Southern Food: More Than Just Chicken

Edmund Standing
A photograph found in Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South

Southern food is deeply linked to the culture of hospitality. Celebrated Southern writer John Egerton states:

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.[1]

He explains the background to this:

Whether in the home or in public places, the food traditions that had become a part of Southern culture by the 1940s could be summarized under a single descriptive heading: hospitality. As overworked and ambiguous as the word may have been to many, it had meaning for most Southerners.

It was not a myth, nor was it a hallmark of the rich alone; it was simply the way people were. Twice in their history since the Revolutionary War—in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the depths of the Great Depression—Southerners had known hunger, even starvation, and that knowledge had taught them to enjoy the moment, to feast when food was available, and to keep a wary eye on the future. 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.

While Southern food is perhaps most linked with fried chicken in the popular imagination (and it is, of course, an iconic dish in the South), the cuisine of the region actually contains plenty of variety. To give a few examples:

Fried chicken and catfish, barbecued pulled pork and ribs, bacon, country ham, spicy sausage, shrimp and crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes, grits, cornbread, corn on the cob, tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, sweet potato, rice and beans, black-eyed peas, collard greens, green beans, butter beans, kidney beans, barbecue baked beans, fried pickles, fried okra, coleslaw, potato salad, potato wedges, cheese straws, pimento cheese spread, macaroni cheese, peanuts, peanut butter, gravy, mustard, relishes, hot sauces, peaches, watermelon, Mississippi mud pie, fruit cobblers, fruit pies, sweet potato pie, banana pudding, coconut cake, chocolate cake, spiced fig cake, bread pudding, bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, Southern Comfort, sweet iced tea, cola, root beer, ginger ale, lemonade, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper…

Southern chef and food writer Bill Neal observes:

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 corn bread) 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.[2]

This love of vegetables ties in with the universal popularity of gardening in the South.

Drew A. Swanson, of the University of Georgia, writes:

Backyard gardening remains a popular avocation throughout the South. Each year, gardens across the region fill with classic Southern vegetables such as okra, sweet corn, hot peppers, sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and purple-hull peas and flowing plants such as camellias, old-fashioned roses, daffodils, and jasmine. These outdoor spaces reinforce connections between Southerners, their agricultural past, and the present.[3]

And Deborah Boykin of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture notes:

Vegetable gardens are a common sight on the Southern landscape, found just about anywhere someone can get a tomato plant to live in a container. For generations, Southern families have relied on kitchen gardens to supply their food. Corn, peas, squash, turnip greens, tomatoes, beans, and many of the other staples of Southern cooking are grown in rural fields, small backyard plots, and community gardens throughout the region. As Southerners moved to urban areas to seek work, they brought their gardens with them, planting vegetables to feed their families – fresh in the summer, canned in the winter. It would be an overstatement to say that every Southerner has a vegetable garden, but the tradition of raising one’s own vegetables remains strong in the South.[4]


References:

[1] https://www.southernfoodways.org/scholarship/southern-food-primer/

[2] https://www.southernfoodways.org/scholarship/southern-food-primer/

[3] Drew A. Swanson (2011) ‘Gardening’, in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 16: Sports and Recreation (The University of North Carolina Press).

[4] Deborah Boykin (2010) ‘Gardening’, in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 14: Folklife (The University of North Carolina Press).

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