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.
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 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.
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 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 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’.
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 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.