By Janice Willis-Barnett
In times gone by, you couldn’t make this special bread year round the way folks can now. Gritted bread was only made when the corn began getting too hard to boil and eat off the cob or can for future use. But now we have refrigerators and freezers we can store fresh corn in to use later if we like. We can also buy fresh corn almost year round from the supermarkets.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, some folks still grated their corn with a homemade metal grater made by punching holes in a piece of tin or other metal and attaching it to a piece of wood. The wood of choice for many folks was poplar. Mountain folks mostly called these homemade graters “gritters.” So you can see how the bread got its name.
There are folks who still make gritted bread. The usual recipe calls for corn that is a little hard but still soft enough to be a little milky inside. In days past, most cooks were limited to Hickory Cane field corn. But today’s cooks have many varieties of corn to choose from. And we can bake our gritted bread in electric or gas ovens.
In days past, many mountain folks baked gritted bread in old-fashioned cast iron bakers placed in the coals in their fireplace. These bakers had lids on them that covered and protected the bread from the ashes. They also had long handles which helped keep the cooks’ hands away from the hot coals. When we lived in Willis Cove, my mother baked our gritted bread in the oven of her wood-burning cook stove. And later after she got an electric cook stove, she baked her gritted bread in it.
Today’s cooks have the opportunity to use a variety of ingredients in their gritted bread, which may not have been available to mountain women in times past. For one thing, they don’t have to use baking powder or baking soda because self-rising flour has become the norm. But some cooks may add a bit of baking soda to the self-rising anyway for some extra punch. And they may use margarine instead of butter. Cooks may also use a bit of sugar in the dough. Sugar may not have been available to a lot of mountain families in times past. Some mountain women may have used eggs in the batter. Some cooks still do. And of course, mountain cooks had either sweet milk, as we call it, or buttermilk to go in their gritted bread dough.
I think that “gritted” bread is a good name for this old-fashioned cornbread. Webster’s Dictionary defines “grit” as having stubborn courage, brave perseverance, or lots of pluck. These are characteristics I associate with Appalachian mountain folks. I’m hoping that some of the folks who will be using the Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi develop their own gritted bread recipes and market them.