Exploring the history of cornbread + biscuits in Asheville, NC

Photo by @yogaofcooking

When it comes to conflicts of the early 20th century, most of us are familiar with the Spanish American War and the First World War. But how many of you are aware of the Great Appalachian Bread Wars?

While there was no blood shed (that we know of), we learned from UNC Asheville’s Erica Abrams Lockear, author of the forthcoming Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food & People, that there’s a historic tension between 2 Southern staples: cornbread + biscuits. And most of that divide, like many conflicts, comes down to socioeconomics. 

Abrams Locklear explains that American Studies scholar Elizabeth Engelhardt‘s work here is crucial in understanding that it all started when public health concerns led folks to believe Southerners were becoming sick because of their diets. Progressive era reformers in Appalachia began working to steer mountain women away from feeding their families cornbread to instead feed them beaten biscuits

More affluent families took up baking beaten biscuits, but cornbread remained the food of the common people due to both the abundance of corn and the relative ease it took to make it. Cornbread required only a few local, readily-available ingredients, and no special equipment (folks could even cook it on a hoe outside). As such, it was seen as the food of the “uncivilized hillbilly.” 

In contrast, biscuits relied on flour, an ingredient that was not readily available to many working class households. As Engelhardt explains, recipes also called for equipment like baking sheets, modern ovens, and rolling pins — all items not commonly found in most folks’ kitchens at the time. 

Beaten biscuits were also significantly more labor intensive. Recipes called for the dough to be beaten 200 times for family and 500 times for company, suggesting that help outside of what a typical working class Appalachian woman of the time could provide was necessary to create them. This aspirational dish functioned to separate the poor from the privileged, the unhealthy from the healthy.

Considering that you can mix + stir cornbread in less time than it takes to heat your cast iron skillet, it’s not hard to see why and how the popularity of beaten biscuits never quite took off in the way reformers hoped. While they still enjoy popularity, especially in Maryland, it looks like beaten biscuits have been beaten by the humble cake of cornbread.