Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctly characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.” – John Edgerton, Southern Food
While it can be said that any regional cuisine plays a part in defining the culture of its region, cooking and Southern food really does define Southern culture in a way that perhaps no other cuisine does. Homestyle Southern cooking is an art and a way of life that ties family together, ties you to the land, and invokes a kinship among the region. I can go anywhere in the US or in the world and become friends with a fellow southerner over sweet iced tea and fried chicken and biscuits. John T. Edge, in his chapter on food in Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Handbook writes that “[a]s the nation urbanizes, as strip malls, cul-de-sacs, and other nowheres spread, the South appears the region where farm-to-table eating is a way of life, not a marketing concept, and food carries the weight of history” (3-4). Having lived in many different countries and experienced very different cuisines–from the cassava and greens dishes of Central Africa, fish and chips in Britain, and bratwurst in Germany– nothing quite compares to how integral homestyle cooking–Soul food–is to the Southern American’s psyche.
Southern food enjoys a rich heritage that is a blend and distant relative of many cuisines…just as diverse as the ancestral heritage of the people that cook the food. While there are certainly differences between states (and even sections of those states), I would like to explore the topic in more general terms. In modern parlance, the moniker “soul food” is typically used to describe African American cuisine in the South, but it is true that whites and blacks in South enjoy many of the same dishes and it is certainly comfort food to them (the original definition).
Region and Influences
Geographically speaking, the cuisine of the American South is bound to the states south of the “Mason-Dixon line” and west to Arkansas and Louisiana. Usually other border states surrounding that area such as Kentucky, Texas, Florida, Virginia are included in this designation. Keep in mind however that there are many subregions within the South and each of these has its distinguished culture. Folks from the coal hills of Kentucky are unique to their region as the rural folks from the piney-woods of Georgia or those from the Virginia Tidewater. While many of their dishes are different from those other regions, some things remain the same.
Some of those border or outlying states even have ingredients in their cuisine that are very different than other states in the South. For example Texas cuisine mingles southern food with Southwestern or Mexican dishes, some regions of Florida use Cuban influences, and Louisiana utilizes French creole cuisine with regular southern dishes.
Southern cuisine has many diverse influences that demonstrate the rich culture and history of the region. Many styles of cooking and even its ingredients, come from a very ancient tradition native to this land. The prominence of corn, tomatoes, and slow cooked pit barbeque pork (or other meat) in this region comes from the Native Americans. The Native Americans taught us how to grow, prepare and eat corn as well as many other native plants such as tomatoes,sweet potatoes, peppers, beans and peas, and squashes. Today, these vegetables are staples in the Southern diet, especially the use of pork and corn.
From Europe, especially the British Isles, we have the traditions of big fry-up breakfasts and baked dishes. The Southern tradition of deep frying or pan-frying just about anything comes from Scotland. We fry chicken, fish, and game (many enjoy squirrels and frog-legs) and make simple breads from corn. We also eat a simple porridge made from corn called grits. While traditional European grains such as barley, wheat or oats do not grow as well here, our ancestors from the British Isles took what they knew and used new ingredients. Today, it is not uncommon for Southern families to have roast dinners on Sunday with roast pork or beef alongside very southern dishes like stewed collard greens, black-eyed peas or squash.
France has had a huge impact on the culture and cuisine of Louisiana. John Egerton also writes, “If there is a single dimension of Louisiana food that sets it apart from cooking elsewhere in the South, it is without a doubt the French connection. The first eighty years of French control set the pattern, and all the subsequent influences were additions, not replacements. Other Southern states manifest the historical presence of English, Scotch-Irish, or Spanish cultures; only Louisiana is clearly a child of France—and nowhere is that parentage more evident than in the kitchen.” (Southern Food). Complete with roux and andouille sausage, Creole and Cajun cuisine are unique to this region of the South.
While southern cuisine has definite European and Native American influences, its greatest influence has come from Africa. Okra is often used in southern dishes from the bayou to tidewater and it comes straight from the African coast. In fact, the word gumbo ( a stew made from okra, tomatoes, and meat or seafood ) is an African word for okra and is made all over the South. Rice is also a staple ingredient in many coastal areas such as New Orleans cuisine and the Carolinas and Georgia Lowcountry and harkens back to ante-bellum days when slaves worked in the rice fields of the coast. Many of the spices that we use in our cuisine are also African as well as our use of stewed greens, whether collard or turnip greens. Having lived in Africa and dined on African cassava greens, I can attest to that. Melons are also a staple among southerners, especially during the hot summer months when nothing is better than a sweet slice of watermelon or cantaloupe.
Examples of dishes
Southern cuisine has a wide variety of dishes that could easily fill a nice sized encyclopedia but here are a few to get your mouth watering. While many Americans all over the nation would eat toast or cereal for breakfast, there are some of us here in the South who like to do a “proper” breakfast that would be very similar to an English fry-up. An example of a hearty Southern breakfast would be bacon or sausage (streaky bacon), grits ( something like porridge except made from corn), eggs (most often scrambled and often doctored up with cheese), and biscuits (a quick bread like scones but not sweet). Sometimes we make a white gravy (made from sausage drippings and flour), sometimes called Sawmill gravy, to pour over the biscuits or, if we are in the mood for country ham in the morning, we will make red-eye gravy which is made from ham drippings and coffee.
While America is overflowing with big shopping plazas and fast food restaurants, there are a few places and many homes in the South where you can get “real country cookin’” for lunch, supper, or dinner. Fried chicken and sweet iced tea is a mainstay throughout much of the South (though sweet tea may not be found in some parts of Louisiana, Florida, or Virginia). The wide variety of vegetables in a given meal is also a feature of Southern cuisine. Bill Neal observes in Southern Cooking, “Whatever the source, the variety of fresh vegetables on the Southern table is staggering. Any one meal may present fried okra, corn, butter beans, sweet potatoes, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, coleslaw, cantaloupe. Such wealth often eclipses any meat served; by midsummer all vegetable meals (with biscuits or cornbread) are common. By the time the pickled beets, green tomato relish, pepper relishes, bread-and-butter pickles are out, the meal is a celebration of endless combinations, textures, and flavors—the hallmark of Southern cooking.”
Southerners also have a bit of a sweet tooth. Whether it’s that sugary, slightly tangy elixir we call sweet tea (often simply called “tea” in many areas) or melt-in-your-mouth divinity or buttery rich pound cake, Southerners will gladly put a heaping bit of whatever dessert momma baked in addition to the feast you just ate. Many sweet carbonated drinks also hail from the South, most notably Coca-Cola from Atlanta, Georgia.
Barbecued pork is a regional favourite and can often instigate some intense rivalry between regions, especially in regard to sauce. While pork is universally used throughout the South, slow cooked pork over wood coals or in barbecue pits is a favourite in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Differing regions use different styles of sauces–vinegar based sauces in the North Carolina tidewater, mustard based sauces in the South Carolina midlands, and a tomato based sauce in Georgia. And these regions are fiercely zealous about their way of making barbecue sauce. Barbecue has become such a huge thing in the South that there are BBQ restaurants in most towns and many of them boast of being the best in the state. Side dishes are also a main crowd pleaser at such institutions with diners filling their plates with macaroni and cheese, cornbread, fried okra, hash and rice, collard greens, black-eyed peas, lima beans, and denizens of other savoury goods. Many BBQ restaurants also offer other meats such as fried or barbecued chicken, fried catfish, chicken livers, or brisket. You will never see so much food in all your life as in a southern BBQ restaurant.
Role in culture and family
Southern cuisine which is often known for being greasy or finger-lickin’ good, is truly an heritage that many have passed down through the generations. Mothers pass down to daughters their age-old recipes and techniques. One of those techniques, which is integral to Southern cooking is the use of the cast iron skillet. John T. Edge writes in his book A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South, “Each time a Southern cook hefts a skillet to the stovetop, he or she is not alone. Trapped within the iron confines of these skillets and stewpots are the scents and secrets of a family’s culinary history. Burnished black by countless batches of fried chicken and catfish, embossed in inky ebony by the crusts of cracklin’ cornbread past, cast iron cooking utensils are meal memories in and of themselves. …As porous as they are heavy, cast-iron skillets absorb and impart flavor with each dish prepared. …By way of this strange and thoroughly Southern alchemy of seasoning, the basest of metals is transformed into a treasure rivaled only by the fabled Southern family silver. Like a good country ham or a single-barrel bourbon, cast-iron only improves with age.” On many occasions, I have watched in awe as my father uses his cast-iron skillet to make everything from gravy to sweet creamed corn or grilled cheese sandwiches, each item bursting with flavor that can only be imparted by the cast iron.
Food is certainly something that unites this region and gives it an identity. The South has known famine and starvation twice in our nation’s brief history- once in the years after the Civil War and again during the Great Depression. John Egerton writes, “Among all the classes—those who had plenty and those who had nothing and all the others in between—food was a blessing, a pleasure, a cause for celebration. The tradition of hospitality, of serving large quantities of good things to eat to large numbers of hungry people, of sharing food and drink with family and friends and even strangers, proved to be a durable tradition in the South, outliving war and depression and hunger.” (Southern Food). The South is definitely known for hospitality and that is often coupled with good home-cooked meals. One thing I have noticed as I’ve grown up and continue to live in the South, is that when there is some kind of serious event for someone in the community, whether it’s a birth or a death, people come round bringing food for that family.
Southern food, with all of its differences and influences, is a unique cuisine that unites the people to the land and to one another. Historically, the South was (and in some places still is) the poorest region in America due to the last impact of the American Civil War and Reconstruction and the doom of crop failure during the Great Depression. Today, better agricultural methods and a newfound desire to go back to the land have joined with gourmet kitchens to create a niche market that caters to the New South, in burgeoning cities like Atlanta, Charlotte or Chattanooga. Those cities and the country lands between flock to the old-style kitchens and restaurants, stirring up a renaissance in Southern cooking that has everyone from hipsters to New York editors making pilgrimages to find the secrets of Southern cuisine. Famous Southern cuisine is thankfully no longer just known as Bojangles and KFC. Thanks to magazines such as Southern Living Magazine and Garden & Gun Magazine, there are hundreds of articles highlighting dozens of fantastic new restaurants that have revolutionized Southern dishes. But still, just about everywhere you go, you’ll find men pulling tomatoes fresh from the vine along with corn, beans, and squash and bringing them in for Mama to cook. Even with all the New Southern cooking, it’s good to see well-worn cast iron skillets in the house and fresh sliced tomatoes on the table. It may be simple but it’s finger-lickin’ good!