Cornbread is king in this Tennessee town known for producing cast-iron cookware that’s perfect for baking cornbread.
by Bakery Boy
Ah, cornbread. If ever there was a staple food with as many uses as there are cultures using it, it’s cornbread.
Maize-growing Native Americans ate versions of cornbread long before Europeans reached the hemisphere. All across the South it goes naturally with barbecue and chili. Cowboys in the West pair it with pinto beans and ham hocks. In the Southwest adding jalapeño peppers creates a hot Hispanic edge. It’s a cornerstone of African American “soul” food. Whether doused with butter or honey or molasses, specked with diced onions or bacon bits or cheese, thinned with whole-wheat flour or fluffed up with eggs, cornbread is a crowd-pleaser in all its many forms. It can be deep-fried into hushpuppies, stewed into a pudding popular in colder climes, boiled into Italian-accented polenta, or molded around hot dogs on sticks to become county-fair-standard corndogs.
But the absolute best way to make cornbread is to bake it in a cast-iron skillet. And one of the best ways to experience that is to attend the National Cornbread Festival held at the end of April in the only place in the United States that still produced cast iron cookware: South Pittsburg, Tennessee, the home of Lodge Cast Iron and its perfect-for-cornbread cast-iron pans.
ALL ABOUT CORNBREAD
On April 30th and May 1st somewhere around 50,000 people will pour into South Pittsburg, a population 3,300 town 25 miles west of Chattanooga, for the 15th annual National Cornbread Festival (admission: $5 per day). They’ll all have one thing on their minds—cornbread.
South Pittsburg, which also dubs itself the “Tidiest Town in Tennessee”—community volunteers do clean the place up really well after such events—overflows with cornbread-themed everything during the festival. Bakers and cooks compete in a National Cornbread Cook-off sponsored by Martha White, Lodge Cast Iron, and FiveStar Range (top prize: $5,000). Entries range from the most basic recipes to attention-getting innovations such as adding smoked Gouda, sundried tomatoes, strawberry yogurt, sliced apples, peanut butter, hot dog chunks, M&M candies, or other ingredients.
At a series of tables on a downtown lane renamed Cornbread Alley for the occasion, you can taste samples of nine cornbread recipes ranging from “pork puppies” and “chipotle cornbread” to “chicken–and-chive flaps” and “tutti fruity cornbread balls.” Your $2 ticket for the tasting supports the nine local non-profit groups doing the cooking.
Like at any good small-town festival there will be a carnival, a food court, music, artwork, crafts, the awarding of blue ribbons to cook-off winners, the crowning of a Miss National Cornbread Festival beauty queen, and more.
ALL ABOUT CAST IRON
Lodge Manufacturing Company has been making cast-iron skillets, griddles, and Dutch ovens in South Pittsburg for 115 years, a line that has gradually expanded to include deep fryers, grills, kettles, woks, pizza pans, muffin pans, and more. Naturally the company has a lot to do with putting on the festival, and most of what gets baked or cooked for the occasion gets baked or cooked in cast-iron.
You can see first-hand how Lodge Cast Iron is made during half-hour tours through the foundry on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the festival. There’s also a well-produced 11-minute video about the process on the company’s website. Click the “How Lodge Is Made” button on the www.lodgemfg.com home page to see how raw pig iron and recycled scrap metal—moved around by giant magnetic cranes and heated to an impurities-removing molten state in a 2000-degree furnace—becomes some of the highest-quality cast-iron cookware in the world.
Even if you miss the Cornbread Festival, you can still find Lodge cookware anytime at Lodge Factory Stores located in…
• South Pittsburg, Tennessee (504 South Cedar Avenue; 423-837-5919)
• Sevierville, Tennessee (105 Knife Works Lane; 865-429-1713)
• Commerce, Georgia (165 Pottery Factory Drive; 706-335-4875)
• Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (100 Legends Drive; 843-236-7849)
SING IT WITH A TWANG
A country music song, the kind that gets stuck in your head, accompanies a slide show on the National Cornbread Festival website. Among lyrics about pinto beans, cornbread, clowns, car shows, fun-runs, concerts, and the cook-off—delivered with deadpan honesty by local baritone singer and songwriter Neil Bennett—is this refrain that’s been repeating in my mind for days now:
The last weekend in April / There’s just one place to be / The National Cornbread Festival in / South Pittsburg Tennessee
See you there!
National Cornbread Festival
April 30–May 1, 2011
Festival details: www.nationalcornbread.com
Lodge Cast Iron details: www.lodgemfg.com
South Pittsburg details: www.southpittsburg.com
For more about traveling in Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com
Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post with sample recipes from the National Cornbread Cook-off.
This brings back memories. I recall when Blake Sims, while shooting the festival, managed to enter and win the cornbread eating contest. I didn’t know about the guitar-shaped product. How cool is that.
Yes, I remember Blake was a big big boy back then, so I don’t doubt he could win an eating contest and still get you the photos you needed. He has slimmed down and gone into the health care industry since then. Probably a more stable career, but I’ll bet being a photographer was more fun! – Bakery Boy
Oh my gosh…I LOVE that guitar skillet! I may have to get that. I have a Lodge cast-iron skillet as well, and I love to bake cornbread from scratch. Great story!
Cool cookware, for sure. Here’s a little more about Lodge’s new cast-iron guitar skillet. The pertinent area (the guitar body) is 10 3/4 inches long by 4 5/8 inches wide by 1/2 an inch deep, and it weighs 1.7 pounds. The online catalog price is $14.95. Let me know when your first batch of biscuits, cornbread, or scones comes out of the oven! – Bakery Boy
Pingback: National Cornbread Festival, South Pittsburg, TN » Sevier County News - Home Town Sevier
Please provide me with contact information for Neil Bennett. He seems impressive musically, and (being from the South Pittsburg area originally) I would like to learn more about his music.
Glad to, Doc Woody. Look for a private email from me regarding the singer/songerwriter of “The National Cornbread Festival Song.” Isn’t it just infectious? – Bakery Boy
My wife and I saw the card at a Tenn welcome center about 6 weeks ago on a trip to Alabama and decided that we would have to make another trip from Lancaster Penna to take part in the Cornbread Festival. Our hopes of a nice festival was not let down. We absolutely enjoyed ourselves with the entertainment, CORNBREAD, MORE CORNBREAD, and the general hospitality of the So. Pittsburg people. We would recommend to anyone who enjoys wonderful down home people and their great festival. Looking forward to returning and taking in more of the music and food that was offered.
Glad you had a good time, Jim. Pray tell, how did you hear about the Bakery Boy Blog? – Bakery Boy
Re: “But the absolute best way to make cornbread is to bake it in a cast-iron skillet.” Baking it in a cast-iron skillet is the only way to make cornbread. Cornbread made any other way is a poor imitation. :>)
Amen! – Bakery Boy