A few months ago, I returned home to North Carolina from Wyoming after a trying divorce. A suppressed appetite in tow, it was a Bojangles’ Cajun filet biscuit that breathed life back into my soul. Now a Sunday ritual, I think about the power a buttery, flaky biscuit holds, as small bits and pieces crumble onto the wrapper with each bite.

 I’m not religious, but I’ve learned to appreciate the popular refrain from the Lord’s Prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread”—mainly because I’d be lost without bread. In the Bible, bread symbolizes eternal life and is consumed as a gift to nourish the body. I’ll gladly preach to the choir that Southern bread is indeed life—Bojangles’ being my number one witness, with a basket full of hushpuppies from my hometown’s fish camp as backup.

 For me, nothing compares to a fluffy, fresh-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuit. Flour, butter (or lard, if you really want to make a Southern statement), baking soda, baking powder, and buttermilk are all readily available pantry ingredients, and on lazy Sunday mornings, biscuits make an ideal start to the day. Cornbread offers me similar pleasure, but in a crumbly, I’m-craving-barbecue kind of way. Even though it’s easier to master than biscuits and uses kitchen staples such as cornmeal, flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk, butter, and eggs, it’s not something I regularly bake (though I’m not sure why). Cornbread is the backbone of Southern cooking; biscuits evolved and aspired over time.

But the question remains: Are biscuits or cornbread the best? It’s like asking if you’re a Duke or UNC fan. Or if you prefer sweet tea over unsweet tea. I bleed Duke blue and am sweet tea’s biggest admirer, but when it comes to the carb rivals, both deserve equal credit in my book. Must we be forced to choose?

In the antebellum South, biscuits were considered a delicacy and consumed on Sundays by the wealthy. It should also be noted that biscuits, during this period, were flat and rather bland and a far cry from what they are today. In the nineteenth century, biscuits gained a flavorful momentum thanks to advancements in milling technology and new ingredients such as baking soda, allowing puffy layers to rise to the heavens above. Cornbread, arguably more palatable with its dense, fluffy, and savory characteristics, was consumed in the same period by non-wealthy households, as corn was a leading crop. Skillet cornbread became popular during the Civil War, where soldiers would pile beans on top to create filling, easy-to-eat meals. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the milling process became industrialized, and cornmeal began replacing yeast in kitchens due to flour becoming mainstream. Biscuits were still around, but cornmeal-centric dishes such as spoonbread (a soupy, custard-like invention), hushpuppies (fried cornmeal served in various shapes and sizes), and Johnny Cakes (cornmeal pancakes) were born.

At restaurants such as Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill and the State Farmers Market Restaurant in Raleigh, the best of both worlds collide. If a decision must be made, it boils down to the fixins. With fried chicken? Definitely the beloved biscuit. Is barbecue involved? Cornbread, no doubt, to soak up juicy sauces.

Cornbread has its own internal rivalry. The sugar-versus-no-sugar debate is controversial throughout the South. Many argue that sweet cornbread is like Jiffy cake mix and a far cry from the original, savory version. Plus, molasses was always at arm’s length, so why would anyone ever dare to further sweeten something so perfect as-is? 

Sean Fowler, the chef-owner of Mandolin in Raleigh, added sugar to his version, noting that diners demanded it more with this minor tweak. 

With biscuits, he takes a similar liberty. “I gave myself permission to use yeast after finding it in one of Edna Lewis’s recipes,” he says. When it comes to biscuits, he says, “If it’s good, I’m going to eat it.”

And therein lies the beauty of biscuits: No matter what recipe a chef, baker, or at-home cook is referencing, or whether they’re served in their purest form with a thick slab of butter or smothered with gravy, it’s all good. 

“There’s a lot of fuss and pretense about biscuits, and I know it’s harder for a novice cook than, say, someone who runs a bakery to pull it off,” says Lindsay Moriarty, a chef-owner of Monuts in Durham. “But it really is such a fun and easy recipe to have in your back pocket for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.” 

At the venerable Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, chef Justin Burdett personally reserves biscuits for Sunday breakfast and cornbread for the holidays. Case in point: There’s a time and a place for both. But when it comes to matters of my heart, sometimes only a buttery biscuit will suffice.

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