The triangular cornbread slices at Kevin Gillespie’s Decatur restaurant, Revival, are almost as dense and puffy as biscuits. They greet the tongue with the taste of smoked bacon—not a bad thing. Soft and savory, it’s the type of cornbread you might pair with bacon-wrapped meatloaf or sauteed white shrimp in sherry cream sauce. It’s a bit fancy for common-folk food, at least to a guy like me. I’m not saying you won’t like it; I’m just saying it’s not my kind of cornbread, and that’s okay.
The perfectly level rectangles of cornbread you get with a side of jerk chicken at Eats are the other side of what you might call “moist.” That’s what butter’s for, along with the jerk sauce you can mop up from your plate, which is exactly the right move. Its dryness is not a problem, nor is its lack of sweetness; it actually balances well with the multitude of spices in the belovedly inexpensive Ponce de Leon eatery’s popular Jamaican fare.
Still, I can’t help but feel like the cornbread is missing something—a feeling that recurred as I scoured Atlanta on a quest for the city’s best cornbread. Something was missing, too, in the cornbread at (*ducks*) Mary Mac’s Tea Room, just a few blocks west of Eats. Those awesome little muffins get right up to the door of divinity, thanks to the savory flavor and the butter baked into the evenly browned crust. They’re very good with potlikker for dipping or alongside the legendary Atlanta restaurant’s “chicken fried chicken” with peppered white gravy. They’re what you should order when your food has more of a vinegar twang, but, on their own, they still leave something to be desired.
These cornbreads are good at what they need to do and are, in a couple cases, honestly great. But they don’t hit like the ones a couple miles north of Revival, at Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar, whose diners want their dinners and brunches full of laughter, good company, at least one Mary J. Blige classic, and soulful Southern food that’s a bit turned up. Cornbread isn’t a side piece here; it’s a whole snack, served in a warm skillet and topped with blueberry jam and bourbon praline butter. It’s soul-huggingly delicious. It tastes like a saxophone sounds. I might have said a few curse words out loud, from a place of joy, while eating it.
Is it a bit much? Of course it is. But it knows the truth: The best cornbread is sweet.
Erika Council has a similar opinion. While she doesn’t offer cornbread on the daily menu of Bomb Biscuit Co., the restaurant counter she opened in September in Irwin Street Market, she says she loves to make it and follows a process learned from family.
“My great aunt Mabel would make the cornbread batter,” Council says. “She’d put the butter in a cast-iron skillet, put it in the oven, and let it melt. She would sprinkle sugar around that, before she poured the batter into the skillet. Once it cooks and you take it out of the skillet, it makes like a sugar-butter crust around the edges and the bottom”—the caramelization effect also trapping moisture inside the batter as it bakes. “And that’s literally the best thing you have ever eaten in your life.”
Believe Erika Council, who represents the living legacy of soul-food brilliance—not only with Bomb Biscuit Co. but as the granddaughter of pioneering restaurateur Mildred Council of Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This isn’t a “How do you prefer your grits” question—there’s only one answer. Cornbread is better when it’s a little sweeter.
I, too, can testify. Generations of my family have worked at the Lodge Cast Iron foundry in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, a town just outside Chattanooga on the border with Alabama. I spent summers there, playing kickball, fighting my cousins, and eating cornbread that leaned sweet but never radically so. Because there was so much cast iron flying around, sometimes as adolescents we even got cast-iron skillets as Christmas presents, which sucked then and was kinda crazy, but they’re awesome to have today. Everybody in Bridgeport, Alabama, and South Pittsburg, Tennessee—the neighboring border towns where my mom and dad, respectively, are from—made cornbread, throwing whatever was on hand into the batter for a little added sweetness. Think Jiffy, but with creamed corn or fresh blueberries.
Saying it’s not “Southern” to put sugar in your cornbread is “an ignorant statement,” Council believes. “We still lean towards that because it has such a close connection to the cornbread of African Americans,” Council explains. “We made cornbread without sugar; we used long sweetening, molasses. I don’t even know how you can eat cornbread with no sugar in it, unless it’s to scoop up chili or something like that. Just a dry hunk of cornmeal, you know, that’s a tough sell. It should be more pastry-leaning than bread-leaning,” she says, laughing.
So, there you have it: There’s a place for cornbread of all kinds. But to be fully enjoyed, cornbread should be treated like a pastry—especially in the South, where we know a little sweetness makes all things better.
This article appears in our February 2022 issue.