The National Cornbread Festival began in 1997, when a group of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, natives were searching for a way to support local businesses and promote tourism in the small town. South Pittsburg is home to world-renowned cast iron maker Lodge Manufacturing, and what went better with cast iron than cornbread? Thus began the annual tradition of the National Cornbread Festival, an event that continues to draw thousands to the small but vibrant town year after year.
This year, Southern Cast Iron editor Nancy Meeks made the road trip to South Pittsburg for an action-packed weekend of cast iron and delicious cornbread.
Friday evening kicked off the weekend with a welcoming ceremony followed by a street dance and closing fireworks. But guests were sure to hurry off to bed to dream about the fun, food, and festivities that were to follow.
Saturday began bright and early with an exciting 5K run that ended just before the festival’s official start. Once gates opened, there was a swarm of hungry festival goers ready for food and fun. The day was peppered with cooking demonstrations by chefs, toe-tapping live music, and tours of the must-see Lodge Foundry. After exploring, we set our eyes on the prize.
Cornbread Alley was an area dedicated to showcasing cornbread from around the world. Sponsored by Hammers, Martha White, and Mayfield, Cornbread Alley featured everything from Mexican Fiesta cornbread (a south-of-the-border take with a spicy kick) to an herbaceous Italian Pesto Fritter and a fragrant German Gingerbread cornbread. Each was uniquely flavorful and delicious, and best yet, all cooked by different non-profit organizations who got to split the profit from cornbread sales.
The main event was the Cornbread Cook-Off where 10 preselected finalists from across the country came to compete in a live cooking competition. The cooks were given one hour to prepare their dishes and were required to incorporate at least one cup of Martha White Cornbread Mix into each recipe and to cook the dish in Lodge Cast Iron cookware. An audience gathered to watch the excitement unfold as each contestant prepared their prized dishes. Our editor, Nancy, was one of seven judges who waited in anticipation to try each of the mouthwatering recipes. As the finished entries began arriving at the judging table, judges were delighted to see incredibly creative takes on classic recipes.
There were spins on Southern classics like shrimp and grits with savory Cheddar cornbread and Nashville Hot Chicken and Cornbread Waffles, while others opted for international flavors. Dishes like Mexican Corn Cakes with Charred Corn, Carne Asade, Refried Beans and Guasacaca (Avocado) Sauce and “East-Meets-South” Moo Shu Sausage & Bacon with Scallion Cornbread Pancakes were immensely flavorful. And we loved the creativity put forth in the Korean BBQ Pork Cornbread Totchos; created by self-taught home cook Shauna Havey, this recipe utilized one our favorite lesser-known cast-iron pieces: the aebleskiver pan.
After many delicious tastings, the judges chose the winners. Lidia Haddadian took home first place and raving reviews with her impressive Smoky Cajun-Style Shrimp’n Bacon Pizza with Crispy Cornbread Crust. A yeasted cornbread dough, this pizza crust was baked to crispy perfection on a 14-inch Lodge cast-iron baking pan before being topped with a host of flavors that worked in harmony. Find winning recipes and recipes from cornbread alley here.
The following day more exciting demonstrations took place, including a biscuit how-to by Karl Worley, owner of Biscuit Love in Nashville and fellow cook-off judge. Later, a cast iron collectors’ meetup brought together some of the country’s biggest cast iron experts.
From the incredible food to the friends made, this weekend at the National Cornbread Festival was one we’ll never forget. Whether you’re ready to compete in next year’s cook-off or just want to taste the offerings, we encourage all to make the trek to South Pittsburg, Tennessee, for a wonderful weekend of cast iron cooking and camaraderie.