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One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, Abraham Lincoln famously prophesied that the United States would have to make a nationwide decision on the issue of slavery. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said, and he was right—more than half a million men died to settle the matter. Thankfully, the decidedly less pressing question of sweetened versus unsweetened cornbread, which continues to split the North and the South, isn't quite contentious enough to drag us back into a civil war.*
* For weak scientific evidence of the dead-even divide, see the results of our recent Twitter poll.
A born-and-bred Yankee myself, I'd never even tasted the South's unsweetened cornbread until relatively recently. The only kind I knew as a kid was that yellow, cake-like confection from above the Mason-Dixon, and I always loved it, for the same reason that all kids love eating dessert alongside their dinner. I still have a soft spot for it, which I am totally unapologetic about, but I've since been won over by the Southern version, made with stone-ground cornmeal and not a trace of sugar or wheat flour.
If you're curious about why the two versions exist in the first place, you need to read Robert Moss's piece "The Real Reason Sugar Has No Place in Cornbread." In a nutshell, though, the key points are that the corn milled for cornbread used to be left to ripen longer in the field, leading to a higher natural sugar content, and was stone-ground to produce cornmeal with a texture that varied from powdery flour to larger grits. With the advent of industrial milling techniques, the corn was picked when it was less ripe and ground with rollers, creating a consistently coarser grind that didn't work as well with leavenings. Sugar was therefore added to offset the significantly less sweet corn, while fine wheat flour was added to correct the grind issue.
With the resurgence of small-scale milling, though, the original type of cornmeal is increasingly available. I ordered a handful of bags of white and yellow cornmeal from Anson Mills to test my recipe here, and I highly recommend you also seek out the best stone-ground cornmeal you can, whether by ordering online or seeking out a local mill. That's because, based on my rounds of testing, the cornmeal itself has the single biggest impact on the final cornbread. The difference is staggering—the good stone-ground stuff produces a bread that's light and fluffy, interspersed with pleasantly crackly bits of corn grit, and loaded with a rich corn flavor.
What does cornbread taste like when it's made with a lower-quality cornmeal and no sugar? Strangely, it tastes like a black hole has formed within the crumb and all the sugar molecules have been sucked into it, never to be tasted again. The flavor doesn't register merely as a zero on the sweetness scale, but dips down into the negative numbers. It's not unlike drinking totally pure distilled water—the absence of minerals is completely bewildering. Cornbread needn't be overtly sweet, but it does need just enough sweetness to avoid tasting like the fabric of the universe has been torn asunder and you're hopelessly trying to lick the rift.
Now, if you can't get your hands on the good cornmeal, the solution is to get a bag of mass-market stone-ground cornmeal and add just a wee bit of sugar to it. I find that about three teaspoons of granulated sugar per three cups (15 ounces) of cornmeal is just about right. You won't end up with a sweet Northern cornbread with that amount of sugar, but you will end up with something that tastes complete.
Beyond that, the rest is very simple: Start by preheating a well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the oven. While it's in there, mix the cornmeal with baking soda, baking powder, salt, and—only if needed—a tiny bit of sugar. Mix that with buttermilk, eggs, and fat. (I use melted butter here, but lard or bacon fat is also great, if you have it.)
Even if you've lived your whole life on the sweet side of the cornbread debate, I challenge you to try making it with a worthy cornmeal. You may just be converted. And if not...well, just drizzle some honey or sorghum syrup on top and keep your opinion to yourself, because, even today, there are other, more important things to fight about.