How Cornbread and Milk Became a Beloved Southern Snack
There have been many lively debates on the best way to make Southern cornbread. There are fewer discussions on how to enjoy any leftovers, perhaps because well-made cornbread is so delicious that there often aren't any. But one way is a story in itself. In the Southern Appalachian Mountains, people are crazy for their Cornbread and Milk, a concoction made by crumbling leftover cornbread into a tall drinking glass and topping it with milk. It's usually buttermilk, although some people prefer "sweet milk", a vernacular term for regular fresh milk. In some corners, people call this Crumble In, or simply Bread and Milk.
As with many regional foodstuffs with a small footprint, at the mention of Cornbread and Milk, people either get a faraway look of reminiscence, or get a look that says they want to stay far away. Fair enough, perhaps, but when talking about food traditions, it's important to remember a dish or recipe that's weird to people who've never heard of it isn't weird to those who grew up eating it.
We know that food traditions have their ways. Cornbread and Milk is always made in individual portions in a drinking glass, never a bowl. People have personal preferences for the ratio of solids to liquids, but this isn't a beverage or a smoothie, so eaters need spoons, not straws. No one would think of stirring up a family-size serving bowl of Cornbread and Milk, even if everyone at the table intends to have some. People put it together right before they eat it, before everything turns to mush. Other than the no-bowl rule, all of this is similar to how we eat breakfast cereal.
But people rarely eat Cornbread and Milk for breakfast. It's usually enjoyed as a light meal, bedtime snack, or after-work pick-me-up to tide them over to supper. It's quick, easy, filling (but not too filling), and hits the spot.
Most people put nothing but cornbread and milk in their glass, although some add chopped green onions or ramps, and others add a big pinch of salt or two big pinches of black pepper. One hears of people adding sugar, but that might be the rural equivalent of urban legend along the lines of people sugaring their grits. (Whether the cornbread is already sweet is a topic for another day.)
We don't know who first poured buttermilk over their cornbread. It was likely hungry people who wouldn't dare throw away leftover cornbread, no matter how dry or stale, and used the milk to soften it up some. Or perhaps someone had a little milk left in their glass and decided to bulk it up with some cornbread, which is what lead to the drinking glass rule. No matter the origin, the combo tasted good enough to continue doing it, the practice was handed down, and deep affinities took root. Those raised on this dish consider it top-notch comfort food, and don't much care what any nay-sayers might say.