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.

The English Roots of ‘Southern Barbecue’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’

Aside from fried chicken, it is hard to think of a more iconic representation of Southern cuisine than barbecue. However, barbecue in North America did not start out that way. English settlers observed and learnt Native American barbecuing techniques and barbecues quickly became popular:

During the 18th century, barbecues became social events that were common throughout the British North American colonies. Although they are associated with the South, barbecues were held regularly in many areas. For example, a barbecue was held to launch the brigantine Barnard in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1767. Celebrations with barbecues occurred even further north. When Quebec City fell to the British during the French and Indian War in 1759, citizens of Falmouth, Maine, celebrated with a barbecue on an island that later became known as “Hog Island.” Barbecuing must also have been known as a cooking technique not used solely for large celebrations. In a 1769 newspaper advertisement, Thomas Carnes announced that he was opening a coffeehouse outside of Boston. He also noted that he would barbecue pigs or turtles. Barbecues as social gatherings or celebrations became less common in New England after the Revolutionary period.

It is not surprising that wealthy English colonists took to this form of smoked meat so enthusiastically, for their native cuisine had long featured similar flavours. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of the medieval English cuisine of the wealthy elite, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’. Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

Barbecue, then, both as a social event and as a form of cooking meat, was initially embraced throughout the British colonies and was not in any sense a specifically ‘Southern’ phenomenon. However, while barbecues eventually went out of fashion in the North, in Virginia they remained central to the social rituals of the gentry:

In Virginia, however, barbecues were widespread and popular social events. Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well. Pigs had been brought o Jamestown with the first British colonists, and since pigs are omnivores, they flourished in the woodland areas, even without much attention from settlers busy with planting and growing tobacco. As the wealth of the Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry.

The wealthy colonists of Virginia, in particular, sought to emulate the lifestyles of the gentry of England and ‘England remained the principal source of cultural authority and prestige’. The Reverend Hugh Jones, writing in 1724, noted:

Williamsburgh is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and is well stock’d with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

Here dwell several very good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick Times.

They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any Note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin, or Chaise.

In an article titled ‘Of Virginia Hospitality’, published in The London Magazine in July 1746, we read:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention… their Manner of living is quite generous and open: Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, in his A Tour in the United States of America (1784), reported: ‘The Virginians are generous, extremely hospitable, and possess very liberal sentiments’. He also noted that, as in England, social stratification and hierarchy was pronounced:

There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies, nor does that spirit of equality and levelling principle which pervades the greater part of America prevail to such an extent in Virginia.

The famed ‘Southern hospitality’, then, originated among the Virginia gentry. This hospitality, of course, did not extend to the blacks they kept as slaves, not to poor whites. When the Reverend Charles Woodmason toured the Carolina backcountry in 1766, he wrote:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.

North Carolina was settled by Virginians, who had brought this Virginian class system with them.

This social hierarchy, complete with obligatory hospitality to fellow members of the gentry, rules of etiquette and politeness, and a callous disregard for those outside the wealthy elite, was really only a continuation of the social order of England, where a wealthy few lorded it over the peasantry. The Virginia planters were a new gentry, living a charmed life far removed from the that of the lower orders:

[T]he gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods.

This lifestyle was directly rooted in the lifestyles of the wealthy elite of Britain, dating well back into the medieval period. The Virginia barbecue was a new form of an old tradition:

The medieval feast of the time seems to have followed a common pattern; there could, therefore, be said to be an ideal feast as aspired to by the nobility and gentry and even their servants. It was ideal in both its material nature, that is the food, and also in its conduct, that is, the rules of courtesy and hierarchy under which this social ritual was performed.

Likewise:

The medieval esteem for “magnificence” as a hallmark of noble virtue continued to underwrite courtly culture during the seventeenth century, entailing the display of aristocratic wealth through extravagant hospitality.

In medieval England, the feast was a central feature of the lives of the wealthy. The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’:

The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron. In England, the wealthy elite’s love of highly spiced food extended well into the eighteenth century.

The Virginia colonists likewise ‘demonstrated their social standing by providing a wide variety of meats and sweets at each meal prepared in a more traditional English fashion’. As an article in The Colonial Williamsburg Journal notes:

By today’s standards, colonial fare offered too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener. Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg liberally.

The Virginia barbecue, with its whole hogs prepared as part of a communal ritual of ‘hospitality’ among the gentry, arguably echoes the English tradition of the hog roast. Likewise, the spiciness of Southern food, while in part the result of the influence of African slaves on the tastes of the colonists, was strongly rooted in the preferences of the English elite of the period.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The ‘Virginia hospitality’ that forms the basis for the early construction of the notion of a uniquely ‘Southern hospitality’ was in reality the result of the transplanting of the social mores of the English gentry to the colony. The famous Southern ‘politeness’ and deferential mode of speaking (the ubiquity of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’) is also rooted in the notions of gentility and hierarchy brought from England. Likewise, the barbecue tradition of the South is actually rooted in the social events of the wealthy elite, who reenacted the medieval hog roast of England using cooking techniques developed by Native Americans, and seasoning techniques popular in England. Even barbecue sauce is derived from the tastes and basting methods of the wealthy elite of England.

As Virginians spread out across the Southern states, they took their aristocratic Anglophile culture with them, and even their mode of speech, which came to be seen as specifically ‘Southern’, echoed that of their ancestral homeland. Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South and became known as a ‘Southern’ food and form of social event, and the famed ‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ of elite planter society (‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ directed towards fellow members of the gentry, not the population as a whole) likewise came to be seen as a hallmark of ‘Southern’ culture.

Barbecue and Southern hospitality (as well as a social model in which a tiny elite held most of the wealth), then, are ultimately phenomena directly derived from England, specifically its upper echelons.

The English Roots of Southern Barbecue

Long before the birth of Southern barbecue, wealthy Englishmen were enjoying smoked meats and highly spiced foods. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of medieval English cuisine, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’.

The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’.

Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

So, the cuisine of wealthy medieval Englishmen included smoked meats, spice blends, slow-roasted whole hogs, and seasoned basting sauces. Such tastes continued amongst the wealthy into the early modern period and consequently influenced the cuisine of the colonies.

After English colonists settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they introduced pigs to the region. In a short time, feral pigs were widely available and the centrality of pork to Southern cuisine was established:

By 1614, feral animals were seemingly everywhere. Ralph Hamor wrote that there were “infinite hogs in herds all over the woods”… In 1619, the Virginia Company confirmed that there were “some horses” and an “infinite number of swine broken out into the woods.”

The English colonists of Virginia, then, had an abundance of pigs and a taste for smoked meats and seasonings, and it was here that Southern barbecue developed:

[I]t was in Virginia and in the Carolinas that barbecue as we know it would begin to evolve. In Virginia, British colonists observed the Native American method of drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire and soon married this method to their own interest in spit-cooking hogs and other small animals.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The idea of the barbecue as a social occasion also developed in Virginia, and arguably has echoes of the medieval English nobility’s feasts, with roasted hogs and revelry:

Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well… As the wealth of Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry…

When Virginians settled North Carolina, known at the time as ‘Virginia’s Southern Plantation’, they took their love of whole-hog barbecue with them. While this style of barbecue is today most commonly associated with North Carolina, its roots lie in the English colony of Virginia, and, as Joseph R. Haynes writes:

Just as Virginia hospitality would spread to become southern hospitality and Virginia smoked ham would spread to become country ham, so would Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South to become southern barbecue.

And this Southern barbecue, while making use of Native American smoking techniques and African slaves for its preparation, was deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of the landed gentry of England.