Editor’s note: Between the second and third presidential debates, the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 15 featured a debate of its own, between Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie and Birmingham-based food writer and editor Jennifer V. Cole, on the question: Which is better, biscuits or corn bread? In Lincoln-Douglas style, Gillespie spoke first, followed by Cole, and then Gillespie was allowed a short response. Afterward, introducer Kat Kinsman, senior editor at the new Time Inc. website Extra Crispy, asked the hundreds of audience members to vote with their applause, then declared the debate a draw, proclaiming that the point was clear: “Make America bake again!” An edited version of their debate follows.
Brothers and sisters, I come before you today to defend the honor of a beloved friend. One who has been with me since I first walked this earth and one who has remained faithful to my forefathers, both in times of prosperity and times of want. A friend who has given so much, and asked for so little in return. I come before you to bear witness to the majesty of my beloved corn bread.
We Americans are a mixed bag. Some small, some big. Some coarse, some fine, and yet we find a way to live in harmony, all the while realizing that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts. This is not so dissimilar to the old-fashioned meal that we use to make the perfect pan of corn bread. In its lack of uniformity we find a beauty, and in its imperfections we are reminded of what it means to be human. The heat and grit and delicate sturdiness of humanity are seen every time we take that skillet from the oven and turn its contents out onto the plate. Corn bread, therefore, is the bread of my people, the bread of you all gathered here tonight.
When we know the history of corn bread we have an opportunity to connect, in a very real way, to the people who held this land before us. Our Native American ancestors first saw the light when they began to domesticate teosinte, the great-great-great grandfather of what we now know as corn. They developed through generations the nixtamalization of corn, a process of treating the raw corn with the naturally occurring alkalis found in wood ash, to create a foodstuff that was more digestible and nutritious, and in turn helped their population thrive.
It is easy, then, to understand why we are so reverent to our common ancestor corn, and his one true son, corn bread. In South Pittsburg, Tenn., they have dedicated an annual festival to corn bread’s honor. In Mitchell, S.D., you will find the Corn Palace, whose facades have been adorned year after year, at the cost of nearly $100,000, with new, beautiful depictions of America’s wonder crop. And as if that was not enough to solidify corn’s place in our hearts, we have even gone so far as to engrave his likeness onto the columns of the U.S. Capitol. The same cannot be said for wheat. Some of our nation’s greatest wordsmiths were devout believers in the power of the pone. To quote one of my favorites, Mark Twain, “Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread.” He had more to say on the subject, as well as on northerners’ lack of culinary prowess, but I will spare you those words because my Granny always said, “Sweetheart, if you ain’t got nothin’ nice to say, then by God keep your mouth shut!”
That being said, so much of the world has embraced our nation’s grain and have created their own versions of corn bread. The Portugese broa, a fennel-infused crispy corn bread classically served alongside the national dish of caldo verde. All of us Southerners know and love our grits, but even the culinary powerhouse that is Italy can see the light when it comes to a creamy porridge of dried corn; they just manage to church it up and make it sound fancy with a name like polenta. Or how bout makki di roti, a wonderfully sweet corn flatbread often served with braised mustard greens in India (sound familiar?) or even as an afternoon snack with a warm cup of chai. You hear that, biscuit? You’re not the only one invited to tea time.
And which of us could forget the breathtakingly beautiful tortillas of our southern neighbors? They are the origin point, the alpha of the corn bread world. Masa is the enchanting and bilingual cousin to our stoneground meal and, along with the help of a comal, is transformed into something simultaneously delicate and yet hearty enough to sustain nations.
The same can be said for our old-fashioned iron skillet corn bread. Every great Southern cook has an opinion on the perfect recipe, but what they can all agree upon is that a well-seasoned cast iron pan, filled with hot fat, is essential for the perfect harmony of crispy crust and pillowy soft interior. If a well-made biscuit makes you applaud the cook who prepared it, a perfect pan of corn bread gives you a brief glimpse into the mind of our creator and demands you praise his generosity at allowing all us sinners a chance to enjoy something that is clearly sent from heaven above.
In fact, had it not been for corn bread, many of us would not be here today. I for one know that my people would have starved out and left the mountains for parts unknown a long time ago. That skillet of corn bread was often the only meal the common man had. Thankfully its life-giving nature, perhaps paired with a little buttermilk, or some sorghum syrup, or maybe even a bowl of pinto beans, was enough to carry you one more day, all the while being thankful for what gifts you did have.
Sure, a good biscuit is a thing of beauty. But beauty alone will not sustain us. We as human beings need food, love and shelter to survive. I argue to all of you here tonight that a piping hot pan of corn bread is as close as you can come to fulfilling all three of those requirements at once. During those cold first winters when many of our ancestors first stepped upon this land that we now, thankfully, get to call home, it wasn’t the biscuit that carried them through. It was the simple pone of bread, made from a plant they had never seen before, corn, that filled their bellies and gave them the strength to work one more day in pursuit of what they held dear. By the grace of God, and the generosity of the native people who allowed us to share their soil, and their sacred grain, we can say that those first Americans had a future.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings says in her 1942 work “Cross Creek Cookery”: “The hot biscuit runs a poor second to corn bread, but is considered of higher social caste.” That sentiment has been driven home time and time again by outsiders who know next to nothing about the real people of the South. Their movies will show you a place filled with long frilly dresses and plates of rarefied bone white biscuits, floating like clouds on some porcelain platter, as if that’s how we all lived 150 years ago. The truth is that a sack of meal and a can of drippings has always been the reality for the working-class South, and we are proud of that. No one here tonight is gonna deny that the biscuit has a place of high praise at the Southern table. The problem is, biscuit, that without corn bread there simply would be no table. And we sure as heck fire would not all be here tonight jawing on the superiority of one versus another.
You see, the thing that always has mattered most to those of us lucky enough to call the South our home has been the communion of family and friends around that very table I am speaking of. We fill it with all that we have, which sometimes can amount to a feast, and other times just means enough of something to carry us on to the next day. Either way, my family always gave thanks through the prayer, the prayer given to the disciples by the Lord himself. And when those words “give us this day our daily bread” walk past my lips and sing their way to the heavens, well . . . I just can’t help but think that we must be talking about corn bread.
Soft morning light filters through the kitchen window. Golden butter and honest-to-goodness real buttermilk hibernate in the cool climes of your Frigidaire. You pull out a large bowl, perhaps a time-worn heirloom you inherited from your grandmother. You sift your flour — soft winter wheat, silky to the touch — that falls into the bowl like a delicate snowfall. Flour! Yes, flour. Brothers and sisters, I am here to give you a reprieve from the meal, from the grist, from the coarse nubbins of corn that have filled your weekend. I am here to rise up, to sing the praises of biscuits, to defend the honor of the staple of the Southern breadbasket, to remind us all what truly brings people to the welcome table time and time again.
Historically, our people made do with corn bread. It’s what they had. And no one meets a spare pantry with a can-do attitude like a Southerner. But as soon as milled wheat became available, cooks across the land abandoned corn grist for the finer grain. The ability to simply even make biscuits signified success. It signified means. It signified new prosperity in the South. If you could afford flour and leaveners, you had made it. Our own Karl Worley, who grew up po’ — so po’ his family couldn’t afford the -o-r — was raised on corn bread in the Appalachian foothills of Bristol, Tenn. But he’s found his true love in the bosom of a biscuit. In Nashville, at his restaurant Biscuit Love, the flour faithful stand in line for 45 minutes every day to eat Karl’s biscuits, yeasty angels so fine they’ll make you taste heaven. Karl’s biscuits. Not Karl’s corn bread.
When you wake up red-eyed and sluggish, addled by the consumption of last night’s boozy corn elixir, it’s not corn bread — the cousin of the cob that put you in this state — that you seek. No, it’s biscuits that raise you from the dead. Fried chicken biscuits from the nearest Bojangles’. Sausage, egg and cheese biscuits from the gas station down the road. Pork chop biscuits from the hands of Ms. Earline Hall just around the corner here in Oxford, at My Guys. From Hardee’s. From Popeyes. From a little place called Biscuitville. You seek biscuits dripping with butter, bathed in sorghum, swaddled in gravy, or stuffed with the jewel-toned preserves of summer’s fruitful bounty. It’s biscuits that can handle the heft of a salty slice of cured country ham. Corn bread just doesn’t have the strength to manage all of that. It doesn’t have the fortitude to help you regain yours.
It’s said that man cannot live by bread alone. But man truly cannot live by corn alone. Pellagra, that devastating disease of niacin deficiency, runs rampant in corn-based societies. In the early 1900s, Southerners were gripped with a life-threatening epidemic of “sour skin” and lesions. I’m sorry, corn bread, but biscuits never turned anyone into a leper.
No, biscuits don’t get you down. They rise. With yeast and powder and soda, they reach heights worthy of company. Whether it’s an angel biscuit, a buttermilk biscuit, a loosey-goosey drop biscuit, a cathead biscuit so large you might name it Buttons or Mittens or simply Pussycat — they rise. You have to really beat a biscuit to keep it down. But even beaten biscuits, those dense pearly rounds, reflect the rising nature of the South and its social aspirations.
As our beloved late John Egerton would say, you beat a biscuit for 30 minutes — unless company was coming over, and then you beat it for an hour. An hour. Mary Randolph, in her “The Virginia House-Wife” of 1824, showcased an unleavened biscuit dough that was struck repeatedly with a pestle. By the late 1880s, J.A. DeMuth of St. Joseph, Mo., had invented the biscuit brake to make shorter work of it. That’s right, beaten biscuits are work. Hard work. Making them, serving them. It shows you have the time and equipment necessary to produce them. It shows you care.
Because, you see, biscuits are made for people. You make a batch of biscuits. You don’t make a single biscuit. Biscuits imply community. This is a food that just begs to be shared with friends, family and loved ones. And any biscuit worth its butter or lard or post-industrial Crisco is always served hot, right out of the oven, with everyone clamoring around the table together. Get ’em while they’re hot! Now, my opponent has already spoken about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her 1942 book “Cross Creek Cookery,” but he didn’t tell you the whole story. You see, she also said, “We serve cold baker’s bread to our enemies, trusting that they will never impose on our hospitality again.” That’s right. Enemies get cold bread. So, while a glass of buttermilk with crumbles of leftover corn bread might a singular happy farmer make, it just doesn’t carry the let-me-hug-your-neck hospitality that you get from a pan of just-made biscuits. As Ms. Rawlings said, “The South is known as the land of the hot biscuit and the cold check.” Now, I’m not saying that corn bread writes a check its skillet can’t cash, but, biscuits are warm and welcoming, a sign of money in the bank.
Prosperity! The Southern climb! The American dream! A working gal doesn’t have to forgo a hot biscuit on her table. No, biscuits are soooo essential to Southern life, you’ll find multiple grocery store cases dedicated to the convenience of the biscuit. There are canned biscuits, or as we like to call them, whomp biscuits, for the soul-satisfying sound the canister makes as you whack it open on the countertop. These tidy cylinders bear majestic names like Grands, and deliver towering biscuits with perfect pull-apart layers of laminated dough. You see, there are many layers to biscuits. Corn bread is just so one-dimensional. Then there are the frozen biscuits. Have you ever tried to freeze corn bread? Word to the wise: Don’t. But fine ladies like Mary B have the freezer case covered. We’ll concede that corn bread mixes abound to help you fill a skillet in a Jiffy. But take a look at what’s on the shelf beside them. That’s right. Biscuit mixes. Biscuits go where corn bread goes — and also to places it can’t. Biscuits rise.
Look at baseball, the most American of all past times, where everyday dreams are realized. Is there a team out there that’s devoted its allegiance to corn bread? No. But down in Montgomery, Ala., you’ll find the Biscuits, the first team to ever be named after a food, with a mascot personified by Big Mo , a self-proclaimed biscuit-lovin’ beast. Between innings, the staff, known as the Biscuit Bunch, even throws biscuits into the crowd. Forget the seventh-inning stretch: Rise to your feet and catch you a biscuit!
As a modern-day prophet named Sir Mix-a-Lot once said:
Now, buttermilk biscuits here we go
Zip the flour roll the dough
Clap your hands and stomp your feet
Move your butt to the funky beat – uh huh
Or to put it simply: Butter my butt and call me a biscuit.
My opponent has been keen to tell you of the shortcomings of corn bread, all the while solidifying her own position through the idea that we should all be ashamed of our agrarian past and yearn for the greatness seen only through the eyes of a biscuit eater. She would argue that the convenience of a canned or frozen biscuit is something to aspire to. I, for one, know that when my hands slowly mix the meal, and water, and salt and drippings into the mixing bowls handed down to me from my mother, I am a living, breathing connection to the past. And I, for one, know that when I pull that skillet from the oven, watch that hot fat dance across the shiny blackness of its surface, pour that batter in and listen to it sizzle, I am embracing the humble roots of humanity and of those people who gave me the name Gillespie.
My opponent has been quick to remind you all of the delicious and varied foods that can be placed between a biscuit’s benign layers. Fried chicken, jelly, gravy. Well, damn it all, you can put gravy on an old boot and it will be good. None of us is here today to argue how good gravy is. I don’t need to tell you all of the things corn bread can be, because it is unto itself a truer expression of the South than the biscuit can ever be. Look onto the sigil of the Southern Foodways Alliance and tell me what you see. I see a skillet, a hog, an ear of corn. I think you can see what conclusion that leads me to. The truth is, the simple kernel of truth, is that when I look into the faces of each and every one of you here tonight I am proud of my roots, and when y’all lay me down to rest in this earth you’ll have to pry my skillet from my cold dead hands. Rise up? Shoot: We’re already there, sister. Vote corn bread!