Living Southern: Biscuits​ or Cornbread?

A recent visit to the local Cracker Barrell Restaurant reminded me of a colossal culinary conundrum we Southerners occasionally face.

Biscuits or cornbread?

The question posed by the waitress was innocent enough, though she had no idea of the brain cell paralysis her request induced. Some folks struggle with similar but otherwise inconsequential questions. Scrambled or fried? Coffee or tea? Sweet or unsweet? For me, the dinnertime dilemma is always the house bread of choice — biscuits or cornbread?

This is one of those questions that never fails to spark a few memories, the kind that always reminds me why living in the Southland is a blessing never to be taken for granted. These Southern breads can make one’s taste buds stand up and shout “Hallelujah,” only to be followed with a resounding “Amen” and an immediate plea to “pass the butter, the jam, the gravy, or the honey.” I should know.

Cornbread is considered a cornerstone of Southern cuisine. Leveraging knowledge gained from native Americans, early settlers in the American South devised their own recipes for using cornmeal in their breads. Cracklin bread, cornpone, hushpuppies, and hoecakes (also known as johnnycakes) are all variations of this Southern delicacy.

Contemplating cornbread takes me back to the 1950s and 1960s when visits to the home of my great-grandmother Melissa Fagins always included a meal. My mother had been raised by her five-foot-tall grandmother who was endearingly addressed by everyone as simply “Maw.” Growing up I quickly learned a few absolutes I could always count on in my adolescent Southern life: suffocating humidity, how sweet honeysuckle can taste, failure to say “yes ma’am” or “yessir” resulted in a quick fanny slap, the restfulness of a front porch swing, the wonder of lightning bugs at dusk on a warm summer evening, the only tea was sweet tea, and my great grandmother would always be serving black-eyed peas and cornbread as part of any menu. “Maw” prepared her cornbread in a lard or bacon-greased cast iron skillet. My meal routine involved breaking up the cornbread and pouring a heaping spoonful of black-eyed peas over it. I recall being eligible for the draft before I ever ate black-eyed peas without a cornbread foundation. My mom had a slightly different routine as she created her after-dinner dessert by breaking up cornbread into a cold glass of buttermilk. She would savor each spoonful as if it was manna from heaven. Cracker Barrell cornbread is as close to Maw’s cooking as I have ever tasted.

Biscuits may not have been invented in the South, but they sure were perfected here. My all-time favorite is called a “Drop” biscuit, so named by how the cook would drop a spoonful of dough onto a baking sheet. Eating a hot Drop biscuit with butter or homemade blackberry jam confirms how poor an imitation the Pillsbury Doughboy really is. One bite of this mouthwatering treat has the power to take you to an earlier time and place. For me, that time and place was breakfast at my Aunt Vera Ann’s.

Her cooking skills were such that I always struggled to wait patiently for one of her homemade fresh-from-the-oven Drop biscuits. Watching the butter melt in her biscuits was such a visual delight that my taste buds were already practicing their Hallelujah chorus.

I sometimes wonder if my faith in God found some sort of apologetic foundation in my Aunt’s biscuit-making. She was a Godly woman whose grace, hospitality, and winsome manner made anyone feel welcome in her presence. And for me, watching her create such delightful food reflected God’s image as Creator. Ok, Ok, maybe that’s a leap of faith. But then, you never had one of Aunt Vera Ann’s Drop biscuits.

It is amazing how many thoughts fly through this Southern-bred brain of mine when the Cracker Barrell waitress poses a simple question – Biscuits or cornbread? Yet the answer for me is rather simple. “I’ll take some of each.”

After all, enjoying cornbread and biscuits are worth savoring almost as much as cherishing the memories of my great grandmother “Maw” and my Aunt Vera Ann.

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  1. Earle Combs

    We were raised in parallel universes. My grandmother Combs raised three boys in the 20’s and 30’s driving a Model T (they bought it in New York and part of the deal was teaching them to drive) between New York and home (Ky) on the farm where I spent most of my time as a kid. I remember my uncles encouraging their wives to hang out in Grandmother’s kitchen to pick up as much of her expertise as possible. Not easy when most measure was “about this much” “that looks about right” and a 50-100 year old iron skillet that had only ever been gently washed; never scrubbed. Libby received the same encouragement as my aunts and only asked Grandmother for one thing in her life: one of those skillets. Grandmother was in a category all of her own in the kitchen.

    She was up before the rest of us and in winter had a fire going in the walk-in fireplace in the kitchen and breakfast ready for us after we had fed livestock and milked. Typical was fried water-ground cornbread, country ham with red-eyed gravy, grits and scrambled eggs. (I used to love to take some of my yankee college friends to breakfast and watch them try to put sugar and cream on the grits.) Grandmother enjoyed it also. Drop biscuits and baked cornbread was for the more formal meals of dinner and “supper”. My grandfather “Pop” had a huge glass at every supper filled with buttermilk and cornbread. In summer the garden harvest was simply spectacular.

    Think I’ll go see if I can talk Lib into some fried cornbread and drop biscuits.

    Stay healthy and happy–


  2. Madeleine

    One of each, please . . . lucky for me, my husband liked to cook both!


  3. Travis Certain

    My mother-in-law who was born and raised in Alabama informed me that cornbread with sugar in it is Yankee cornbread. I did not know this but I would never argue with a lady from Birmingham Alabama. Mmmm Cracker Barrel sounds good.


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