A History of Southern Food

by Angela Garrison Zontek

Southern food is a living record of the people, places, and cultures that have contributed to the evolving landscape of our unique little corner of the world. Too complex and varied to ever achieve a conclusive origin story, the history of Southern food is best examined by considering its major influences—the integration of cultures, natural bounty, and love for the community.

Collision of Culture

Southern food was born from a loud, explosive collision of culture. Different ingredients, both animal and plant, were thrust upon the Southern United States during the birth of our nation, shaping the regions culinary future, and defining the Southern states more so than any other part of the country. While the influences upon Southern cuisine are many, there are three major cultures to consider—Native American, West African, and European.

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Southern skillet cornbread

The Native Americans, of course, introduced corn—in all its wondrous forms—to the world. The making of cornbread and hoecakes, two of the most famous southern staples, was a technique passed on from the Native American to the enslaved worker in the Southern fields. The art of salting and frying meat for preservation was another skill the Native American bestowed upon the slaves. The technique of frying was used to crisp the outer skin of wild game, such as rabbits and squirrels, which would preserve the meat, allowing for the saving or storing for future meals.  Salted cuts of meat, not intended for consumption, were used to preserve pots of vegetables, like greens.

The fact that this type of preservation also seasoned the food, making it delicious, was nothing more than a glorious and happy accident. The hallmarks of Southern cooking, as it turns out, were born from survival techniques—frying and salted meats kept people alive.

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Southern fried okra

The West African slaves brought new methods of cooking and an interesting vegetable unknown to the region—okra.  These men and women, strangers in a strange land, continued to practice their native art of stewing, and the one-pot meal, giving way to the prized and famed Southern dish we know today as gumbo. The West Africans practiced a diet consisting mainly of vegetables, fowl, and fish in their homeland. They favored the clean and simple combination of vegetables, grains, and fish. The West African influence is reflected today in the most traditional of Southern dishes; Georgian Shrimp and Grits or a Carolina Low Country Boil are great examples of this type of simplicity.

The Europeans introduced pork to the South, and the rest of the Americas, by way of bringing over the first swine to the states.  Pork’s popularity spread like a wildfire across all cultural boundaries, placing the pig in high demand. While the wealthy elite did their best to reserve the raising of swine for the upper crust, they could not prevent the stealing away of piglets by those less fortunate, and eventually, pig farming became something that transcended all classes. Pork quickly became a staple in the preparation of Southern meals.

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Collard greens

Living Off The Land

As the rest of America progressed through industrialization, the South remained dependent on the fickle economics of agriculture. Much of the population struggled to survive, which gave rise to alternative ways of finding food.

Foraging became something of a necessity for those who could not afford the produce at markets, or whose own crops had failed, and those who perfected the art of foraging fed their families all year long. Greens, like the infamous poke sallet and pig fern, are abundant in the South, and the harvesting of these weeds has become something of a storied tradition—if not a slightly dangerous cultural practice, considering the meticulous preparations required to make these plants edible (one has to cook the poison right out.).

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Muscadine grapes

Berries, such as wild strawberries and blackberries, are abundant during certain times of the year, but it’s the muscadine that proves to be the heartiest and most dependable for the forager. The muscadine is also beloved for its friendly fermentation process. Muscadine wine is still considered a great Southern pleasure and is enjoyed all over the country.

The impoverished of the south were fortunate to have more than just free, edible vegetation, as the creeks were full of crawdads – crawdaddies, crayfish, or even creek bugs, take your pick! Whatever you choose to call them, these crustaceans are still highly prized as ingredients in Southern stews and gumbos, and often thrown on the grill at BBQs.

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The connection to the land, to what is seasonal and accessible, is a driving force behind most Southern dishes. Greens and berries still play a huge role in the South’s culinary landscape and compliment the game and foul native to the region.

Community

Survival was an important influence on Southern cuisine. However, one cannot discount the impact of lifestyle. BBQ, for example, may have been brought over by the Spanish conquistador from the Caribbean, but the culture of BBQ was born in the South.

Hogs were expensive and the butchering process was difficult and laborious. It became common for families to raise their hogs together in a collective and share the chores of slaughter. Communities would convene for this event and share meals along with the work. Thus, the Southern BBQ was born. These seasonal events evolved into parties that solidified the bonds of friendship and family.

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Southern BBQ

Perhaps the most recent advent of community and food in the south is the urbanized brunch. Here in the south, especially in cities like Atlanta, brunch has become more than a meal, or social gathering, but a sacred communion of good food, good friends, and good times. With origins most likely from across the pond, brunch became famous in the states during the early days of Hollywood. As the beautiful people traveled cross country by train out of Los Angeles, they found themselves pulling into Chicago an hour shy of lunch. The privileged enjoyed a lavish meal, a brunch, served with a celebrational tone that still rings true today. The brunch ideal gained a footing in the south as an after church gathering for ladies.

Groups of women, usually discussing social club or church business, attended brunches sans family and children, allowing them to capitalize on the opportunity to go full-frontal-fancy. To accommodate their Sunday best, with gloved hands and all, the food was served in dainty portions, and the general feeling was overtly formal. Southern brunch remains a highly elevated meal. Fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and frilly cocktails, all served on white linens, is still very much the expectation.

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The Future of Southern Food

Southern food is special because of the people who cook it and the culture that continues to preserve it. Its roots run strong, deep, and sometimes, terribly crooked. Perhaps it is the complexity of Southern food, the mix of historic tradition, both good and bad, coupled with modern innovation, that has spurred the recent demand for Southern cuisine in cities across America. The future of Southern food will be shaped by this interest, as once again, our cuisine collides with new people and new cultures.

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