When it comes to cornbread, there’s plenty of room for debate. A little sugar or none at all? Cast-iron skillet or baking dish? White or yellow cornmeal? Fluffy and light or crumbly and dense? A nice buttermilk tang? Each person’s take is nuanced, and their loyalty, extreme. Preference can usually be tracked to a person’s hometown—the farther South, the more savory the cornbread. And Southerners love the fight.
“It can get pretty heated, but in a fun way,” says Jack Sundell, owner of The Root Café in Little Rock. “Cornbread is as much a part of Southern culture as iced tea or barbecue.”
Savory cornbread (and sweet, as sugar became affordable) has been a stalwart side dish on American tables for centuries, a tradition with roots in early settlers’ experiments with a staple grain of Native Americans. Former Eureka Springs resident Crescent Dragonwagon’s venerable book The Cornbread Gospels chronicles the transition of cornbread from an inexpensive saving grace for impoverished Reconstruction- and Depression-era cooks to a dish people were proud to serve.
“Cornbread is the South’s daily bread,” Dragonwagon writes. “And, though it was everyday fare, it was also part of every important Southern occasion: holidays, church picnics, dinners on the grounds, family reunions—cornbread was always present.”
Dragonwagon’s Gospels includes a cornbread option for every kind of event, with dozens of recipes for cornbread and cornbread cousins like hoecakes, corn pone, hush puppies, hot-water cornbread and johnnycakes from cooks across the U.S.
At The Root Café, Sundell dishes up a cornbread based on one of Dragonwagon’s recipes. For the Monticello-raised chef, cornbread is always savory, served up alongside hearty soups and stews. He prefers it cooked in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet coated in butter and bacon fat. Heating the pan on the stove top before pouring in the batter gives his bread a thick crust before going into the oven to bake to a golden brown.
Sundell’s recipe calls for just two tablespoons of sugar to add a little depth, but even that small amount is too much for some purists.
“There still would be some debate among people as to whether any sugar is acceptable or not,” Sundell says. “Some people completely disavow sugar in cornbread. It’s just not supposed to be there.”
For Kristi Williams, co-owner of Brown Sugar Bakeshop in Little Rock, sugar isn’t a problem. Savory cornbread, however, is a nightmare.
“As a kid, I would eat it because I had to,” Williams says. “They were doing skillet cornbread, those thick wedges that were a little dry and served at homestyle restaurants. I still struggle with it.”
Williams, who grew up in Little Rock, saves savory cornbread for things like stuffing. Typically, she prefers her cornbread on the sweet side, moist and fluffy, to balance out spicy dishes. A Caribbean cornbread that Williams makes calls for a cup of sugar, along with pineapple and rum. It’s just enough sweet without going overboard.
“People think sweet cornbread is gonna be like cake,” Williams says, “but you can still crumble it up into savory dishes.”
Williams’ Caribbean cornbread took home the title of Best Professional Sweet at the 2012 Arkansas Cornbread Festival in Little Rock. The fest, which returns to Little Rock on Nov. 2, pits traditional versus nontraditional cornbread in an all-out culinary competition—and drew more than 3,000 cornbread lovers last year.
In the end, cornbread comes down to a personal choice.
“It’s about what you’re familiar with, and what you grew up with,” Sundell says.
And whether it’s sweet or savory, cornbread always comes with a sense of nostalgia.
“It’s a warmness,” Williams says. “Everyone is around a table eating, not on the phone. It’s a two-hand thing. You’re not texting when you have cornbread. It’s soul food.”
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup cooking oil, such as canola or rice-bran oil
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bacon grease
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt in a large metal bowl. Pour the buttermilk into a glass measuring cup, and stir the baking soda into the buttermilk. Measure oil into medium bowl. Whisk the sugar into the oil until well incorporated; then whisk in the egg. Add the buttermilk, and whisk to combine. In a well-seasoned 9-inch cast-iron pan, melt the butter and bacon grease on the stove top. Heat until sizzling, and swirl the pan to coat. Add wet ingredients to dry, stirring only enough to combine. (Be careful not to overmix.) Transfer batter into the hot skillet, and put it directly into the preheated oven. Bake until golden brown on top, about 25 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, and serve hot with butter and crème fraîche.
1 cup white cornmeal
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup melted unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dark rum
4 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup crushed pineapple
2/3 cup canned creamed corn
2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. In a large mixing bowl, stir the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pour in the vegetable oil, melted butter, beaten eggs, pineapple, creamed corn, rum and milk, and stir just until moistened (batter will be lumpy). Pour the batter into the greased baking pan, and bake for 45 minutes until golden brown and starting to show some cracks. Remove from oven, and serve warm with butter or honey or plain.