Cornbreads and spoonbreads share the same basic ingredients (cornmeal, milk, butter and eggs), but the way these ingredients are combined renders cornbread crumbly, usually served cut into squares with a knife, while spoonbread may have a soft, souffle like texture that requires a spoon for serving and eating.  The basic recipe steps for both are to prepare a cornmeal mush from cornmeal and milk, add melted butter and beaten eggs, pour the batter into a buttered cast iron skillet or baking dish and bake the mixture until it is set.  How the differences came to be is a uniquely American story.

Corn is a new world crop, and cornbread is believed to be of Native American origin.   Recipes began to appear following the colonial period, often sweetened as a dessert and titled Indian pudding.   It was commonly known by settlers in South Carolina as Owendaw, after the town of the local Sewee tribe.  The first printed recipe appeared in The Carolina Housewife cookbook by Sarah Rutledge in 1847.  It was titled “Owendaw Corn Bread”:

“Take about two teacups of hommony, and while hot mix it with a very large spoonful of butter (good lard will do); beat four eggs very light and stir them into the hommony; next add about a pint of milk, gradually stirred in; and lastly, half a pint of corn meal.  The batter should be the consistency of a rich boiled custard; if thicker, add a little more milk.  Bake with a good deal of heat at the bottom of the oven, and not too much at the top, so as to allow it to rise.  The pan in which it is baked ought to be a deep one, to allow space for rising.  It has the appearance, when cooked, of a baked batter pudding, and when rich, and well mixed, it has almost the delicacy of a baked custard.”

In the 19th century cornbread spread widely throughout the south and as far north as Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, where it was called bannock, a Scottish word for quick bread.  American President Thomas Jefferson sent James Hemings, an enslaved man at his Virginia estate, Monticello, to France for culinary training.  According to some accounts Hemings may have been the first to apply a French souffle technique and separate the eggs in cornbread, creating what was called spoonbread; first the egg yolks are beaten and stirred into the batter and then, just before baking, the whites are whipped to soft peaks and folded into the mixture, helping the bread to rise.  If the eggs are beaten and added whole, the bread has a denser texture, while separating the eggs and whipping the whites to incorporate air can create a texture similar to a souffle.  By the turn of the 20th century, new leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder were in place and created a more dependable spoonbread rise than relying on eggs alone.

Ironically, bannock acquired political connotations for indigenous Americans, the originators of cornbread. When tribes were confined to reservations they were denied access to their traditional means of feeding themselves, farming or hunting.  Government rations on the reservations, sometimes limited only to lard and wheat flour, was enough to make bannock, but barely sustained life.