserves. The staff dressed in colonial attire, and in addition to table service, there was a heavily laden buffet with a variety of delights. When I was old enough to serve myself from the buffet, I always made a beeline for the spoonbread.

I am thankful my mother bought the book of recipes and even more grateful she gave it to me when I married. The first recipe, and most asked for, is the spoonbread. The last recipe is one purported to be from Martha Washington’s own receipt book for her “Great Cake”.
Beth April 24, 2022
I’d love that recipe!
Annette E. April 24, 2022
Whenever I think of spoon bread, I always think of Evans Farm Inn. I grew up in the DC area in the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, my husband and I had our wedding reception at Evans Farm Inn in 1981. Their spoonbread was absolutely one of the best things I've ever eaten -- light and fluffy, under a crisp brown crust. I also have their cookbook, but my spoonbread is never as good as theirs was. However, fine ground white cornmeal is absolutely necessary to get that ethereal texture
kayswa April 24, 2022
My husband and I have been married 57 years this Sept. and when we were dating we ate several times at the Evans Farm Inn in McLean VA as I was living near Tyson's Corner when it was just a two road crossing with a traffic light. I would also like to have that spoonbread recipe as it was great. Loved the restaurant.
Gallant7th April 24, 2022
For the spoonbread or Martha Washington’s cake?
Gallant7th April 24, 2022
For the spoonbread or Martha Washington’s cake?
kayswa April 24, 2022
For the spoonbread. But look what I have found by doing a little research.
It reports to be from Evans Farm Inn but I wonder how it matches us with the one that is in the cookbook.
Gallant7th April 25, 2022
I hope it is okay if I share the Evans Farm Inn spoon bread recipe here. The Inn closed many years ago, the land was sold, and a subdivision now sits where the Inn and Farm once stood.

Copied directly from the recipe booklet:

“Spoon Bread

2 Cups milk
1 Cup corn meal (white)
2 eggs (separated)
1 Tbsp. Butter
1 tsp. Salt

Scald milk and add corn meal. Add egg yolks, butter, and salt. Continue to cook until smooth and thick. Remove from heat and stir in beaten egg whites.

Bake in a well-greased casserole 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

We use water ground white corn meal.”

The little cook book contains 38 recipes, ranging from house-made condiments, sauces, entrees, and sides to dessert and even their pot pourri. The most asked-for recipes, apparently, were the spoon bread, the peanut soup, Chicken Barbara, and Martha Washington’s Great Cake. If anyone would like the list of recipes included, I’d be happy to type it out. I don’t think there’s a way to add a photo to the comments here.
Annette E. April 25, 2022
Next to the spoonbread, the peanut soup was my favorite dish at Evans Farm Inn. I think that Food52 should research the history behind peanut soup as another traditional Black Southern food. Peanuts are a common ingredient in dishes from some parts of Africa, and it would be fascinating to learn of the history (and variations) of such a delicious soup.
Gallant7th April 26, 2022
Please let me know if you would like the recipe.
Libby O. April 24, 2022
I have made spoon bread for many years, and recommend using white cornmeal which isn’t that easy to find in the North where I live. But it is easy to find on line
A cheerful debate- sweet or savory? Just like the debate over the sugar levels in cornbread, many people prefer spoon bread not to be sweet. To me, spoon bread is a simple, savory dish. Also- Mary Randolph’s cookbook is not just an early, Southern cookbook, although that’s true of course. . It’s also early American , north and south.
Thank you for recognizing her influence, that of Edna Lewis, and Chef Hemings. All are important contributors to American food culture.
Bruce April 24, 2022
I am from the eastern part of Virginia. Spoonbread is a favorite in my family and the recipe came from my great grandmother. It used boiling water, white cornmeal, salt, eggs, milk and butter. We love it with fish and put lots of butter on it. Nothing better!
catlady April 24, 2022
Made my mouth water reading this. I remember hot spoonbread with butter next to a slice of baked ham growing up. There was never any leftover when we got up from the table. It didn't happen often enough for me.