Chicago has a number of great options for sampling the cuisine of the Southern states and I have profiled three of them at my Blogger site:
Southern food is deeply linked to the culture of hospitality. Celebrated Southern writer John Egerton states:
Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctly characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.
He explains the background to this:
Whether in the home or in public places, the food traditions that had become a part of Southern culture by the 1940s could be summarized under a single descriptive heading: hospitality. As overworked and ambiguous as the word may have been to many, it had meaning for most Southerners.
It was not a myth, nor was it a hallmark of the rich alone; it was simply the way people were. Twice in their history since the Revolutionary War—in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the depths of the Great Depression—Southerners had known hunger, even starvation, and that knowledge had taught them to enjoy the moment, to feast when food was available, and to keep a wary eye on the future. Among all the classes—those who had plenty and those who had nothing and all the others in between—food was a blessing, a pleasure, a cause for celebration. The tradition of hospitality, of serving large quantities of good things to eat to large numbers of hungry people, of sharing food and drink with family and friends and even strangers, proved to be a durable tradition in the South, outliving war and depression and hunger.
While Southern food is perhaps most linked with fried chicken in the popular imagination (and it is, of course, an iconic dish in the South), the cuisine of the region actually contains plenty of variety. To give a few examples:
Fried chicken and catfish, barbecued pulled pork and ribs, bacon, country ham, spicy sausage, shrimp and crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes, grits, cornbread, corn on the cob, tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, sweet potato, rice and beans, black-eyed peas, collard greens, green beans, butter beans, kidney beans, barbecue baked beans, fried pickles, fried okra, coleslaw, potato salad, potato wedges, cheese straws, pimento cheese spread, macaroni cheese, peanuts, peanut butter, gravy, mustard, relishes, hot sauces, peaches, watermelon, Mississippi mud pie, fruit cobblers, fruit pies, sweet potato pie, banana pudding, coconut cake, chocolate cake, spiced fig cake, bread pudding, bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, Southern Comfort, sweet iced tea, cola, root beer, ginger ale, lemonade, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper…
Southern chef and food writer Bill Neal observes:
Whatever the source, the variety of fresh vegetables on the Southern table is staggering. Any one meal may present fried okra, corn, butter beans, sweet potatoes, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, coleslaw, cantaloupe. Such wealth often eclipses any meat served; by midsummer all vegetable meals (with biscuits or corn bread) are common. By the time the pickled beets, green tomato relish, pepper relishes, bread-and-butter pickles are out, the meal is a celebration of endless combinations, textures, and flavors—the hallmark of Southern cooking.
This love of vegetables ties in with the universal popularity of gardening in the South.
Drew A. Swanson, of the University of Georgia, writes:
Backyard gardening remains a popular avocation throughout the South. Each year, gardens across the region fill with classic Southern vegetables such as okra, sweet corn, hot peppers, sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and purple-hull peas and flowing plants such as camellias, old-fashioned roses, daffodils, and jasmine. These outdoor spaces reinforce connections between Southerners, their agricultural past, and the present.
And Deborah Boykin of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture notes:
Vegetable gardens are a common sight on the Southern landscape, found just about anywhere someone can get a tomato plant to live in a container. For generations, Southern families have relied on kitchen gardens to supply their food. Corn, peas, squash, turnip greens, tomatoes, beans, and many of the other staples of Southern cooking are grown in rural fields, small backyard plots, and community gardens throughout the region. As Southerners moved to urban areas to seek work, they brought their gardens with them, planting vegetables to feed their families – fresh in the summer, canned in the winter. It would be an overstatement to say that every Southerner has a vegetable garden, but the tradition of raising one’s own vegetables remains strong in the South.
 Drew A. Swanson (2011) ‘Gardening’, in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 16: Sports and Recreation (The University of North Carolina Press).
 Deborah Boykin (2010) ‘Gardening’, in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 14: Folklife (The University of North Carolina Press).
In an article on ‘Why it’s different in the South’, chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson report what they have found having moved to Nashville, Tennessee:
It sounds clichéd, but I truly believe that there is a strong sense of pride in hospitality in the South. Being a host here is really viewed as an honor and is taken quite seriously in fact. The lengths people go to, to make sure their guests feel welcome, whether it’s in their home or their restaurant or in their store, is really above and beyond anywhere I have ever been. It’s a part of what makes experiences here so special…
One specific thing that we’ve noticed in Nashville is people genuinely want to know you. They want to know about your family, what you do on your off time, what football team you root for. People just want to feel connected to one another in the South more so than in any other part of the country. Overall, Southerners want you to feel comfortable and welcomed in every setting – it’s as simple as that.
I experienced this first-hand during my trip to Mississippi. In the dining car on the first train, a lady from Louisiana was quick to make me feel at ease and we had a wide-ranging conversation about Southern food and culture, as well as my family, my job, life in England, and so on. All the staff were likewise extremely friendly and eager to help.
I also experienced the same welcoming spirit at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, as well as at Chimneyville Smokehouse.
This culture of hospitality has deep roots:
Southern hospitality was really just a fact of life during the Civil War era. USC Aiken professor and author Dr. Tom Mack said that the South was not as urbanized as the North, especially during the War Between the States. The majority of the South was still quite rural, and there were few to no public houses, hotels or inns such as those in the North. Travelers to the South found themselves spending their nights in private residences. Mack added that Southern hospitality can also be connected to religious practices, citing the story of the good Samaritan in the Bible and the idea of helping that stranger on the road. As time passed, the concept of Southern hospitality seemed to stick.
Cody Anderson, a young advocate of traditional Southern culture, states of Southern hospitality:
I think it defines us. It goes back to the golden rule. Southern people believe that we’re here for such a short time, we have to value life. We have to enjoy it and make the most of it by loving those around us.
When British freelance journalist Richard Grant and his wife moved to the Mississippi Delta, they found themselves in a different world to their previous home of New York City:
Mississippians were generally puzzled by our arrival, but warm and welcoming. As we were unpacking, an African-American tractor driver stopped by and talked for an hour. On the second day, a white family from Pluto came over with a bottle of wine and a selection of guns to shoot. Cathy Thompson, a labor and delivery nurse, had bought an AK-47 for stress relief during menopause…
Noting our lack of furniture, Cathy went through her storage areas and produced two beds, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs, two armchairs and two wingback chairs. “Y’all can have this stuff on permanent loan,” she said. “And I noticed y’all just have the one vehicle. That’s going to get inconvenient out here, so I want you to drive our Envoy whenever you need to, and think of it as your second vehicle. I’ll show you where the keys are.”
Another neighbor showed up with a cord of split firewood, a bottle of Glenlivet and an engraved silver ice bucket as housewarming gifts. A third insisted on keeping our grass cut for the rest of the summer.
Writer Winona Dimeo-Ediger reports of similar experiences upon moving to Nashville:
Since Nick and I moved into our house, the elderly man who lives across the street has yelled, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” approximately 14 times. It never gets old. Coming from Portland, which is known as a friendly city, we thought we were prepared for Southern hospitality, but we had no idea just how much smiling, waving, and “How you doin’, darlin’”s would be involved in daily life here.
Such hospitality is particularly facilitated by the long-running Southern tradition of porch sitting. In the days before the availability of air conditioning, Southern families sat on front porches while their houses cooled down in the evening. Communal gatherings on porches often incorporated extended family members and neighbours, and the porch became a place for conversation, story-telling, music, and other activities.
African American poet Frenchy Jolene Hodges recalls the kind of tales she heard on the front porch while growing up:
The porch (both front and back) continues to hold an important place in Southern culture today:
Walk through any Southern neighborhood, and you’ll see people sitting on their porches, waving genially at passersby. Rocking chairs are often involved, and people think nothing of shouting entire conversations to their neighbors across the street so both parties can continue porch sitting.
The allure of Southern parties has been extolled in many a country song, and for good reason — in the summer especially, there is no shortage of backyard cookouts, lakeside dance parties, and front porch hangouts. Parties here don’t need an ironic theme or extensive planning; they require only cold beer, good food, and preferably a guitar or two.
Country songs aplenty celebrate this aspect of Southern life. Two typical contemporary pop country examples follow:
We’re just sippin’ moonshine, watchin’ chicken fry
And makin’ that swing swing side to side…
Swamp air comin’ through the screen door
Bare feet stompin’ on the wood floor
We’re just diggin’ it, finger lickin’, pickin’ out in the country
Yeah, we’re just some front porch junkies
Thomas Rhett – Front Porch Junkies
Leave your trouble at the door
No cover charge, get in for free
No last call, let’s party on a back porch…
Little hottie swingin’ up in the swings
Them good ol’ boys pickin’ six strings
Dierks Bentley – Back Porch
 Quoted in Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon (2001) Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture (The University of North Carolina Press): 3-4.
In Britain, ‘barbecue’ usually refers to the grilling of supermarket-bought burgers and sausages over coals in the garden. The results are all too often far from inspiring. As the Daily Mirror notes, ‘traditional barbecues will make you think of blackened food – often raw on the inside and burnt to a crisp on the outside’.
In the South, ‘barbecue’ refers to an altogether different food. Large cuts of meat (in particular pork) are hand seasoned with homemade mixes of dried spices and seasonings, then cooked ‘low and slow’ in a wood smoker until the meat falls off the bone, and either eaten ‘dry’ or ‘wet’ (smothered in house barbecue sauce, the recipes for which are often closely guarded secrets). When done properly, the result is a spicy, tangy, sweet, smoky masterpiece.
In his seminal article ‘The Rhetoric of Barbeque: A Southern Rite and Ritual’, Professor Stephen Smith of the University of Arkansas argued that in the South, ‘in many respects, barbecue is taken as seriously as religion’. Smith is far from alone in this assessement.
In an article on barbecue as the ‘Southern Sacrament’, Roger Mccredie explains:
Barbecue makes up one of the four basic Southern food groups, along with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and banana pudding. But unlike the other three, which are merely foods, barbecue is a concept, entire of itself, fleshed out by its very own history, folklore and mores. In that respect, it occupies the same position in Southern culture as moonshine whiskey, over which it has the consumer advantage of being legal: you can walk in and order a plate of barbecue; you don’t have to knock on a strange door or arrange a meeting with somebody you’ve never met who will signal you with a blink of his lights on a dark country road.
James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin, in their examination of ‘Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food’, write:
Sitting down to a meal of barbecue excites Southern sensibilities like no other foodstuff; it can only be properly understood as a ritual act of cultural continuity and identity formation. Barbecue has been the central component of meals in many areas of the American South at important family, political, and religious gatherings for the past three hundred years.
For this reason, ‘handmade barbecue, the quintessential regional cuisine, has been able not merely to survive but thrive in the South, withstanding the onslaught of fast food and chain theme restaurants’.
So it was that, during my May 2015 Deep South excursion, after a couple of hours exploring Jackson, Mississippi, and a short spell cooling off under the trees in grounds of the State Capitol building, I made my way to Chimneyville Smokehouse for lunch.
Kris Norton of the Movoto real estate blog states: ‘Once you’ve eaten in Jackson, you’ll never want to leave the South’. Based on my dining experience at Chimneyville Smokehouse, I can see why.
Chimneyville is located in one of the oldest residential areas in Jackson and occupies a building designed to look like a train depot, built as it is on the trackbed of a former railroad line. Eat Jackson describes the Chimneyville building as a ‘Jackson landmark’.
At Chimneyville, dry-rubbed pork is cooked for 14 hours in a hickory wood smoker before being shredded and smothered in the house barbecue sauce, which itself has spent four hours in the smoker.
For Adam Richman, prolific presenter of food programmes and author of America The Edible, the barbecued pork at Chimneyville is ‘about as perfect as you can cook a piece of pork, in my opinion. Absolutely amazing’.
The South, writes John T. Edge in The Southerner’s Handbook, is ‘the region where farm-to-table eating is a way of life, not a marketing concept’, and the side dishes at Chimneyville reflect this. The sides vary according to the season, as all the vegetables used are fresh from the farm, not packaged, including the beans used to make Chimneyville’s barbecue baked beans, and the vegetables in their coleslaw. Right across the street is the Mississippi Farmers’ Market.
The food was, as expected, absolutely delicious. The spices, the smokiness, and the sweetness of the generous helping of pulled pork were incredible and the sandwich was gone in a very short time. The baked beans were full of flavour, as was the excellent coleslaw. I washed it all down with a huge cup of sweet iced tea.
The Southern hospitality was also in full effect. The waiting staff came to talk to me, and took a photo for me, then the manager came out to welcome me and have a chat, and when it turned out they had sold out of banana pudding, I was instead given a bowl of Mississippi mud pie on the house.
The Mississippi BBQ Trail website says that a visit to Chimneyville is how to ‘get to know Jackson the right way’, and that was certainly how I felt about the whole experience.
If you ever find yourself in Jackson, make sure you don’t miss out!
 Steve Smith (1985) ‘The Rhetoric of Barbeque: A Southern Rite and Ritual’, Studies in Popular Culture Vol. 8, No. 1, p.17.
 James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin (2011) ‘Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food: An Introduction’ in idem (eds) The Slaw and the Slow Cooked (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press), pp.8-9.
 John T. Edge (2013) ‘Why Southern food matters (so much)’ in The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (Harper Wave), pp.1-2.
Memories of my first trip to the city of Jackson, in May 2015.
All photos © Edmund Standing 2015
Memories of my first trip to the great city of Chicago, May 2015.
All photos and video © Edmund Standing 2015