In the final weeks of a brutal presidential campaign, our friends at the Southern Foodways Alliance just stoked another heated rivalry at their fall symposium in Oxford, Mississippi: biscuits versus cornbread. The all-in-good-fun debate is a centerpiece of the annual event, a gathering of chefs, writers, academics, and other thought leaders; past contests have pitted cake against pie and competition against traditional barbecue. Yes, every Southerner knows there’s room for both biscuits and cornbread below the Mason-Dixon line. But which, asked the Southern Foodways Alliance, best represents the South? On stage, Birmingham-based writer Jennifer V. Cole vouched for biscuits and chef Kevin Gillespie, of Revival in Atlanta, stood up for cornbread. When put to the audience for a vote, however, no clear winner emerged. So we asked the two pros who led the buttery brawl to share their arguments with G&G. Now, we pose the question to you.
Really, though, who won?
Jennifer V. Cole: Oh, I think there was a clear consensus. Kevin was a formidable opponent, but biscuits won—and I’m not just looking at this through butter-smeared glasses.
Kevin Gillespie: I honestly think biscuits won the debate. But I say that with a caveat, which is that the question was: ‘Which should be the symbol of the South?’ People took it as, ‘Which do you like to eat more?’ I admit it: Even a mediocre biscuit is still good, but only good cornbread is good. It’s hard to argue with that. As an emblem, though, cornbread won in a landslide.
Okay, give me your elevator pitches.
KG: America—and Southern food—would not exist without cornbread. Before there was a United States, Americans existed on different kinds of cornbread: tortillas, corn pone, et cetera. All of us were cornbread eaters, even if now we can afford to eat biscuits. I say that it’s okay to be proud of your ancestors’ humble agrarian roots.
JVC: Biscuits represent the aspirational quality of the South. To be able to get flour, leaveners, buttermilk, butter, and the refrigeration necessary to keep them—that signified that you’d made it. To me, the biscuit is that shining example of the forward movement of the South—of continuing to push forward and striving to be better.
If you’ve only ever had canned Grands biscuits or Jiffy mix cornbread, you might not know just how good homemade versions can be. What would you serve to somebody who’s on the fence?
JVC: I like it simple, with quality ingredients: good butter and real cultured buttermilk. Then there’s an art to bringing the ingredients of a biscuit together. We were joking that anybody can make cornbread. You just dump things together. A biscuit is an expression of love from the person who made it. So, a biscuit made with great ingredients by a person with a mastery of the process. As Kevin says, though, the worst biscuit is still much better than the worst cornbread. Bad cornbread is like crumbled up tree bark. It’s horrible.
KG: I feel like I’m a bit of an authority on this, because at Revival, the one item every person gets is cornbread. It’s a family recipe handed down through generations that—I will swear on my grandmother’s grave—is better than any cornbread you’ve ever had. It has the perfect texture, with that outside golden-brown bark that has an almost smoky, tannic quality from the skillet and the pork fat in it. The interior is simultaneously fluffy and creamy. You know, people overcook cornbread to a crumbly, fall-apart texture. That’s not right. There should be a juxtaposition between the hard outside and the very soft interior. You don’t need to serve that with anything.
You’re both born-and-raised Southerners, so I know you have room in your hearts for both biscuits and cornbread. Do you have one nice thing to say about the other side?
KG: I do like biscuits. Truth be told, at breakfast I’d rather pour syrup on a biscuit than cornbread. It’s nostalgic for me. The way my granny made biscuits, they were very delicate. Rather than splitting them open, she’d put them on a plate and pour a little sorghum syrup on top. That and a nice pat of butter. You eat it like a stack of pancakes. That’s one of the most nostalgic flavors of my childhood.
JVC: Of course I love cornbread. When a pan of cornbread is done right, with a crisp crust, and when you take a bite it’s pillowy and ethereal… That’s a moment of magic no Southerner can deny. It’s almost like cracking into a corn crème brûlée.
So, G&G readers, what do you think? Which better represents the South: biscuits or cornbread?