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story.lead_photo.caption Luke McHan and his wife, Lara, sample cornbread before voting for the winners during the 2017 Arkansas Cornbread Festival on Saturday in Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

To sweeten or not to sweeten, that was the question debated by foodies who scarfed a smorgasbord of cornbread Saturday afternoon in downtown Little Rock.

Thousands strolled the 1300 through 1600 blocks of Main Street for the seventh Arkansas Cornbread Festival, an annual bash where people chow down on the Southern staple and support Little Rock's South Main neighborhood.

Proceeds also benefit the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

Eight professional eateries and five amateur teams competed against their respective groups to claim two titles: best cornbread and best side dish. Winners also got prize money, from $250 to $1,000.

Festival attendees kept track of the greatest cornbread hits, and the biggest misses, in their opinions, before submitting their votes.

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Photos by Isabelle Berryhill

Because last year's crowd topped 3,500, chefs prepared samples for 3,500 to 4,000 people. No two breads were crafted the same. Some gathered heat from jalapenos, while others gave jolts of sweetness from fresh fruit.

"It's a very divisive issue," said Angela Toomer of the sweet-versus-spicy debate. She's "pro sugar" and a fan of the Capital Hotel's fare.

The blue cornbread fritters were Mexican inspired, with black beans, onions, fresh corn and pork. Plus, there's a hint of honey, said chef Marc Guizol.

But Toomer's friend, Sara Brown, was less enthusiastic. A sweet cornbread just tastes off, she said after sampling from most of the booths.

"We're not speaking anymore," Toomer joked.

Kids love a little sugar, which is why Rockbridge Montessori landed on its Puerto Rican recipe. The 150 students who taste-tested six possibilities liked it because of its sweetness, said superintendent Will Felton, who ladled pale yellow cornmeal balls into a wok burbling with canola oil.

Through the festival, the school wanted to introduce itself to the neighborhood, since the building is nearby, Felton said.

As for the recipe, the creators took cornmeal paste, made with butter and sugar, and cooked it, cooled it, then coated a hunk of cheese.

"Then we deep-fry it because we're in the South, and everything is better deep-fried," Felton said.

Some businesses saw Saturday's event as a way to branch out in the Little Rock food scene.

It was Flyway Brewing Co.'s first time competing, said co-owner Jess McMullen. The team cooked up an "ale-maize-ing" fire-roasted cornbread and beer belly greens with pork belly, sweet onions and brown ale.

"We're a brewery. We like to cook with beer," McMullen said.

Attendees Venecia Johnson and Cynthia McClure were both swayed by a savory option, Sweet Soul's sopping cornbread. A deviation from traditional chicken and dumplings, the chunk of cornbread was smothered in beef and dumplings.

"I like mine with a little oomph," McClure said.

James Davis was fed up with sugar. The three pieces he'd sampled were drowning with the stuff, he said.

"I like it simpler, myself," said Davis, who remembered his mother made cornbread four to five times a week from a recipe she kept in her head.

Unlike Davis, Andy Gibson approved of it all. He rattled off cornbread flavors he enjoys: spicy, unique, sweet, hot.

"There's not too many ways I don't like it," he said, laughing.

Winners were announced shortly before 4 p.m. The Root Cafe took home best cornbread and best side dish in the professional category. Central Arkansas Master Naturalists won the same awards for amateurs.

A panel of judges also gave blue ribbons to The Root Cafe, Sweet Soul, Old Mill Bread, the Capital Hotel and an amateur, Marielle Carbajal.

Like many of those who voted, Austin Daniel concluded that The Root Cafe's cast-iron cornbread topped all else.

The dish was dressed with purple-hull pea relish and shiitake mushrooms, plus a side of collard greens.

"It was nontraditional. Not what I expected out of cornbread," Daniel said.

What he expected from cornbread was "not much," he added. Growing up, the dish was in his dad's repertoire. He made it once a week, and it came out "dense and kind of bland," Daniel said.

With an empty plate and full stomach, Daniel summarized what he'd learned to take back to his dad:

"Up the butter content."

Metro on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: Cornbread fans mob LR's Main; Crowds nibble Southern staple in spicy, sweet, unique forms

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