‘Southern’ Food That Isn’t

Southern Living magazine has long been a go-to source for information on the culture of the South, and food-related articles have always been an important aspect of its content. According to articles on the Southern Living website, key Southern culinary inventions include ambrosia, chicken-fried steak, fried green tomatoes, fried Oreos, Frito pie, pimento cheese, sweet potato casserole, sweet tea, and tater tot casserole. The problem is, when the history of these dishes is examined, it turns out they originate largely in the North and the Midwest, not in the South. For example, while fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, and sweet tea are seen by many today as iconically Southern, they all started off in the North, even if they have come to take on a strongly ‘Southern’ identity.

The following post takes a look at the history of various purportedly ‘Southern’ foods and illustrates the extent to which readers of publications such as Southern Living are being sold a misleading picture of Southern cuisine.

Ambrosia

Southern Living writes: ‘It’s best not to ask too many questions when it comes to this dessert. Just take a bite for the full orange-grapefruit-coconut-cherry-marshmallow experience’.

If you do ask questions about ambrosia’s origins, it’s actually possible it originated in the South, but it was never just a ‘Southern thing’:

We can’t say for sure, but it’s possible ambrosia first appeared in the South. The earliest written reference to the dish that I’ve been able to find is in an 1867 cookbook entitled Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years, which was written by Maria Massey Barringer of Concord, North Carolina… But recipes for ambrosia were published quite widely in the 1870s in syndicated cooking and household columns that appeared in newspapers from Holton, Kansas, to Newport, Rhode Island, and none of them make any reference to the dish having Southern origins or being particularly popular in the South…

Around World War I, Stephen F. Whitman & Son of Philadelphia introduced “Marshmallow Whip,” a jarred marshmallow product that they advertised widely “for use in preparing dainty desserts with marshmallow flavor.” Whitman’s regularly included in their advertisements recipes for things that could be made with their new product, like ice cream sundaes and grape parfaits. In 1926, in what may have been an early form of paid “native advertising,” the company’s product appeared in a series of syndicated columns providing recipes that incorporated marshmallow whip.

One of them was for ambrosia, and it called for mixing any three or four of a long list of fruits (oranges, grapefruit, bananas, maraschino cherries, grapes, stewed figs, strawberries, and cherries) along with “marshmallow whipped cream,” which was a heaping tablespoon of Marshmallow Whip beaten with one egg white.

Ambrosia is still popular outside the South. For example, here’s ‘lifelong New Englander’ Aimee Tucker, writing for New England Today:

Summer has arrived and cookout season is in full swing here in New England. Along with the picnic table and grill, no outdoor barbecue would be complete without the cluster of side salads alongside the hamburgers and hot dogs, beckoning with sour cream and mayonnaise-y goodness. For me, the most memorable (and visually jarring) of the bunch was always the bowl of Ambrosia Salad…

I’m calling it Ambrosia Salad here, but this version of the dish also goes by the name Five Cup Salad (since it uses five cups of each ingredient), and a host of other quirky names depending on where you grew up or how creative your mother was. Mine, for example, called it Sun Salad.

Chicken-Fried Steak:

Southern Living includes this dish on a list of ‘delicious Southern foods the rest of the world finds disgusting, or, at the very least, incomprehensible’. It also includes chicken-fried steak on a list of ‘iconic Southern dishes’, stating: ‘Most agree that this glorious chicken-fried creation should be dubbed the national treasure of Texas’.

Food scholar Robert Moss, who writes for Southern Living himself, debunks this claim:

Try as I might, I couldn’t find any evidence in the printed record suggesting that chicken-fried steak was brought to Texas by German immigrants in the 19th century. It didn’t evolve out of home cooks’ efforts to make do with lowly ingredients, either. In fact, chicken-fried steak didn’t originate in Texas at all.

Instead, chicken-fried steak is a product of early-20th-century commercial kitchens in Kansas and Colorado, where it was a popular restaurant dish. Like a Midwestern transplant who moves to Dallas and dons a 10-gallon hat, chicken-fried steak did eventually take on a strong Texas identity, but that didn’t occur until the 1970s.

Indeed, chicken-fried steak remains popular throughout the Midwest, particularly in Oklahoma, where, in 1988, the state legislature placed the dish on the official Oklahoma State Meal list.

Fried Green Tomatoes

According to Southern Living, this is a ‘classic Southern recipe’. However, the famous film notwithstanding, its true origins lie in the North. Robert Moss explains:

Fried green tomatoes are by no means a Southern dish at all. By all accounts, they entered the American culinary scene in the Northeast and Midwest, perhaps with a link to Jewish immigrants, and from there moved onto the menu of the home-economics school of cooking teachers who flourished in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Fried green tomatoes only really became a ‘Southern’ dish after the 1991 release of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. As the Charleston Food Tours blog acknowledges:

A little more research revealed fried green tomatoes are found in places like upstate New York and Chicago. So, although the movie would have you believe fried green tomatoes are southern to the core, the truth reveals otherwise. No matter what their true history is, southerners have claimed this delicacy as their own…

Fried Oreos

Southern Living tells its readers:

You haven’t lived until you’ve bitten into one of these spheroids of deep-fried dough with a gooey Oreo center. You can find them at any and all Southern state fairs.

You probably can, but this isn’t a Southern invention, unless you’re referring to Southern California. Deep-fried Oreos were first sold by an Armenian-American in San Diego named Charlie Boghosian (his other creations include the Krispy Kreme Chicken Ice Cream Sandwich). Boghosian told Forbes:

The short answer for how I started inventing and creating unique fair foods is that I wanted to stand out. In a lineup of food stands you needed to have something different and I thought chicken – although very good tasting – is boring. To get the customers’ attention, I invented deep-fried Oreos. I had no idea what I did at the time until the media kept asking me what is next! 

Frito Pie

Southern Living claims: ‘Another marvel of Southern culinary ingenuity—who knew a bag of Fritos could be the base of a savory pie?’

Actually, the Frito Pie is a marvel of corporate marketing. Houstonia Magazine notes that ‘New Mexicans think it was invented in Santa Fe; Texans, in San Antonio’. However, Houstonia points out, Frito-Lay company records show that ‘the Frito pie as we know it is actually the creation of a corporate test kitchen and not any one individual, one dish among many in a ’50s Frito-Lay recipe booklet that included Frito-kets (salmon croquettes made with Fritos) and Fritos meatloaf’.

Pimento Cheese

Southern Living includes pimento cheese on a list of ‘delicious Southern foods the rest of the world finds disgusting, or, at the very least, incomprehensible’. The magazine notes: ‘Over the years, just three perfectly paired and subtly mixed ingredients—pimientos, Cheddar cheese, and plenty of mayo—have provided our Southern palates measureless joy’.

While it’s true the pimento (or pimiento) cheese is hugely popular in the South, it’s actually a Northern transplant:

No, pimento cheese got its start up North—in New York, in fact—as a product of industrial food manufacturing and mass marketing. Its story is one of redemption, of a wayward factory child adopted by a good Southern family, scrubbed up nice, and invited to Sunday dinner… Commercially-made pimento cheese burst on the market around 1910 and spread quickly across the country. In March 1910, grocers in Minnesota were advertising “Pimiento Cheese—Something New,” and by April papers in North Dakota were running ads offering “Pimento cheese, something new, per jar . . . 20¢.” Within a year, pimento cheese was available as far west as Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico and down South in Alabama and South Carolina, too. Most of the manufacturers appear to have been based in New York or Wisconsin.

Sweet Potato Casserole

Southern Living states: ‘Sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Ok, we admit it: This pair doesn’t make a bit of sense—until you take a bite, that is’.

However, this dish is not specifically ‘Southern’ but is, rather, the result of a savvy early 20th century marketing campaign. In fact:

The first time sweet potatoes and marshmallows are mentioned together is in 1917, in a recipe booklet published by the Angelus Marshmallow company. In an effort to sell more marshmallows, the company hired Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School magazine, to develop recipes using marshmallows. The booklet contained the recipe for “mashed sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping.”

Sweet Tea

Southern Living states:

Ask for tea in the South, and it’s coming to you sweet. If you’re ordering and you want your tea unsweeted, you have to say so. (You’ve been warned.)

However, writes Robert Moss:

The history of sweet tea is a prime example of the process I call “Southernization”—namely, the way in which certain foods and other cultural trappings come to be associated with the region. Some of those associations become so powerful and so prevalent that many Southerners begin to internalize them as integral parts of their identities.

But iced tea didn’t originate in the South. It first achieved popularity in the North, where, in the early days at least, it was often sweetened with sugar. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that iced tea was embraced by Southerners; even then, whether one drank it sweetened or unsweetened was a matter of personal choice, not a question of regional identity. The notion that something can be “as Southern as sweet tea” is a very recent one.

Tater Tot Casserole

Southern Living states:

When you know, you know. And Southerners know that tater tots belong in our casseroles at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, please and thank you.

That may be the case, but Tater Tots were invented in Oregon in 1953 by Ore Ida founders Golden Grigg and F Nephi Grigg. The idea of adding them to casseroles seems to have originated in the upper Midwest and then made its way south. ‘Hotdish‘ (a Midwest casserole) has long been ‘a quick and easy comfort food staple recipe all over the Midwest’, and after their invention, Tater Tots quickly became a popular topping. Amanda Kippert of Taste of Home Magazine writes:

Deeply ingrained in Midwest culture is something fantastic, beloved and covered in Tater Tots… It was a staple on Midwest tables during a certain era, and many would argue it still holds a permanent spot at family get-togethers and church basement lunches today. The 13×9 pan is unmistakable—its signature topping of crisp Tater Tots and enough shredded cheddar cheese to fill one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes hides whatever is beneath like the mystery that it’s meant to be.

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