Cornbread and Community

A quick Google search will reveal a lively debate over what is “authentic” cornbread. People on the internet argue over everything from who makes the best cornbread (spoiler: it’s always their grandmother), if cornbread should have sugar in it or not, if it must be made in cast iron — the list goes on and on. I’m not really interested in this debate, to be honest. Though cornbread is a cornerstone of Southern cuisine, several regions of the US have adapted the quickbread to fit their own tastes. The Southwest mixes in cheddar cheese, Northerners add some sort of sugar, and Southerners are likely to use buttermilk. All are delicious and worthy of a place on our plates.

When I was growing up, cornbread was synonymous with Jiffy mix. It doesn’t take too much Googling to learn that Jiffy has a huge share of the corn muffin and/or bread mix market — over 90%! So I reached out to get their perspective, and was able to get in touch with their CEO, Howdy Holmes.  

The company is based in Chelsea, Michigan —  a small town of about 5000 people. On paper (er, Wikipedia), the town isn’t so different from my own hometown. My 20-minute conversation with Howdy felt more like a conversation with a neighbor from back home than a person who has cornered the corn muffin mix market.

Jiffy’s corn muffin mix was created in 1950, and the recipe hasn’t changed since. (Yes, really.) The entirety of the “market research” for the product came from a conversation around a kitchen table, where “someone said they heard from someone else that the South doesn’t like sweet cornbread.”  But, the fine folks of Chelsea did, so a sweeter corn muffin mix was made. (Note: Jiffy mix is still popular in the South.)

I asked Howdy what he likes best about his community, and without hesitation he said the thing he liked best was that his small community held shared values across generations. Everyone pitches in when things around town need to get done. And like many small town citizens will tell you, you get to know everyone around.

(P.S. – Check out my recipe for Cornbread with Apples, Cheddar, and Sage. )

I made a comment based on my own small town memories that in addition to knowing everyone in town, it’s also easy to know everyone’s business. Instead of thinking it a disadvantage of small town living, Howdy viewed it as an asset — you have to mind your Ps and Qs and learn to get along with all types.

Here in New York, it’s much easier to choose your own community. I can surround myself with people I know I get along with and remain somewhat anonymous to the rest. Sure, we all still have neighbors and fellow commuters that we owe a base-level of decency to, but an eyeroll and an uncharitable thought about someone who leans against a subway pole won’t end up in the rumor mill. While this is great most of the time, on a tough day, the city can be overwhelming and make you feel really small. Howdy assured me I would do okay in New York – “after all plenty of others have done it, right?”

As we were wrapping up our conversation, Howdy remarked how he was happy with the impact the company has on American families. He and the employees that make Jiffy mix are proud of the product they are able to put in the hands of nearly anyone. The mix has an average retail price of 50 cents per box and as he put it, the best deal in the grocery store.

Of course, I can’t find it in the city for less than a dollar.



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