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Southern cornbread is no place for sugar

POSTED: May 18, 2011 1:30 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

For a good batch of cornbread, Janet Hilley uses only four items: cornmeal mix, buttermilk, canola oil and eggs.

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A gentle rumbling in the food world has finally reached an undeniable roar. Cornbread with or without sugar, that is the official question.

"Putting sugar in cornbread is like slapping your mama," said James Howell, a Flowery Branch resident.

"No matter what, you just don’t do it."

Howell isn’t the only Southerner who feels that way.

Paula Deen, Food Network chef, author and "Queen of Southern Cuisine," omits sugar from her Southern Cornbread recipe. Southern Living Magazine, a staple in many homes below the Mason-Dixon line, also urges home cooks to leave the lid on the sugar dish when making cornbread.

"My family is from rural south Georgia. I have made it both ways, with and without sugar," said Janet Hilley, a Gainesville resident.

"When I’ve made it with (sugar), it’s not as well-received."

Hilley also has a practical argument against not adding sugar to cornbread.

"When you are cooking for a crowd, you never know who is diabetic," Hilley said.

"They know not to eat cake because they expect sugar to be in there, but you might harm somebody’s health if you’re serving sugar in a hidden way, like in cornbread."

An unofficial poll on Facebook revealed that many Southerners are as passionate about their cornbread as they are about not wearing white before Easter. While some people were OK with adding sugar, the majority said that tea and yams were the only things that should be sweetened on a dinner table.

Some labeled adding sugar to the bread a sin, while others declared that sugared cornbread is not cornbread at all. It’s a corn muffin.

"It’s just not right," said Patrice Alexander, an Oakwood resident.

Indifferent cornbread eaters like Kimma Thompson-Mack were harder to come by.

"With sugar or without the cornbread in our family is fabulous," said Thompson-Mack, a Flowery Branch resident, who doesn’t mind a little sugar in her cornbread.

"I will still eat cornbread if it is not sweet. My mother makes killer cornbread with or without sugar."

When it’s right, no one pays much attention to it, but when it’s wrong — and served on a Southern dinner table — all heck can break loose. Half the battle in getting it "right" is using the proper ingredients.

"You want to make sure you use self-rising corn meal mix. If you don’t, your cornbread will be very flat," said Hilley.

"If it’s not self-rising, you’ll have to add baking powder and salt."

In addition to being a purist, meaning no fancy ingredients like sugar, many Southern chefs are also partial to certain brand name ingredients.

"White Lily corn meal mix is my favorite, but Martha White is good, too," Hilley said.

For a self-proclaimed cornbread connoisseur like Hilley, the baking dish is just as important as the ingredients.

"You can use a cake pan or something like that, but I prefer to cook my cornbread in a cast-iron skillet," said Hilley.

The heavy skillet helps cook the cornbread "hot and fast," which is crucial to creating that golden-brown crust on the outside, Hilley said.

Just as you wouldn’t put any old thing in your cornbread batter, a good cook knows that you shouldn’t serve cornbread with just any old meal.

"There are certain kinds of meals that cornbread goes best with, just like there are certain meals that biscuits go with," Hilley said.

"If you’re eating any sort of greens, cornbread is a requirement. I also like cornbread with squash, green beans or any homegrown-style vegetables."

If you are at a loss about trying out a new cornbread recipe, Hilley says there’s one place to look if you aren’t fortunate enough to have your grandmother’s recipe.

"Most of the time, you won’t go wrong if you use the recipe on the back of the cornmeal package," she said.

"They’ve done the research, and they want to make sure that their product turns out well."

No matter how you mix it up — with or without sugar — there’s only one way to serve it.

"You want to get cornbread on the table while it’s hot," Hilley said.

"It’s better if you eat it that way."



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