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More Than Just a Side: Why Cornbread Has Stayed on the Thanksgiving Table for 400 Years

More Than Just a Side: Why Cornbread Has Stayed on the Thanksgiving Table for 400 Years

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Thanksgiving is the time of year you get to see your family, reflect, and most importantly, eat. People come together on this day and feast on their version of a Thanksgiving dinner.

When you make this dinner yourself, you start a list that includes all the traditional food. So you might find yourself asking, is cornbread a Thanksgiving food?

Cornbread is traditionally part of many families’ Thanksgiving dinner. It rounds out the hearty meal by adding a little texture and spice. Moreover, its mild flavor makes it ideal for dipping in cranberry sauce or even gravy.

Let’s take a look at the history of cornbread and Thanksgiving and how they intertwine.

The History of Cornbread

It should come as no surprise that the main ingredient in cornbread is corn. The recipe uses dried cornmeal as its base.

So, let’s take a look at how the idea of ground cornmeal came about.


Corn has been around for thousands of years. It’s provided many people with meals and holds a special place in Native American history.

This is because corn was plentiful and incredibly versatile. You can prepare this fruit in many ways that aren’t only filling but also delicious.

However, what made corn special was its ability to last. If you dry out corn ears, they can last for months without rotting.

For this reason, Native Americans would gather corn, dry it, and eat it to last through the harsh winters.

Once the corn was dry, people noticed that you could grind the kernels into cornmeal. It looked and acted in a similar way to wheat, but was more available.


Since cornmeal was available, most Native Americans used to make their bread out of it. It had the benefit of being both filling and incredibly tasty.

The first iterations of cornbread were pretty basic. They involved cornmeal, water, and some type of fat.

You would incorporate the fat into the cornmeal, then add water to thin out the mixture.

There were a few ways to cook this mixture. Still, traditionally, you’d steam the cornbread and add it to a stew.

Doing so ensured that the cornbread wasn’t too dry and the meal would fill up your belly.

Over the years, as resources became more plentiful, the recipe evolved.

Today, you can add any number of ingredients to your cornbread to improve its taste, including milk, spices, butter, and even nuts.

Cornbread and Thanksgiving

Cornbread and Thanksgiving have an incredibly close relationship. In fact, cornbread was likely on the menu during the first Thanksgiving dinner.

The Origin of Thanksgiving

The earliest recording of a Thanksgiving celebration dates back to 1621. We all vaguely know a few details about the origin.

What we know is that the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims came together to share a meal in the fall. This meal was a way to celebrate the bountiful autumn harvest.

This meant that the food had to reflect all the wonderful crops grown around the area. As you’ve probably guessed, one of the main crops was corn.

Thanksgiving Food

For the feast, each side would bring their finest food to share. This included ducks, geese, veal, wildfowl, fish, and, of course, corn.

Even though most of us associate Thanksgiving with turkey, it wasn’t actually the main part of the meal. While people did eat turkey, there were so many other dishes up for grabs.

It’s likely that one of the main attractions was the cornbread. Since corn was plentiful, cornbread was possibly one of the staples of the Thanksgiving dinner.

Both Wampanoag Indians and Pilgrims would have enjoyed the slightly sweet flavor alike. This might have been because it was excellent in balancing out the rich Thanksgiving meal.

How to Make Cornbread

With all the cornbread recipes online, it can be difficult to find a traditional recipe. There are so many additions and alterations to the original recipe.

Traditional Cornbread

If you’re going for an authentic meal, try out this recipe.

The most basic version of cornbread only includes a few ingredients. While this worked at the time, it wouldn’t be very appetizing nowadays. The texture would also be too mealy and dry.

So, unless you plan on making a companion stew, you’ll want to make a slightly refined version.

To do this, you’ll need:

  • 2 cups of cornmeal
  • 4 cups of milk
  • 4 eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of butter or any other type of fat

All you have to do is mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, and fry the mixture up in a pan. You can also put the mixture in the oven, it’ll just take more time to brown.

The added milk and eggs will help bind the cornbread together and give it a much more pleasant texture.

Modern Cornbread

If you’re interested in a fancier version of the basic cornbread, you can try a modern recipe.

For this, you’ll need:

  • 1 ¼ cup of cornmeal
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar, or 3 tablespoons of honey
  • ¼ cup of butter
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon of salt

Beat the milk, egg, and butter together until you no longer see any streaks. Then, mix your dry ingredients together.

In batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture. Once you mix all the ingredients together, place them in a 400°F oven for 20-25 minutes. You want the cornbread to turn a golden brown.

To test your bread, you can insert a toothpick into the center. The toothpick should come out clean.

The addition of flour and baking soda will give your bread a much more solid but fluffy texture. So, this cornbread should be a lot less crumbly than a traditional one.

Traditionally, cornbread has a mild sweet flavor. This is why we add sugar or honey. However, if you prefer savory cornbread, you can leave out the sweeteners altogether.

Final Thoughts

Is cornbread a Thanksgiving food? Yes, absolutely! Cornbread has been a Thanksgiving staple for many years.

It was most likely present at the very first Thanksgiving dinner and it’s still a part of the holiday today. The mild taste lends itself to the intense flavors of the hearty meal.

There are many ways to make cornbread. You can follow a more traditional recipe for a sense of the old times or a modern recipe for a tasty treat.

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