‘Pawns of Monsanto’? Farmers Challenge the Narrative

Dave Walton is ‘a full-time farmer in Cedar County, Iowa, growing GM and non-GM corn, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture on about 500 acres of the world’s most productive soil’. He states: ‘I’m no pawn of Monsanto‘:

If you believe many of the cyber-arguments, the seed and chemical company Monsanto has control over what farmers do, say, plant, etc. I’ve been told by denizens of the online forums that Monsanto “controls” farmers…

There are no seed company minions running around out here in the countryside telling us what to do. Sorry to disappoint some, but it simply does not happen. If someone from Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, whomever would come into my office and tell me what to do, he would likely get a tongue lashing that would make a sailor blush, then summarily be told were to put that opinion, and to get the hell out or be removed. By me. Without a shadow of a doubt this would happen, and has.

Read the whole post here.

Greg Peterson, of the Peterson Farm in Kansas, writes:

There is a general feeling on the internet of “poor farmers being under Monsanto’s control.” In reality, nearly every farmer you talk to recognizes that Monsanto is just another big agricultural company who they can *choose* to buy seeds or chemicals from. There will definitely be some farmers that don’t like Monsanto, simply because they make a lot of money and charge a lot for their products, but farmers continue to buy Monsanto products because they are the best option for their farm, not because they are being forced to in any way.

Read the full post here.

Brian at The Farmer’s Life states: ‘I raise corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat on an Indiana farm with my dad and grandpa’. He writes:

I’m a family farmer, and I have signed a Monsanto contract. I’m the 4th generation to work this land. Somewhere along the line the idea corporations control farms or farmers are slaves to “Big Ag” came about. People claim that we are beholden to corporations like Monsanto and have to sign unfair contracts to be privileged enough to use their seed. They’ll also claim that the contracts rope us into buying other inputs like insecticides and herbicides from the same company. We get a lot of our seed from agribusinesses like the “evil” Monsanto so I’d like to other you my thoughts on this issue…

Read the full post here.

Jenny Dewey Rohrich is the wife of a sunflower farmer in North Dakota. In a piece for the Huffington Post (hardly a bastion of support for Monsanto), she poses the question, ‘Do Have Farmers Have Choices?’ Rohrich writes:

There seems to be a consensus going around that farmers have no choice when it comes to the seed they choose to plant. Or if they do have a choice, large corporations like Monsanto force it upon them. And if anybody tries to voice their opinion and let the farmer’s themselves speak upon their choices, the individual suddenly becomes a pawn for Monsanto.

She then goes on to speak to actual farmers and get their viewpoints. It’s a fascinating read:

Out of every single farmer I surveyed, 100% said they felt like they have a choice when it comes to the seed they plant. Not one farmer surveyed felt pressured into choosing a certain kind of seed, but instead felt like they have a good variety of seed to choose from and that they were free to choose however they wished. One farmer responded, “Just as you have the choice on what seeds to purchase from your favorite garden store, we have the choice on what we want to buy from our favorite seed salesman.”

Rohrich asks: ‘If somebody accused you of being a pawn for a large corporation because of the seeds you choose, how would you respond to that?’ Here’s one of the responses:

I would invite them to do the research with me. First we go through the list of potential seed candidates every year comparing conventional, GM, and hybrids. Then we compare yields, cost per acre to keep plants alive, and then we throw in the variables: drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, early frosts, and untimely rains during harvest. If they could come up with a perfect seed variety after comparing the hundreds of varieties available from the hundreds of corporations and mom-and-pop seed companies, THEN I’d listen to them.

Read the whole post here.

See also Layla Katiraee’s post ‘Dissecting claims about Monsanto suing farmers for accidentally planting patented seeds’.

The Myth of Christian America

It is often noted that the United States of America is a unique outlier among the developed nations of the West in regard to its intense Christian religiosity. While church pews have emptied across Europe, America retains a strong Christian identity and church attendance rates vastly higher than those seen elsewhere in the West. However, when the Christianity of Americans is looked at more closely, it becomes clear that America is not simply the last bastion of an otherwise moribund Christian civilisation, but is, rather, a nation with a unique form of Christianity that actually bears little relationship to the Christianity that once thrived elsewhere in the West. American Christianity is arguably a religion in its own right, and is often only superficially connected to the broader historical traditions of Western Christianity.

From its founding, America’s relationship with Christianity was always somewhat awkward. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to state that Americanism as an ideology was never truly rooted in a Christian conception of the world. Obviously, Americans have historically, in large numbers, identified as Christian and seen the Bible as a central authoritative text, but the founding philosophy of America, along with the associated essentially materialistic and this-worldly notion of the ‘American Dream’, point to a worldview that represents a significant break with historical Christianity.

In the United States Declaration of Independence, we read of the ‘unalienable rights’ that are said to have been given by the Creator, and ‘that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This triune formula has arguably come to represent the core of the American ideology, and lies at the heart of the ‘American Dream’, in which free individuals are able to pursue both happiness and the material prosperity which is seen to underpin it. The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and then edited by the Committee of Five. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ features both in Jefferson’s original draft and in the final Declaration, so this concept was widely accepted from the outset. Jefferson, while a religious man, was far from an orthodox Christian:

While Jefferson was a firm theist, the God in which he believed was not the traditional Christian divinity. Jefferson rejected the notion of the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. He rejected Biblical miracles, the resurrection, the atonement, and original sin (believing that God could not fault or condemn all humanity for the sins of others, a gross injustice). In neither the eighteenth century nor today would most people consider a person with those views a “Christian.”

This is significant, in that the author of a key concept in the American ideology was himself only somewhat Christian in outlook. The notion that the message of the New Testament is one of pursuing worldly happiness is clearly false. We find warnings not to store up worldly treasures (Matthew 6:19–20; Luke 12:33) and Christians are told that they will suffer and be hated on account of their faith (Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 10:22; John 15:18-19), not that Christianity will result in people being wealthy and happy in this world. Christians are told that they do not belong to the world (John 15:19), that they cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), and that they should not worry about worldly concerns (Matthew 6:25-34). All of this is deeply incompatible with an ideology of worldly happiness and also with ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone’ (in the New Testament, such a land is found in the Kingdom of God, not in the world). This is not solely a problem in relation to America, for attempting to fit the New Testament’s eschatological proclamation around the mundane realities of a world that carries on turning has been a central theological concern within the churches throughout Christian history. However, there is arguably a particularly stark contrast between the worldview found in the New Testament and the American perception of the virtues of financial success and the acquisition of material possessions. Primitive Christianity preached world-negation and self-denial, whereas Americanism embraces worldly success and the pursuit of worldly happiness.

While American history contains numerous examples of radical Christian movements, failed eschatological proclamations, mass revivals, fiery preaching, and high levels of church attendance, it is wrong to assume that contemporary American Christianity stands in direct continuity either with historical Christianity or even with many manifestations of Christianity found in the history of the United States. If the history of American Christianity has been marked by an uneasy attempt to combine the philosophy of the Declaration with the words of the Bible, it seems clear that today some of the largest manifestations of American Christianity are in fact spiritualised forms of an American ideology that is only tangentially related to what has previously been understood as Christianity.

By way of example, consider the huge popularity of celebrity preachers such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, both of whom fill megachurches, have a large TV audience, and have published numerous successful religious books.

Of his ministry, Osteen states:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.

And Meyer asks:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

Jason Byassee, a United Methodist Church pastor, offers the following critical commentary on Osteen’s best-selling book Your Best Life Now:

Osteen’s book abounds with examples of trivial everyday concerns. Can’t get a green light? Pray with faith, and that light will change. Can’t find a parking place? Claim God’s victory, and see divine favor as someone pulls out and leaves you a space in the front row. Worried that you haven’t found the perfect date, someone like Osteen’s wife (who is, by the way, praying for us as we read her husband’s book, as Osteen promises in an epilogue)? You’ve guessed the answer by now: pray, stay positive, and God will build up the remarkable list of coincidences to have you meet that special person.

While the likes of Osteen and Meyer may seem to be fringe figures in the wider context of American Christianity, their message is arguably far from out of step with much of what contemporary American Christians believe, and have done for some time.

In her 2003 book, Making Virtuous Daughters and Wives: An Introduction to Women’s Brata Rituals in Bengali Folk Religion, June McDaniel cites the work of one of her (American) students who in a test looked at various sub-types of Hinduism and decided which one she preferred. For the student:

The best type was folk religion. People in folk religion cared about being healthy, rich, getting a good husband and having children, having lots of food, and good weather. She said that the church that she attended was just like that – everybody wanted health and wealth and an attractive boyfriend or husband, and prayed for passing tests and getting jobs and winning lawsuits, just like in India. She said that the Christianity she knew was very much like Hindu folk religion.

That the views and experiences of this student are very mainstream amongst American youth was clearly revealed in Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which was the result of an in-depth study of the spiritual worldview of American young people of a variety of backgrounds. Smith writes:

[W]e can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of “Christianity” in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language — and therefore experience — of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

Smith and Lundquist Denton coined the term ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as a name for a group of interconnected beliefs that they found to be common among American teenagers. These beliefs were espoused not only by young Christians, but also by young Jews and Muslims, and are as follows:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

The only substantive differences between Christian and non-Christian forms of this belief lie in church attendance and invoking the name of Jesus when praying for help. Smith notes:

This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist — he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.

In the Christian form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then, Jesus is the non-judgemental, non-demanding butler and therapist to whom the adherent directs his or her requests. This is the Jesus of the likes of Osteen and Meyer; a Jesus who ‘wants us to be happy’ and ‘wants to give us nice things’, not a Jesus who will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, as the Nicene Creed states.

The moral component of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not specifically Christian:

It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.

In other words, being a good American. Smith writes that this belief system ‘effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life’. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, one might say.

Perhaps most significantly, Smith and Lundquist Denton concluded that the embrace of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism among teenagers is not the result of young people rebelling against the religion of their parents, or simply being religiously illiterate, but is in fact in continuity with the beliefs of their parents. Smith explains:

Adults in the United States over the last many decades have recurrently emphasized that which separates teenagers from grown-ups, highlighting things that make each of them different and seemingly unable to relate to each other. But, as reported in our book, Soul Searching, our conversations with ordinary teenagers around the country made the contrary clear to us, that in most cases teenage religion and spirituality in the United States are much better understood as largely reflecting the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and are in strong continuity with it. Few teenagers today are rejecting or reacting against the adult religion into which they are being socialized. Rather, most are living out their religious lives in very conventional and accommodating ways. The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strike us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations, and structures of the larger adult world into which adolescents are being socialized.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees with this assessment, writing:

The “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” that these researchers identify as the most fundamental faith posture and belief system of American teenagers appears, in a larger sense, to reflect the culture as a whole. Clearly, this generalized conception of a belief system is what appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old…

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.

Likewise, Brian Cosby of The Gospel Coalition argues:

MTD isn’t just the problem of youth ministry; it’s the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a “generous host” to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.

Sociologists and Christian leaders alike, then, have identified the fact that millions of church-going Americans, including those who consider themselves to be conservative evangelicals, are believers in a religion which bears little relation to historic Christianity, is not primarily grounded in the Bible, and preaches a message of worldly success and happiness. Repentance and salvation are replaced with niceness, non-judgementalism, and ‘good people going to heaven when they die’; Jesus as divine judge is replaced with Jesus as a best friend who wants to help you to be happy and to give you nice things. Of course, all of this deeply undermines the popular contention that the United States stands out among the Western nations as being the last outpost of fervent Christian belief. Even in the Bible Belt, the notion that we find a deeply Christian population is dubious to say the least, and getting ever more so.

The United States does indeed stand out amongst the Western nations in terms of religious adherence, but the claim that this religion is Christianity (as historically understood) looks increasingly inaccurate. Arguably, many Americans are actively religious and the nation is notably religious as a whole, but large numbers of these religious Americans are followers of a uniquely American faith – a spiritual Americanism. Smith contends that ‘Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith’, but I’m not so sure. Arguably, in fact, this ‘quite different religious faith’ was there from the Founding, in the religious outlook of people like Thomas Jefferson, and it has always been present as Americans have sought to combine their loyalty to Christianity with their loyalty to Americanism and ‘the American way of life’; to find a way to simultaneously love Jesus and to love worldly success and the accumulation of wealth and material possessions. In the tug of war between the Gospel and the pursuit of worldly happiness, it is evidently the case that for many American ‘Christians’, the desire for worldly happiness has won.

While many may mourn the loss of ‘old time religion’, American Christianity (as defined above) is a religion that is far better suited to people living in an increasingly diverse society and is ultimately far more socially ‘useful’, with its focus on fostering good relationships, aspiration, and self-improvement. A ‘nice’ religion may seem toothless and self-indulgent, but if it offers a way for people to experience community and ‘find happiness, security, and meaning in life’, it is far more valuable than a religion based on apocalyptism, a blood sacrifice, and threats of hellfire.

But, it is isn’t Christianity.

The Myth of the Christian South

The South was not always the deeply religious place it is known as today. This was to change after the American Revolution, as evangelists spread out across the region, with great revival meetings making numerous converts. Initially, this was a counter-cultural movement:

Although the American Revolution swept away the institutional structures of the Anglican Church in the South, the itinerant evangelical preachers who subsequently flooded the region at first encountered resistance from southern whites, who were affronted by their opposition to slaveholding and traditional ideals of masculinity, their lack of respect for generational hierarchy, their encouragement of women’s public involvement in church affairs, and their allowance for spiritual intimacy with blacks.

However, in order to become firmly entrenched in the South, the evangelicals eventually shifted from opposition to the status quo to accommodation, thus embedding evangelical Christianity deeply into the life of the region:

[T]hese evangelicals achieved dominance in the region over the course of a century by deliberately changing their own “traditional values” and assimilating the conventional southern understandings of family relationships, masculine prerogatives, classic patriotism, and martial honor. In so doing, religious groups earlier associated with nonviolence and antislavery activity came to the defense of slavery and secession and the holy cause of upholding both by force of arms–and adopted the values we now associate with the “Bible Belt.”

As the Confederacy was formed and the Civil War approached, Christian ministers increasingly presented white supremacy and slavery as being central to God’s plan for the South. The ‘providential trust’ held by the South, stated a South Carolina minister a few weeks before the state seceded, ‘is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing’. As the Civil War raged, another South Carolina minister preached: ‘The triumphs of Christianity rest, this very hour, on slavery; and slavery depends on the triumph of the South’. Slavery and white supremacy, he insisted, were ‘the will of God’. This was fully in line with the ideology of the Confederacy. As Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, stated of the Confederacy in his famous ‘Cornerstone’ speech on March 21 1861:

[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

After the Civil War was lost, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ started to take hold, with the war being presented as having been fought to preserve a unique ‘Southern way of life’. This ideology presented the South as a God-fearing, agrarian land, which stood in opposition to perceived irreligiosity of the industrialising North:

Defenders of a self-consciously “southern” civilization after the Civil War came to use the term “way of life” to indicate an ideological defense of a peculiar pattern of institutions and attitudes associated with the South. Whites saw their system of paternalistic white supremacy as the essence of a southern civilization, but the “way of life” included countless specific attitudes and customs rooted in cultural beliefs and practices and reified as a constructed social identity. Religious institutions and leaders gave a spiritual gloss on the “southern way of life,” infusing it with transcendent significance and blurring the lines between Christianity and southernism. Above and beyond religion’s defense of a self-consciously southern ideology, religion in the South was indeed distinctive within national patterns of religion, and it was a central part of life for many people.

Key elements of the ideology of a ‘Southern way of life’ included the centrality of fervent religious faith, the notion of Southerners being a people of the land, and a lack of interest in secular education. These features of Southern life continue to be clear today. The ‘agrarian myth’ has always been important to how Americans in general view themselves and their history. As Richard Hofstadter noted: ‘This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins’. But perhaps nowhere has this idea been more durable than in the South. David French of National Review, writing in 2018 on ‘What Democrats Don’t Get About the South’, argues that contemporary Southern politics are ‘about the South as it sees itself’. For French:

Southerners love God. They respect the traditions of faith and family–including manners and respect for elders. Southerners are connected to the land.

He explains:

The majority of the people don’t hunt or fish or farm, but they feel connected to people who do. A Tennessee lawyer may never leave a paved road, but he’ll drive a truck that can haul hay. Even people who don’t own guns value the South’s gun culture.

Yet this notion of Southerners being ‘connected to the land’ is founded in a mythical view of the past, as the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:

Although the romantic mythology of the Old South likes to depict planters and plain folk alike as down-home people rooted in the southern soil while transient and money-grubbing Yankees visited the destructive forces of industrial capitalism on the northern landscape, the environmental havoc wreaked by white southerners of all classes was, if anything, greater than that caused by the industrializing North. Extensive soil exhaustion and erosion, deforestation, the hunting of species to near extinction, ramshackle dwellings that reflected the transience of much of the southern population, the preponderance of destructive feral hogs, the often careless use of fire in agriculture – these were the hallmarks of much of white society in the antebellum South.

Another hallmark of the culture of the Old South that has persisted into the modern era is a lack of emphasis on the importance of education. In the antebellum South:

Southern elites showed little interest in public education and and allowed only limited opportunities for advanced schooling beyond their own ranks… Southern elites also remained indifferent to if not opposed to funding primary educational opportunities for those outside the gentry ranks, even as public schools for children proliferated throughout northern states in the early nineteenth century.

Education was for the wealthy elite and was ‘less practical than ornamental’:

The southern gentry’s determination to use education to groom future patriarchs and affirm class status even shaped the curriculum and rituals of university life… Classical studies remained central to most southern universities’ curricula even as scientific and practical instruction supplanted it in European and northern schools.

Where educational opportunities for the lower ranks did exist, they were often sub-standard. Frederick Law Olmsted was appalled by what he found as he travelled across the South in the 1850s. Writing of the ‘ignorance and torpidity’ of the people of North Carolina, he noted:

The teachers are, generally, totally unfitted for their business; young men, as a clergyman informed me, themselves not only unadvanced beyond the lowest knowledge of the elements of primary school learning, but often coarse, vulgar, and profane in their language and behaviour, who take up teaching as a temporary business, to supply the demand of a neighbourhood of people as ignorant and uncultivated as themselves…

This was very different to the situation in the northern states:

In the 1840s, the growth of state funded public education was blossoming in states from Connecticut to Illinois. However, the Southern states did not have a tradition of public education to build on, as the North did, and in fact, it was well after the Civil War before the South legislated for state supported schools.

Needless to state, educational opportunities for blacks in the South were even more dire.

This poor level of education across the board is arguably a factor that contributed to the intense religiosity of the South, for a lack of education can be seen to correlate with a high degree of religious fundamentalism. Looking at the modern South, Alabama and Mississippi are tied for the most religious state in the US, and they are also found within the bottom ten states for high school graduation and higher education. Likewise, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee all make the bottom 10 list for education and the top 10 list for the percentage of adults who are ‘highly religious’. Outside the South, similar correlations can be seen in Oklahoma and West Virginia, both of which appear in the two lists.

Throughout the antebellum period, then, deep religious commitment was a defining feature of the ‘Southern way of life’, and this continued into the postbellum and contemporary eras. Southern religiosity, of course, was not simply about the maintenance of white supremacy or a worldview that filled the void left by a lack of educational opportunities, as it also served an important communal purpose in a largely rural region:

A church, particularly a Southern church, used to be a community center.

It was where you made friends and kept up with friends, where you ate supper on Wednesday nights, played on a softball team, sent the kids after school, fulfilled your community service duties, made business connections, got your musical fix in the choir and maybe joined a reading or knitting club.

And being a part of a church once was, essentially, a status symbol for many people in the South.

The ‘black church’ in particular had a vital communal purpose, providing an oasis from white racism and a focal point for community activities, as well as playing a key role in the Civil Rights movement.

Identifying as a Christian and attending church have long been central to the life of the South, as has the contention that Southerners, inhabiting a large chunk of the ‘Bible Belt’, are deeply committed to family and to ‘traditional morality’. Indeed, a standard stereotypical image of Southerners holds that they are a bunch of Bible-thumping religious zealots, who advocate strict sexual standards, and spend half their lives in church. Increasingly, however, this picture is starting to look very inaccurate. It is worth examining how much contemporary Southern religiosity is actually about a deep ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, and how much of it is largely rooted in cultural norms and regional identity.

Matt Moore, writing for the Christian Post, recounts his experiences of growing up in Louisiana:

I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Almost everyone I knew intellectually assented to the truths of the Bible, had prayed a prayer at some altar in some church as a child, attended worship service regularly, voted Republican, and blessed the food at dinner…

As I continued to see the vast differences between the kind of Christian depicted in the Bible and the kind of Christian I observed in my church-on-every-corner culture, I began to question whether a profession of faith in the Bible Belt really even meant anything…

The lips of these moral, conservative, church-going Southerners knew the Christianese language. Their butts were acquainted with the church pews. They lived in close proximity to the things of God, but their hearts, from my limited perspective, couldn’t have been deader toward the Author of Life.

When Moore came to an evangelical faith himself and started talking to people about Jesus, he found that this did not elicit positive reactions, and that the conservative evangelicals around him ‘seemed utterly disinterested in the actual person of Jesus’.

Moore is far from alone. A 2017 Financial Times article on evangelical support for Donald Trump quotes Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman Baptist minister and emeritus professor of history at Auburn University. The article’s author writes: ‘I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful’:

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality…

Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.

A look at statistical data collected by Pew Research seems to bear this out. In Mississippi, 82% of adults say they believe in God with absolute certainty, although the number who attend church weekly (or claim to) is 49%. 54% of adults surveyed believe homosexuality ‘should be discouraged’ and 61% oppose or strongly oppose gay marriage. 59% believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Despite the sizeable number of Mississippians with strong views on homosexuality and abortion, when it comes to morality in general, there seems to be much more flexibility. Asked about their belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 38% agreed in their existence, but 60% said that ‘right or wrong depends on the situation’. Similarly, 48% of respondents cited non-religious sources for their understanding of right and wrong, such as ‘common sense’ (50% said religion). These are hardly positions we would generally associate with a strict religious worldview, suggesting the high level of religious identification is not linked to an equally high level of pious behaviour. Mississippi ranks highest out of all the states for births to unmarried mothers, second for states with high rates of pregnancy among women aged 15–19, and third lowest for number of married people. It is also the tenth most violent state in the US, and ranks fifth highest for incarceration rate. So, while Mississippi ranks highly for belief in God, and for church attendance, the majority of Mississippians hold morality to be situational, rather than absolute (except when it comes to homosexuality and abortion), and almost half do not cite Christianity as the primary source of their understanding of right and wrong. Heterosexual sex outside marriage, and not being married at all, are clearly seen by many Mississippians as acceptable behaviour, even though this violates the ‘traditional values’ they profess to uphold, and the violence and large prison population stand in contradiction to the notion that Mississippi is a deeply religious place in terms of people living in accordance with Christian moral standards (the long history of religion being used to justify slavery and then segregation also calls into question the notion that Mississippi was even historically especially Christian, except in name).

The statistics follow a similar pattern in neighbouring Alabama (joint most religious state) and Louisiana, with high levels of belief in God, high levels of church attendance, and high levels of commitment to ‘traditional values’ existing side-by-side with a belief that morality is situational, not absolute, high rates of teenage pregnancies and unmarried mothers, high rates of violence, and very large prison populations.

What all of this suggests is that the supposed deep Christian devotion of the South is in fact more a case of a deeply ingrained cultural identity in which claiming a belief in God and certain narrow moral standards, combined with going to church, are for many Southerners essential components of what it means to be ‘Southern’. As David French put it, ‘Southerners love God’. To be ‘Southern’, then is to be Christian, regardless of whether or not that religious affiliation has any significant impact on the way individuals actually live their lives. To be ‘Southern’ is to attend church (even though many admit they do not do so weekly) and – often – to give money to that church (indeed, the claim that the more religious states are more charitable than the less religious states falls apart once donations to churches and religiously-identified organisations are removed from the equation).

Perhaps, rather than viewing the South – and the Deep South in particular – as being uniquely and deeply Christian, it is more accurate to state that the South is uniquely religious. On the white side, that religion most strongly manifests itself as what might be termed ‘Southernism’. It has a God, it has churches, but it is also fundamentally ideologically grounded in the ‘Southern way of life’. This way of life is not inspired by the Bible and by the teachings of Jesus, but is instead nominally Christian and its primary beliefs are more grounded in ‘tradition’ than in the Bible itself. This is how slavery was able to be seen as being a Christian phenomenon and the ‘will of God’; it is how white preachers could give moral credence and a Christian stamp of approval to segregation, and why white Southerners saw no contradiction between expressing devotion to a Jesus who says “Love your neighbour as yourself,” while at the same time treating black Southerners as a sort of subhuman. And today, it is how large numbers of Southerners who identify as evangelical Christians can express a deep devotion to a President who engages in personal attacks, revels in the accumulation of worldly goods, has boasted of his sexual promiscuity, and is manifestly insincere in regard to his supposed ‘Christian’ beliefs.

Meanwhile, on the black side, Southern Christianity manifests itself as a community support network and political advocacy movement wrapped in the garb of religion. That is not to say black Southerners are not very religious, but rather to suggest that this form of Christianity is more based on black identity, black community, and social justice than it is on Biblical notions of sin and redemption. To give an obvious example, the majority of black children are born out of wedlock and raised in single parent households. So, while the ‘black church’ may have many adherents, it is clearly less interested in traditional notions of Christian morality than it is in offering support to black communities and an outlet for joyous singing and dancing.

Ultimately, then, the notion that the South is deeply Christian is debatable to say the least. The South is – overall – still deeply religious, both in terms of professed belief in God and church attendance, and there are various historical and sociological factors that underpin this, but the notion that the South is a key part of a ‘Bible Belt’ rests on a misunderstanding. Despite outward appearances, religion in the South is not Bible religion – it is Southern religion, and indeed it is religion of the South.

Which are the most ‘country’ states in the USA?

In order to determine which US states have the most indicators for the presence of a ‘country’ lifestyle, I have gathered together data on the top 10 states for farms, agriculture, gun ownership, pickup truck ownership, deer hunting, fishing, alcohol consumption, beer consumption, married couples, church attendance, political conservatism, and patriotism. I have chosen these categories based on the kind of phenomena commonly associated with a ‘country’ lifestyle, particularly in the lyrics and marketing of contemporary mainstream country music. You can view the full data, plus a state-by-state breakdown, here.

I have chosen to predominantly look at those states where country music is the most popular genre, looking at other indicators of a ‘country’ lifestyle that are also strongly present.

States where country is most popular music genre (2017 data), and their relationship to country lifestyle indicators:

  • Alabama (4): pickup trucks (2), guns (6), church (2, tied), conservative (2)
  • Alaska (2): alcohol (8), patriotism (7)
  • Arkansas (2): guns (8), conservative (8)
  • Idaho (4): guns (7), alcohol (9), married (2), patriotism (5)
  • Nebraska (3): agriculture (4), beer (7), married (4)
  • New Hampshire (5): guns (3), alcohol (1), beer (1), married (7), patriotism (1)
  • Ohio (4): farms (4), pickup trucks (10), deer hunting (8), fishing (8)
  • Pennsylvania (3): pickup trucks (4), deer hunting (2), fishing (10)
  • Utah (4): church (1), married (1), conservative (9), patriotism (4)
  • Virginia (2): guns (5), church (8)
  • West Virginia (2): church (6, tied), conservative (6)
  • Wisconsin (6): farms (10), agriculture (9), deer hunting (3), fishing (9), alcohol (7), beer (5)

Whiskey and beer continue to make regular appearances in the lyrics of many of the most popular contemporary country songs. For example:

Morgan Wallen’s ‘Whiskey Glasses’ (“Pour me, pour me another round / Line ’em up and knock ’em down”); Chris Young’s ‘Raised on Country’ (“Got some Tennessee in my whiskey / Raise a cup up if you with me”); Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Can’t Say I Ain’t Country’ (“Clock out and go fish just to crack a few”, “You can say I drink too many longnecks…”); Jake Owen’s ‘Down To The Honkeytonk’ (“I’m a local legend on Friday night / Then a Pabst Blue Ribbon, a neon light”); Luke Combs’ ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart’ (“Long-neck ice-cold beer never broke my heart…”).

It’s impossible to listen to a country radio station for long without hearing about boozing, so I’m going to class that as an essential component of the ‘country’ lifestyle. References to church and God are also fairly common, albeit often quite vague and mentioned in passing. Blake Shelton’s ‘God’s Country’ stands out precisely because it is more religiously-themed than the majority of radio country songs. On that basis, I’m going to class religious themes as secondary to other themes, such as drinking.

Consequently, despite Alabama having four ‘country’ indicators, its lack of a drinking culture discounts it from ‘most country’. Ohio has some key country indicators but doesn’t rank highly on drinking or religion, so I’m going to disallow it on that basis.

New Hampshire has a lot of gun-owning married patriots who like to drink beer and liquor. It consequently ranks well for the country identity, which is perhaps surprising given it is one of only six states in which liberals currently outnumber conservatives (even California is split down the middle). However, it’s not high on the lists of states with the most farms and agriculture as a key part of their GDP, so that reduces its ‘country’ status. Still, it’s a strong contender.

Wisconsin ranks highly for farms and agriculture – which are surely absolutely key to a country identity – and many of its citizens like to drink beer and liquor and go out hunting and fishing. On that basis, out of the states where country music is the most popular genre, I’m going with Wisconsin as the most ‘country’ state of all, followed by New Hampshire.

When we take country music being the most popular genre out of the equation, honorary mention must go to Texas, which ranks as follows:

Farms (1), agriculture (3), pickup trucks (9), deer hunting (1), fishing (2), beer (10), church (10).

Really, then, country music listening aside, Texas emerges as the state that most closely resembles the ‘country’ lifestyle and identity, followed closely by Wisconsin and New Hampshire. It’s worth mentioning that Texas has its own very popular genre of country music called ‘Red Dirt’, so it’s hardly lacking in country music allegiance.

Conclusion:

In the final analysis, the most ‘country’ states in the USA are:

  1. Texas
  2. Wisconsin
  3. New Hampshire

If you’re looking for ‘country’, then, you should head to the Southwest, the Midwest, or New England. All of which interestingly debunks the commonly held view that the most archetypally rural or ‘redneck’ region of the United States is the South.

US States Data

Top US states for farms, agriculture, gun ownership, pickup truck ownership, deer hunting, fishing, alcohol consumption, beer consumption, married couples, church attendance, political conservatism, and patriotism.

10 states with the most farms (2018 data):

  1. Texas
  2. Missouri
  3. Iowa
  4. Ohio
  5. Oklahoma
  6. Kentucky
  7. Illinois
  8. California
  9. Minnesota
  10. Wisconsin

[Source]

Top 10 agricultural producing states (2017 data):

  1. California
  2. Iowa
  3. Texas
  4. Nebraska
  5. Minnesota
  6. Illinois
  7. Kansas
  8. North Carolina
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Indiana

[Source]

Gun ownership by state per capita (2017 data):

  1. Wyoming
  2. Washington DC
  3. New Hampshire
  4. New Mexico
  5. Virginia
  6. Alabama
  7. Idaho
  8. Arkansas
  9. Nevada
  10. Arizona
  11. Louisiana

[Source]

10 states with the most pickup trucks (2011 data):

  1. Louisiana
  2. Alabama
  3. Illinois
  4. Pennsylvania
  5. Michigan
  6. Ohio
  7. Georgia
  8. Florida
  9. Texas
  10. California

[Source]

Top 10 states with the highest number of deer hunters (2018 data):

  1. Texas
  2. Pennsylvania
  3. Wisconsin
  4. Minnesota
  5. Michigan
  6. New York
  7. Missouri
  8. Ohio
  9. Oklahoma
  10. Georgia

[Source]

Top ten states for anglers by population (2012 data):

  1. Florida
  2. Texas
  3. New York
  4. Michigan
  5. California
  6. Minnesota
  7. North Carolina
  8. Ohio
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Pennsylvania

[Source]

Top states for alcohol consumption per capita (2016 data):

  1. New Hampshire
  2. Delaware
  3. Nevada
  4. North Dakota
  5. Montana
  6. Vermont
  7. Wisconsin
  8. Alaska
  9. Idaho
  10. South Dakota

[Source]

Top states for beer consumption per capita (2017 data):

  1. New Hampshire
  2. Montana
  3. North Dakota
  4. South Dakota
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Maine
  7. Nebraska
  8. Nevada
  9. Vermont
  10. Texas

[Source]

Top 10 states with the highest percentage of married couples (2017 data):

  1. Utah
  2. Idaho
  3. Wyoming
  4. Nebraska
  5. Iowa
  6. Kansas
  7. New Hampshire
  8. North Dakota
  9. Minnesota
  10. Montana

[Source]

Top 10 states for church attendance (2014 data):

  1. Utah
  2. Alabama + Tennessee
  3. Mississippi
  4. South Carolina
  5. West Virginia + Louisiana
  6. Virginia
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Texas

[Source]

Top 10 most politically conservative states (2019 data):

  1. Mississippi
  2. Alabama
  3. South Dakota
  4. Louisiana
  5. Wyoming
  6. West Virginia
  7. Tennessee
  8. Arkansas
  9. Utah
  10. South Carolina

States where liberals outnumber conservatives (2019 data):

  1. Massachusetts
  2. Hawaii
  3. Vermont
  4. Washington
  5. New York
  6. New Hampshire

[Source]

Top 10 most patriotic states by military and civic engagement (2016 data):

  1. New Hampshire
  2. Wyoming
  3. Vermont
  4. Utah
  5. Idaho
  6. Wisconsin
  7. Alaska
  8. South Carolina
  9. Missouri
  10. Minnesota

[Source]

Breakdown by state:

  • Alabama – pickup trucks (2), guns (6), church (2 tied), conservative (2)
  • Alaska – alcohol (8), patriotism (7)
  • Arizona – guns (10)
  • Arkansas – guns (8), conservative (8)
  • California – farms (8), fishing (5), agriculture (1), pickup trucks (10)
  • Colorado – None
  • Connecticut – None
  • Delaware – alcohol (2)
  • Florida – pickup trucks (8), fishing (1)
  • Georgia – pickup trucks (7), deer hunting (10)
  • Hawaii – None
  • Idaho – guns (7), alcohol (9), married (2), patriotism (5)
  • Illinois – farms (7), agriculture (6), pickup trucks (3)
  • Indiana – agriculture (10)
  • Iowa – farms (3), agriculture (2), married (5)
  • Kansas – farms (2), agriculture (7), married (6)
  • Kentucky – farms (6)
  • Louisiana – pickup trucks (1), church (6 tied), conservative (4)
  • Maine – beer (6)
  • Maryland – None
  • Massachusetts – None
  • Michigan – pickup trucks (5), deer hunting (5), fishing (4)
  • Minnesota – farms (9), agriculture (5), deer hunting (4), fishing (6), married (9), patriotism (10)
  • Mississippi – church (4), conservative (1)
  • Missouri – farms (2), deer hunting (7), patriotism (9)
  • Montana – alcohol (5), beer (2), married (10)
  • Nebraska – agriculture (4), beer (7), married (4)
  • Nevada – guns (9), alcohol (3), beer (8)
  • New Hampshire – guns (3), alcohol (1), beer (1), married (7), patriotism (1)
  • New Jersey – None
  • New Mexico – guns (4)
  • New York – deer hunting (6), fishing (3)
  • North Carolina – agriculture (8), fishing (7)
  • North Dakota – alcohol (4), beer (3), married (8)
  • Ohio – farms (4), pickup trucks (10), deer hunting (8), fishing (8)
  • Oklahoma – farms (5), deer hunting (9), church (9)
  • Oregon – None
  • Pennsylvania – pickup trucks (4), deer hunting (2), fishing (10)
  • Rhode Island – None
  • South Carolina – church (5), conservative (10), patriotism (8)
  • South Dakota – alcohol (10), beer (4), conservative (3)
  • Tennessee – church (2 tied), conservative (7)
  • Texas – farms (1), agriculture (3), pickup trucks (9), deer hunting (1), fishing (2), beer (10), church (10)
  • Utah – church (1), married (1), conservative (9), patriotism (4)
  • Vermont – alcohol (6), beer (9), patriotism (3)
  • Virginia – guns (5), church (8)
  • Washington – None
  • West Virginia – church (6 tied), conservative (6)
  • Wisconsin – farms (10), agriculture (9), deer hunting (3), fishing (9), alcohol (7), beer (5)
  • Wyoming – guns (1), married (3), conservative (5), patriotism (2)

 

Foods of the Old South

Today, ‘Southern food’ is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon. Thanks in large part to the ubiquity of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain (it has franchises in 141 countries and territories around the world), with its explicitly ‘Southern’ identity and marketing campaigns, fried chicken is well-known as an iconically Southern dish. In recent years, pulled pork has also taken the world by storm, and people are increasingly aware of the existence of Southern barbecue, in part thanks to popular TV shows such as ‘Man v. Food’. Cajun spice blends, jambalaya, and other ‘Southern’ foods are also widely available in supermarkets here in the UK, where we are encouraged to ‘experience the authentic taste of the deep south’ and ‘cook up the taste of the deep south’. According to a 2017 news article, Britons consume more than 1m litres of bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys a month.

Southern food is commonly presented as ‘down-home cooking’ and as the food of the masses. However, looking at the history of a number of iconic dishes which date back to the Old South, it becomes clear that the ‘down-home’ image is a relatively recent construct. In the Old South, the home cooking of the majority of Southerners would be distinctly unappetizing to the modern palate. Far from feasting on plates piled high with fried chicken and biscuits, or succulent barbecue, served alongside large glasses of sweet tea, most Southerners outside elite planter circles ate very plain food. As John B. Boles writes:

Much nonsense has been written about Southern food and Southern cooking. Contemporary travelers noted again and again the monotonous sameness of the cuisine, with corn and pork, always too greasy, served in the absence of vegetables (and Southerners particularly disliked salads) and washed down with dreary substitutes for coffee.

And most Southerners were not enjoying sweet potato pies and other rich deserts. A typical account of life in 1730s Virginia, written by a carpenter’s son, recalls that sugar was ‘rarely used’ in cooking.

When the Reverend Charles Woodmason, an Englishman, toured the South Carolina backcountry in 1766 on an evangelism mission, he repeatedly commented in his diary with obvious horror regarding the cuisine of the poor whites he encountered:

[N]othing to refresh me, but water – and their provisions I could not touch – all the cookery of these people being exceedingly filthy, and most execrable.

And the next day:

I was almost tired in baptizing of children — and laid myself down for the night frozen with the cold without the least refreshment, no eggs, butter, flour, milk, or anything, but fat rusty bacon, and fair water, with Indian corn bread, viands I had never before seen or tasted.

This is clearly far from the kind of food most people think of when they hear the words ‘Southern food’. Much of what we now know as such only became widely available in the South relatively recently, and was previously available only to the rich. In the following post, I shall look briefly at various foods of the Old South that are still eaten today, looking at their origins and at who actually ate them.

Cornbread and Grits:

Cornbead and grits were Native American foods that from the very earliest days of the South were embraced by the British settlers. They have, therefore, a heritage in the South that even predates the founding of the colonies. These foods were eaten by all social classes in the Old South, where wheat bread was a rarity largely reserved  for the wealthy elite.

Fried chicken:

Despite widely spread online myths about the origins of fried chicken being found in the meeting of a Scottish dish and African spices, when the history of fried chicken in the South is examined in detail, it becomes clear that this dish actually has its origins in the kitchens of England’s wealthy elite. While fried chicken is now a form of cheap ‘fast food’, in the Old South it was a luxury enjoyed by the planter elite. Until the rise of modern farming methods, chickens were not widely consumed, as they were a valuable source of eggs. To be able to enjoy the eating of chicken was a sign of wealth. As Robert Moss points out, ‘[i]t’s hard to remember today, but before World War II, chicken was a metaphor for prosperity’. Moss notes that a 1928 Republican Party advertisement touted the success of its administration by stating:

Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial ‘chicken in every pot.’ And a car in every backyard, to boot.

Fried chicken now became available to all.

Biscuits:

Biscuits have their origins in the British Isles, and in the Old South they were seen as a delicacy. Far from a food eaten as part of a labourer’s morning breakfast, biscuits, being made from wheat, were largely consumed by the planter elite. Biscuits only began to be widely consumed in the South at the turn of the 20th century. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:

As a result of increased wheat production and new milling methods, the great flour mills of the Midwest brought the price of flour down so low that even relatively poor Southerners could afford it. Even comparatively prosperous farmers or townspeople had seldom eaten wheat bread before the Civil War, but by 1900 what flour biscuits had become as common as cornbread. People ate huge quantities of biscuits. Many farmers bought one or more barrels of flour before the onset of winter weather isolated them from the store.

By the 1910s, some Southerners began to reject cornbread altogether:

Southerners know “all about cornbread,” as one journalist in an Alabama paper put it, but “some may timidly deny their knowledge and understanding of it, having become biscuit-proud… [A] North Carolina woman explained that she and her family did not like cornbread because people “of the Old South” preferred white flour biscuits.

Even today, there is in the South a largely good-natured debate over the merits of biscuits vs. cornbread. As Birmingham, Albama-based writer Jennifer V. Cole put it in one such debate:

Biscuits represent the aspirational quality of the South. To be able to get flour, leaveners, buttermilk, butter, and the refrigeration necessary to keep them—that signified that you’d made it.

Barbecue:

The eating of barbecue pork goes back to earliest days of the South, but, unlike today, this wasn’t something that people of all social classes could eat at a back-road barbecue joint, nor was it originally a specifically Southern phenomenon. In the Colonial era, English settlers observed and copied the barbecuing methods of Native Americans and the barbecue became a popular social event in elite circles. Drawing on an already-existing elite English love of smoked meats and the eating of whole hogs at banquets, wealthy English settlers throughout the British North American colonies began to hold barbecues, using their black slaves to cook and season the meat (hence the long-running association between barbecue and African Americans).

Barbecues were especially suited to the Southern states, which had an abundance of pigs (introduced by English settlers) and a hospitality culture rooted in the customs of wealthy Virginians. After the Revolutionary period, barbecues eventually fell out of favour in the North, perhaps in part because of the association that had developed in the South between barbecues and all-day heavy drinking, dancing, and hedonistic behaviour. As with fried chicken and biscuits, then, barbecue was a food enjoyed by the planter elite at their exclusive social gatherings and it is only relatively recently that barbecue has become an everyday food in the South.

See my post on the history of Southern barbecue for references and further information.

Hoppin’ John:

Hoppin’ John is a rice and beans-based dish that was introduced into the diet of Southern whites by African slaves. In the South, it has its roots in the South Carolina Lowcountry and, from there, spread across the South. Food scholar Robert Moss writes:

That technique of cooking rice and beans together was African in origin, and it spread to every part of the Americas that had a significant African presence. Each location developed its own distinctive rice and bean dishes—the Moros y Cristianos of Cuba (made with black beans), the Pois et Riz Collé of Louisiana (made with red beans), and the Hoppin’ John of the South Carolina Lowcountry….

Though clearly African in origin, its inclusion in cookbooks like the Sarah Rutledge’s Carolina Housewife, written by the daughter of Governor Edward Rutledge and a member of Charleston’s elite planter society, indicates that even before the Civil War the dish was being eaten by black and white residents of all classes in the Lowcountry.

Gumbo:

Gumbo is another dish with African origins and has a strong association with South Louisiana:

Although the French contributed the concept of the roux and the Choctaw invented file powder, the modern soup is overwhelmingly West African in character.  Not only does it resemble many of the okra-based soups found in contemporary Senegal, the name of the soup itself is derived from the Bantu words for the okra contained within (guingombo, tchingombo, or kingombo.  A legacy of the colonial era, the modern French word for okra is quite simply “gombo”.

In the Old South, gumbo was not solely a South Louisiana dish:

Though well entrenched in Louisiana, gumbo was by no means a dish unique to that region. Indeed, during the colonial era and the early 19th century, similar okra-based stews and soups could be found anywhere a large number of enslaved Africans and their descendants lived—and, in fact, those dishes can still be found there today.

Cajun gumbo seems to have been an adaptation of the original African dish. The Cajuns ‘seasoned and added ingredients with a comparative heavy hand and ended up with their own hearty version of gumbo’.

Jambalaya:

While often seen as simply a ‘Southern’ dish today, jambalaya has its roots in South Louisiana and, while there are various debates about its purported origins, a strong case can be made that the dish has its origins in France and was introduced and developed by the Louisiana Cajuns of French descent. Whereas Cajun gumbo seems to be a variant of a pre-existing dish of African origin, in the case of Creole jambalaya, this would appear to be a development of a pre-existing dish of European origin.

Deviled Eggs:

Deviled eggs have a long history in the South and are particularly associated with the finer, white tablecloth dining of white Southerners. The practice of ‘deviling’ foods by adding spices to them originates in Europe and the deviled egg came to the South from England:

According to historic cookbooks, the practice of boiling eggs, extracting the yolks and combining them with savory spices (mustard, cayenne pepper) and refilling the eggs with the mixture was common in latter years of the 16th century and was the “norm” by the 17th…

According to the food historians the practice of “devilling” food “officially” began sometime during the 18th century in England. Why? Because that was when the term “deviled,” as it relates to food, first shows up in print. 

Indeed, the first printed reference to deviled eggs dates to 1786 in England.

Sweet Potato Pie:

In England, root vegetable pies have a long history, and recipes can be found in a number of English cookery books dating back to the early 18th century. While King Henry VIII of England was a fan of heavily spiced sweet potato pies, these required sweet potatoes imported from Spain, and the potato pies of 18th century England made use of conventional potatoes instead. When the historic recipes for English potato pies are compared with modern Southern sweet potato pie recipes, it is clear that the latter is a Southern adaptation of the former. As with fried chicken and biscuits, desserts such as sweet potato pie were largely the preserve of the wealthy elites in the South, rather than being generally eaten. These pies were a luxury, making heavy use of butter, sugar, and spices, and would certainly not have been eaten on a daily basis.

See my post on the history of the sweet potato pie for references and further information.

Defining ‘The South’

The Southern United States is a region that many people throughout the world are aware of, and interested in. It’s a region with a history and culture both fascinating and troubling. It’s also a region, of course, particularly known for its legendary cuisine. But exactly what is ‘the South’, and where is it? Anyone with even a passing interest in the South and Southern culture will inevitably come across these questions. And the answer, in brief, is: it depends who you ask.

For a region of the United States that is so iconic, it is very strange to discover that there is no generally accepted consensus regarding which states are actually a part of it. There are various ways of trying to define the South: you can use the United States Census Bureau’s regional definition of the South; you can look at which states seceded and made up the Confederacy; or you can – as many do on numerous internet forums – make the case for the ‘Southernness’ of states based on culture.

If you use the United States Census Bureau’s definition of the South, the states that make up the South are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are good reasons why Southerners might wish to use this definition: firstly, because it is a definition of the South that is not dependent on the Confederacy and the Civil War, and secondly, because this expansive version of the South allows one to claim that ‘the South’ is more culturally diverse than the Deep South stereotype allows. Southern Living magazine provides a good example of this. By including the District of Columbia in the Southern fold, for example, the magazine is able to claim The Smithsonian Institution as proof that Southerners are ‘a cultured lot’ and also to (bizarrely) claim that Senate Bean Soup is one of ‘the South’s most iconic dishes’, despite its history as a dish created following a request by a senator from Idaho or Minnesota.

If you use the states that made up the Confederacy, then the South is Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

If you use states that are argued to have a Southern culture, then you might also include Missouri, which pops up in various online discussions about the South, probably in large part because it contains an area known as ‘Little Dixie‘.

However, if you exclude states from ‘the South’ that today have only a tenuous claim to being overarchingly ‘Southern’, you would probably have to get rid of Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia, and quite possibly Virginia, despite its status as the birthplace of Southern culture. On this question, see these articles at The Ringer, FiveThirtyEight, and Vox.

Texas, a former Confederate state, yet not part of the United States Census Bureau’s South, would also likely have to go, given its cultural turn away from the South and towards the West (a turn consciously undertaken in the postbellum period). And what of Kentucky? Maryjean Wall’s fascinating book How Kentucky Became Southern makes a convincing case that Kentucky only truly became ‘Southern’ after the Civil War, when it marketed itself as a land of antebellum charm and Southern gentlemen sipping mint juleps. Actually, Kentucky was an unruly border state with various cultural regions and never had the kind of culture associated with the Deep South, nor was it part of the Confederacy. Kentucky’s famous bourbon whiskey only became an iconic Southern drink after the Civil War and through marketing campaigns after Prohibition (Old South drinks included rum, brandies, alcoholic punches, and rye whiskey, and the original mint julep was a Virginia drink made using rum). Horse racing had a long history in the Old South, but the Kentucky Derby dates to after the Civil War.

So, at the end of all that, you could perhaps minimally define ‘the South’ today as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. But, even then, you get into further debates surrounding cities or areas of these states being not properly ‘Southern’ (Is Atlanta ‘Southern’? Are Northern transplants altering the culture of North Carolina? And so on.)

Ultimately, then, ‘the South’ and ‘Southern culture’ are perhaps today things that fall into the category of ‘you know it when you see it’, rather than being neatly defined by geography or even history.