Did Macaroni and Cheese Come to America from England?

‘Mac ‘n’ cheese’ is a very popular side dish in the United States (just as ‘macaroni cheese’ is a popular main dish in Britain), particularly in Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking, but how macaroni and cheese entered into American cuisine is somewhat obscure.

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as the source for the American love of macaroni and cheese, as he enjoyed the dish in Italy and even had a pasta machine imported from Europe. The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia doubts this, however: ‘Jefferson was most likely not the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. He did, however, probably help to popularize it by serving it to dinner guests during his presidency’.[1]

If not Jefferson himself, then perhaps Mary Randolph – raised by Thomas Jefferson’s parents and author of the seminal book of Southern cookery, The Virginia Housewife (1824) – might be responsible for the dish’s entry into the canon of American cookery? This is unlikely. While Randolph’s inclusion of a simple macaroni and cheese recipe in her book [2] may well have inspired many Southern cooks to make the dish, it is likely that its presence there is the result not of any innovation on Randolph’s part but, rather, because it was already a known dish in wealthier Southern circles (Randolph’s book is less a collection of original recipes than a compilation of the kind of dishes a Virginia cook might be expected to be able to prepare).

Perhaps the answer to how macaroni and cheese first entered American cuisine may be found in an English cookery book. In the colonial era, American cooks relied heavily on cookery books from England and, along with Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[3] Raffald’s influential book includes a recipe titled ‘To Dress Maccaroni [sic] with Parmesan Cheese’.[4] At least as early as 1769, then, an ‘experienced English housekeeper’ was aware of a macaroni and cheese dish, as would be her many American readers. While we may never know how macaroni and cheese entered Southern cuisine and, by extension therefore, African American soul food cooking and the wider American culinary tradition, there’s a good chance that, as with other iconic dishes such as fried chicken,[5] England may ultimately be the source.

Country Music and the Construction of ‘Authenticity’

I’d like to preface this post by stating that I love traditional country music, bluegrass, and string band music. I spent much of my youth living in the countryside (albeit in England, not the American South) and have a deep love of rural culture and history. However, I’m also interested in looking at how cultures are constructed, both consciously and unconsciously. When neotraditionalists claim there is such a thing as ‘true’ country music, and when they claim that today’s radio country sound is ‘inauthentic’, I would argue that they are presenting a notion of country music that is disconnected from its actual history.

Country music’s deepest historical and cultural origins lie in the folk music of the rural South, which in turn was derived and developed in large part from the folk music of the British Isles. There were, of course, other influences that affected the development of this music, and African Americans also played an important role in its evolution. While there were black as well as white musicians who played in string bands, country would go on to forever be a largely white musical phenomenon when, in its early commercial period, a segregated recording industry emerged, presenting music by black musicians as ‘race records’ and those of whites as ‘folk’ or ‘hillbilly’ (later renamed ‘rhythm and blues’ and ‘country and western’).

While country music finds much of its roots in the music of the mountains, made by and for the people as part of an organic expression of everyday life, from the earliest moments of its transformation into a commercial commodity, a degree of artifice was present, which increased as the years went by. Even in the 1920s, as radio executives marketed ‘old time’ music as a product to be consumed by listeners in the form of radio ‘barn dances’, a deliberate process of myth-making was under way:

The barn dances tried hard to project an aura of wholesome, down-to-earth, family-style entertainment, and radio program directors and advertisers often insisted that hillbilly performers affect rustic attire and rustic names, even though the performers might have preferred to dress in a more urban manner.

Simon Bronner notes that a similar marketing strategy can be found in the ‘hillbilly’ music of the 1930s and 1940s:

The 1930s and 1940s became the “hillbilly” period in commercial folk music. But whereas the old-time music had close connections to nineteenth-century folk traditions, hillbilly music was, in the words of one reporter, “a conscious, calculated form of commercial expression.” On the hillbilly image, he commented, “Although, for the purpose of atmosphere, the performers wear blue jeans, checked shirts and gingham frocks, they live with all the conveniences of modern life.”

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the construction of an imagined ‘cowboy’ identity in the ‘Western’ genre of music that eventually fused with ‘hillbilly’ music (rebranded as ‘country music’) to become ‘country and western’, and, finally, simply ‘country’. Bill C. Malone and Tracey Laird note that before the 1930s, a few western musicians recorded songs that genuinely reflected the cowboy heritage, but that soon gave way to an ‘authenticity’ manufactured by the music industry to appeal to consumers. Indeed, many of the most successful ‘cowboy’ singers had no connection to the western ranching life at all:

The farther Americans became removed from the cowboy past, the more intense became their interest in cowboy songs and lore. Hillbilly singers and musicians did much to implant the romantic cowboy image in the minds of their American audiences…

Since the western attraction was irresistible, even young hillbilly singers from the Deep South or from the southeastern mountains, whose associations with cowboys came only through story and song, embraced the western image and imagined themselves “way out west in Texas for the roundup in the spring.”

Hollywood played a part in this, with singing cowboys such as Gene Autry becoming household names throughout the United States. This in turn led to the creation of ‘cowboys’ who never were:

Largely as a result of Hollywood exploitation, the concept of “western music” became fixed in the public mind. After the heyday of Gene Autry, the term “western” came to be applied even to southern rural music by an increasing number of people, especially by those who were ashamed to use the pejorative term “hillbilly.” Not only did the public accept the projection, but even most hillbilly singers became fascinated with the western image and eventually came to believe their own symbols. Autry was the first of a long line of country singers who clothed themselves in tailored cowboy attire; in the following decades, the costuming became increasingly elaborate and gaudy, with the brightly colored, bespangled, and rhinestone-laden uniforms created by Nudie the Tailor (Nudie Cohn, born Nuta Kotlyarenko in the Ukraine in 1902) in Los Angeles being the most favored fare. Eventually, most country performers, whether they hailed from Virginia or Mississippi, adopted cowboy regalia–usually of the gaudy, dude cowboy variety…

Along with the clothing, country bands and singers ─ particularly in the Southwest and on the West Coast ─ adopted cowboy titles. Singers with names like Tex, Slim, Hank, Red River Dave, the Utah Cowboy, and Patsy Montana, and groups with such titles as the Cowboy Ramblers, Riders of the Purple Sage, Radio Cowboys, Swift Jewel Cowboys, Lone Star Cowboys, and Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Millie Good) abounded on radio stations (and record labels) all over the nation. Radio and record promoters, of course, were very much alive to the appeal of the western myth, and they often encouraged musicians to adopt appropriate western monikers.

Amongst these singers who adopted ‘cowboy’ stage names, we find Woodward Maurice ‘Tex’ Ritter, Sollie Paul ‘Tex’ Williams, Ottis Dewey ‘Slim’ Whitman, Clarence Eugene ‘Hank’ Snow, Henry William ‘Hank’ Thompson, Garland Perry ‘Hank’ Cochran, and, of course, Hiram King ‘Hank’ Williams.

COWBOY MYTH

Hank Williams is a particularly interesting example. Since his death, a mythic vision of Williams has emerged, which casts him as a tortured rural artist who expresses the essence of ‘true’ country music. However, the real Williams was very much driven by a desire for commercial success. He grew up as a member of the rural poor, but was not directly connected to the traditional rural economy, being the son of a railroad engineer. He also got out of that world as quickly as he could, entering the music business in Montgomery, Alabama, while still only a teenager. Hiram Williams went on to become ‘Hank’, donning cowboy attire and gaining success with his ‘Drifting Cowboys’ band (none of whom were cowboys or had a Western ranching background). Throughout his career, Williams was following the rags-to-riches American Dream and, far from being a voice of an authentic ‘rural’ America, was in fact a clever marketeer:

Although many writers and fans later came to consider Williams principally a creative artist who remained above crassly commercial considerations, in not one article published during his lifetime is there any mention of his artistic ambitions. Rather he is presented, and he presents himself, as a consummate professional entertainer who measured success entirely in terms of chart standings and record sales. Almost no one yet wrote of him as anything more than a successful radio and recording artist and songwriter. Now-familiar interpretations of Williams – as the folksy populist poet or the tortured, destructive outlaw – emerged later, after he had drawn his last breath.

None of that diminishes the musical talent and creativity of Hank Williams, but it does put into perspective the claim that he represents some kind of ‘true country’ musician, wholly different in nature and outlook to today’s Nashville country pop stars. Hank Williams has arguably become, as David Cantwell writes at The New Yorker, ‘not so much a country-music legend as a country-music deity’. In the process, he has taken on a mythical status unconnected to the real man who was very much a participant in the music business. Nor was he a representative of some ‘pure’, unadulterated music. While seen by many as the epitome of a ‘true’ country musician, Williams’ music, as Tom Pinnock notes, ‘is one of the great deltas of Americana, a place where country, gospel and blues first converged’. Indeed, a significant blues influence can be discerned in his work and this is no surprise, given he was taught to play by a black bluesman named Rufus ‘Tee-Tot’ Payne, of whom Williams stated: ‘All the music training I ever had was from him’. Williams sometimes mentioned ‘that old colored gentleman’ when performing on stage.

Hank Williams (and other singers of his generation) began his career at a particularly fortuitous time. While at the very start of his career, records earned little for most singers, who instead made their money primarily through radio performances and personal appearances, all this was to change in the 1940s, when ‘hillbilly’ music went ‘pop’:

During World War II… bolstered by southern working-class migrations to Midwest and West Coast cities, hillbilly music soared to unprecedented popularity. Professional opportunities for singers and musicians multiplied, and record production expanded to accommodate rising demand from fans, jukebox owners, and, eventually, disc jockeys. Following the war, what was increasingly known as “folk” or “country-and-western” music flourished as it entered what many historians have described as a “Golden Era” of commercial and creative success.

This phenomenon was covered in the national media of the day:

In 1943, Time Magazine declared that “the dominant popular music of the U.S. today is hillbilly.” Sales for the music accounted for 40 percent of all single popular music records. In 1949, Newsweek observed that New York and Pennsylvania residents rivalled the South for buying the most hillbilly records.

Confirmation of the hillbilly wave came from the Saturday Evening Post on February 12, 1944. The national magazine headlined a feature story with the announcement, “Hillbilly Boom.” The story documented the growth of the hillbilly music audience estimated at 25 million, the record-setting sales of songs such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter which had sold more than 1,600,000 copies, and the spread of hillbilly radio programming including three shows picked up by a major network, NBC, for national hookup.

Simon Bronner notes:

And neither was the music appealing narrowly to a rural market. Pointing to the music’s attraction to rural migrants and their sons and daughters in the cities, Good Housekeeping reported that hillbilly music was especially popular in “the big towns – in Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and even conservative Boston.”

As the Good Housekeeping writer put it: ‘Mountain music has left the mountains and gone down to the plains’.

That ‘hillbilly’ music had a very large urban audience is no surprise, given the massive migration of Southerners out of the countryside and into towns and cities, leaving behind a rural life and entering into the industrial workforce. However, it should not be assumed that this was solely a post-war phenomenon, for industrialisation had already had a profound effect on rural communities prior to World War II, as Patrick Huber notes. Huber quotes an article by journalist Bruce Crawford, reporting in the New Republic in 1933 on his visit to the White Top Folk Festival in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Crawford reported:

Many of the present generation, having moved to mill towns and coal camps, are being cut off from their inheritance of traditional music. But they are beginning to make ‘ballets’ of their own… They have, in fact, little in common with with the older folk-songs sung in the hollows where coal mines and textile mills haven’t yet invaded.

Already, then, hillbilly music was a ‘new’ music, with traditional musicianship in evidence to be sure, but undeniably shaped by modern change.

As the migrations continued post-World War II, a large segment of the hillbilly music audience was not only dwelling in urban environments and working in factories and other industrial settings – they were also entering the middle class:

Hillbilly music, as the product of the rural South, conveyed the conflicting impulses and images of the region that gave it birth. It was a melding of rural and urban influences; it was simultaneously southern and American; and its performers and audience were torn by opposing desires, clinging to a self-image of rustic simplicity while at the same time striving to be accepted in an urban, middle-class milieu.

A fascinating New York Times article from 1973, looking at the Appalachian community in Detroit, illustrates this tension between a growing urban identity and the desire to hold true to tradition and to rural roots. The article notes that the self-described ‘hillbillies’ of Detroit were not for the most-part dirt poor ghetto-dwellers, but instead had good incomes and were putting down roots in suburbia: ‘Although there remain pockets of Appalachian poverty near downtown Detroit, most of the migrants from the hills are evidently suburbanites today’, states the article. It goes on to profile various urban hillbillies who the author encountered in a honky-tonk, drinking beer and listening to live country music:

“My wife and me make more’n $25,000 a year now,” Joe Petrey said, although he doesn’t brag about such things and dislikes people who do.

He operates a radial drill for a company that makes spot welders for use on auto assembly lines. His wife, Eva, 22‐years‐old from back home in Corbin, Ky., with a shy smile, a nearly flawless complexion, luminous blue eyes and long, light‐brown hair, sews vinyl seat upholstery at a Ford Motor Company plant…

The Petreys now live in a spotless three‐room apartment in Madison Heights, with a color television set and a combination radio and eight‐track stereo tape player that Mr. Petrey uses to record and play country‐Western music.

Joe Petrey expressed a wistful desire to return one day to the countryside, as did others. Even while living a suburban, middle class life, Petrey expressed his identification with his rural heritage by placing a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker on the rear window of his Chevrolet pickup truck. While some, such as Joe Petrey dreamed of one day leaving suburbia, as the article notes:

If he does go back, he may be a bit unusual. For although many say, that is their intention, Dr. James. S. Brown of the University of Kentucky, one of the relatively few social scientists who have studied the migrants, says that “once they’ve been gone six months, they’re gone for good.”

Others, however, had no intention of giving up their suburban life, even while seeing maintaining a cultural identity grounded in their roots as important:

There is, for example, Ernest Trent, who sings country and Western music here under the name of Joe Pain. He is a native of Harlan County in Kentucky, a coal‐mining region with little of the farming appeal of Joe Petrey’s neighborhood.

“Even if I weren’t having such a good time singing,” Joe Pain says, “I’d never go back. There ain’t nothin’ there for me but a hole in the ground—I don’t mean a coal mine—and I can get that here.”

And there are many, many women who have gotten used to the amenities of urban life and are not anxious to give them up. Mrs. Linda Keelen, formerly of West Virginia and now of Warren, is proud of being a hillbilly and is teaching her 3‐year‐old son to be proud, too.

But, she says, “I can’t picture bein’ back on some farm, churnin’ butter.”

Trent released a number of country records as Joe Pain, and followed an example we see in country music today. Trent had embraced the suburbs and had no desire to return to coal country. However, his music looked back to an idealised vision of the countryside. In his song ‘Sugar Creek Bottom’, released by the Nashville label Spar Records in 1969, Joe Pain sings:

I’d like to be back on the farm in Sugar Creek Bottom
Mowing cotton, plowing corn with folks I love so well
And Amy Brown waits for me there in Sugar Creek Bottom
But I’m here locked up in this prison cell

We were poor but we were thankful for our bottom land
All of us worked hard and I was proud as any man
And I could hardly wait for harvest time to roll around
‘Cause when we sold the cotton I would marry Amy Brown

All of this was romantic nonsense, of course, as Trent came from a coal mining community, rather than this type of rustic background. However, it would have sat well with the suburban hillbilly music listener, who worked within the modern industrial economy but sought to maintain a sense of identity grounded in the rural past.

Many of the big names of country music’s past provide examples of how country music was increasingly a product of people raised in a non-agrarian background. While some, such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, did indeed start their lives on farms, many did not: Lefty Frizzell was the son of an oilman and spent some time working in the oil fields with his father before finding success in the music industry; Johnny Paycheck was the son of a barge worker; George Jones’s father worked in a shipyard; Merle Haggard’s father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Country music, then, was the music of a people in transition, moving from agricultural work to industrial jobs, often ending up living in urban and suburban communities as a result. It was therefore increasingly not the music of the country, but of people who had roots in the country. As new generations of country fans were born, whose parents and grandparents raised them with tales of the countryside and instilled in them a ‘country’ identity – but who had no direct experience of life in the countryside – country music was increasingly as much an urban as a rural phenomenon. Arguably, given Nashville became the epicentre of the country music industry, and was consequently a magnet for aspiring musicians, country music itself was now integrally intertwined with urban society. When rural singers made their way to Nashville to seek fame and fortune, those who succeeded became integrated into an urban environment and into urban living. Nashville created stars, played host to numerous professional songwriters, and carefully managed the image of singers to make them commercially appealing. ‘Authenticity’ certainly helped, but where it was lacking, it could always be invented.

As we have seen, in the 1920s, barn dance performers were told to adopt ‘rustic’ names and wear ‘rustic’ clothes, and in the 1930s and 1940s, western singers were told to adopt ‘cowboy’ names and dress up in Stetsons, and hillbilly singers were told to wear blue jeans and checked shirts (work clothes) for atmospheric purposes. The music itself, while rooted in some authentic mountain and cowboy traditions, was at the same time very much a modern creation, influenced both by the dislocation from traditional musical styles caused by migration, and also by the tastes of the mass market. From early on, country music’s relationship to the ‘true’ countryside (in the old agrarian sense) and to ‘true’ music of the countryside was complicated. As the decades passed, it became ever less connected to the folk music that gave it birth, and its performers and audience increasingly came from industrial backgrounds and lived in urban areas.

It is worth noting that, outside relatively isolated enclaves in Appalachia, American rural culture had for a long time been integrally linked with commerce and the Capitalist enterprise that was headquartered in the big cities. In a 1956 article on the American agrarian myth, Richard Hofstadter noted that these changes had increased nostalgia for an imagined rural idyll:

The more commercial this society became… the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left behind. And the more rapidly the farmers’ sons moved into the towns, the more nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past. Throughout the Nineteenth and even in the Twentieth Century, the American was taught that rural life and farming as a vocation were something sacred.

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.

This sentimental vision of the countryside obscured the fact that American rural society was increasingly run as a business environment.

What developed in America, then, was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not, like the yeoman’s, to the land but to land values. The characteristic product of American rural society, as it developed on the prairies and the plains, was not a yeoman or a villager, but a harassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone.

The roots of farming as ‘agribusiness’, then, go back a long way. Farmers and rural labourers increasingly made use of the products of the industrial age:

Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The rise of native industry created a home market for agriculture, while demands arose abroad for American cotton and foodstuffs, and a great network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads helped link the planter and the advancing western farmer to the new markets. As the farmer moved out of the forests onto the flat, rich prairies, he found possibilities for machinery that did not exist in the forest. Before long he was cultivating the prairies with horse-drawn mechanical reapers, steel plows, wheat and corn drills, and threshers.

In the twentieth century, the notion of a sharp distinction between rural and urban America was greatly eroded:

The final change, which came only with a succession of changes in the Twentieth Century, wiped out the last traces of the yeoman of old, as the coming first of good roads and rural free delivery, and mail order catalogues, then the telephone, the automobile, and the tractor, and at length radio, movies, and television largely eliminated the difference between urban and rural experience in so many important areas of life. The city luxuries, once do derided by farmers, are now what they aspire to give to their wives and daughters.

In the twenty-first century, this difference between urban and rural America has become ever smaller. As Steven Thomma notes:

The small town of legend has largely passed into the pages of history. Today’s small-town children are exposed to the same Internet, the same games and pop music as city kids. Its people shop in the same chain stores and eat in the same chain restaurants as those in the suburbs…

Interstate highways connected small towns to cities. Cable TV connected rural living rooms to Hollywood. The Internet connected everyone to everywhere.

Small-town teens play the same video games as their urban and suburban cousins. Readers buy books from the same online outlets. Students study much the same curricula from small town to suburb to inner city.

As all these changes have taken place, mainstream country music, as found on radio stations throughout both rural and urban America today, has also radically changed. The sound is now very far removed from that of Appalachian string bands and even from that of singers such as Hank Williams, who rose to prominence during the post-war wave of migration from agricultural to industrial, and rural to urban and suburban. Contemporary country pop music that is the product of the Nashville-centred country music industry is constantly changing to incorporate new sounds, with the main sound now being more pop rock than country in the old sense, supplemented by new elements derived from hiphop and EDM, amongst other sources. Radio country is also a national phenomenon, and country is now arguably far more simply an American musical genre than one of the South, the West, or even the countryside itself. Looking at the history of commercial country music, and the social changes that have taken place in America over the last century, this should come as no surprise.

As we have seen, country music’s audience and musicians came to be increasingly found amongst workers who were part of the industrial, rather than agricultural, world. These changes were increasingly reflected in the lyrical themes of those musicians of the post-war period and beyond who have gone on to be seen as representatives of what is now commonly referred to as ‘classic country’. Merle Haggard, for example, the son of a railroad worker, expressed little in most of his songs that relates specifically to a rural life. There are plenty of songs covering the ups and downs of relationships and the hardships of life, but these are not dependent in any way on a rural setting; indeed, quite the opposite. In ‘If We Make It Through December’, Haggard sang:

Got laid off down at the factory
And there time is not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been workin’ hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl

In ‘Big City’, he sang:

I’m tired of this dirty old city
Entirely too much work and never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today

Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got comin’ to me
And keep your retirement
And your so called social security
Big city, turn me loose and set me free

This was music for a largely urban audience who dreamt of escaping to the imagined freedom of the countryside, and it was also nostalgic:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam war came along

Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday’
When a man could still work, still would
The best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

The supposed ‘free life’ that existed prior to Elvis and the Vietnam war was, it should be remembered, only a free life for some. Haggard’s audience here were clearly sentimental white Americans, for who amongst the black community could feel any great affection for the era of Segregation? Haggard presented a fantasy image of a ‘free’ America, which was also a time in which a woman’s place was in the kitchen, back ‘before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook and still would’.

Then there was George Jones, the son of a shipyard worker. Again, his songs relate largely to general themes surrounding relationships and are not specific to a rural setting. One key exception is found in his song ‘White Lightning’, which looks back fondly to the moonshiners of old:

Well, in North Carolina, way back in the hills
Me and my old pappy and he had him a still
We brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down
Then he’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around
Mighty, mighty pleasin, pappy’s corn squeezin’

The song, however, was not autobiographical and was written for Jones by J. P. Richardson, a pioneering rockabilly musician. Already, the ‘purity’ of the country sound was giving way to outside influences. As Nick Tosches argues in an article for Texas Monthly: ‘Though Jones would never acknowledge it, the rockabilly impulse of the early fifties had affected his sound as much as the lingering voices of Acuff and Williams’.

The growing influence of rock music on country can be heard in the songs of Waylon Jennings, another musician whose work is often cited as ‘true’ country music. As Andrew Dansby put it in Rolling Stone‘s obituary for Jennings:

All apologies to Gram Parsons — who played great, straight country wrapped in a dope-smoking hippie cloak — but should one wish to find the embodiment of the always amorphous term that is country-rock, Waylon Jennings is it. He was weaned on Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, he was buddies with Buddy, and he became the face of Seventies country by skillfully folding rock & roll elements into a literate rootsy mix. It’s simply impossible to imagine southern rock, from Allman to Van Zant, and fringe country from Steve Earle to Uncle Tupelo without Waylon Jennings.

When it comes to the lyrical content of Jennings’ music, there is again little to be found that is indicative of immersion in rural and agricultural life. Instead, Jennings appears in his songs as a product of the ‘sexual revolution’. Far from advocating the kind of family-orientated conservative values associated with rural America, he sang about living a rootless ‘outlaw’ lifestyle, complete with casual sexual encounters and bringing trouble to the lives of ‘good women’. In ‘Waymore’s Blues’, Jennings sang:

Well, I got a good woman, what’s the matter with me?
What makes me want to love every woman I see?

In ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’, he sang:

Beautiful lady are you sure that you understand
The chances your taking loving a free living man

Then there’s ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’:

Bessie was a lovely child from west Tennessee
Leroy was an outlaw wild as a mink
One day she saw him starin’ and it chilled her to the bone
And she knew she had to see that look on a child of her own.

‘Cause ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
And outlaws touch the ladies
Somewhere deep down in their soul.

And, again, in ‘Ramblin’ Man’:

Oh, girl
I’m a ramblin’ man
Don’t give your heart to a ramblin’ man…

You better move away
You’re standing too close to the flame
Once I mess with your mind
Your little heart won’t be the same

Willie Nelson, another country legend, sang about similar themes. For example, in ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’ (originally released by Waylon Jennings):

I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days

I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them
With the words of a sad country song

My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems

Then there’s Nelson’s hit ‘On The Road Again’:

On the road again –
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends…

Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way

None of this is about the ‘country’, even if the music continued to incorporate traditional musicianship associated with country music’s history. These are the songs of the ‘Free Bird‘-listening, birth control-using ‘liberated’ generation, not those of the countryside of old. They present a dream of escaping the world of work and responsibility and embracing a fantasy of old West ‘freedom’ and individualism. As such, these songs arguably related more to the outlook of white urbanites and suburbanites than those of the people operating the farms and fields of actual rural communities.

Haggard, Jones, Jennings, and Nelson, then, were all representatives not of a timeless, unchanging tradition, but rather of the shifting sound and identity of country music. Perhaps no musician has been more significant in this regard than Hank Williams Jr, the son of the legendary Hank Williams, as David Cantwell chronicles in a thought-provoking 2016 article for The New Yorker.

While Hank Jr. was originally groomed to become a kind of second coming of his father, or a good Hank Sr. cover artist at least, he eventually went his own way, as documented in his song ‘Family Tradition’:

Country music singers
Have always been a real close family,
But lately some of my kinfolks
Have disowned a few others and me
I guess it’s because
I kind of changed my direction
Lord I guess I went and broke their family tradition

And later in the song:

I am very proud
Of my daddy’s name
Although his kind of music
And mine ain’t exactly the same

Indeed it wasn’t. Hank Jr. developed a sound that was, as Cantwell puts it, ‘Southern-and blues-rock guitars and boogie-woogie pianos atop country-soul-rockin’ and honky-tonkin’ rhythm-and-blues beats’. While Hank Jr. was far from the only artist to take country music in a direction that moved it distinctly away from the traditions of old (indeed, as noted above, many of his contemporaries such as Waylon Jennings were doing just that), his influence has in fact been significant. ‘Family Tradition’, Cantwell writes, ‘created the Hank Williams, Jr. we’ve known ever since’:

The follow-up single, “Whiskey Bent and Hellbound,” reprised the approach, except louder. “Kawliga,” from 1980, reinvented one of his dad’s songs as country funk. 1984’s “All My Rowdy Friends (Are Comin’ over Tonight)” eventually became, with new lyrics, the “Monday Night Football” theme. Three years later, the comic and self-mythologizing “Born to Boogie” became country radio’s hardest-rocking hit ever. It was the title track to an album that also included arena-rocking versions of hits by both the Rolling Stones and the Georgia Satellites.

Country music quickly followed Williams’s lead—from Shania Twain’s rock-guitar attack in the nineties to the rise, in this century, of hick-hop (a cross, basically, between Bocephus’s music and his good friend Kid Rock’s). Williams’s DNA is deep down in countless key records, from “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” and “Friends in Low Places” to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” not to mention nearly every hit in the Toby Keith catalogue. The new “It’s About Time,” meanwhile, features appearances by three more of his progeny, the hard-rocking contemporary country stars Eric Church, Justin Moore, and Brantley Gilbert, and this summer Williams will tour with another descendent, the Great White Soul Hope of our country moment, Chris Stapleton.

Even the likes of country pop superstars Florida Georgia Line (a polarising act, to say the least) can be seen, argues Cantwell, to owe a debt to Hank Jr.:

Williams also complains on the new album that he’s had it with today’s “weird pop country sound.” This is unsurprising: old folks routinely express frustration with kids these days. But it’s ironic nonetheless, as bro country is just one more of Williams’s children. Take the lines “I like happy and I don’t like sad … I like the sweet young things and Old Grandad” from Williams’s “Women I’ve Never Had.” Then switch out the whiskey for beer and add “We like our country mixed with R. & B.,” a line from another hit off “Born to Boogie,” “Young Country.” Behold: a mission statement for Florida Georgia Line, one of the biggest country acts of the current decade.

Indeed, ‘Young Country’ centres on the idea of a new country music and new country people:

We are young country, we like all kinds
Of music and people, cuz we don’t draw no lines…

We like old Waylon, hey we know Van Halen
We like ZZ Top, we like country and rock
Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
We like our country mixed with some big city blues…

Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
Cuz we like our country mixed with some rhythm and blues

The incessant online debates and polemics over what is and isn’t legitimate in and as country music sometimes give the impression that it’s only a recent bunch of country artists who have created a sound based around a mixture of influences and genres, yet here was Hank Jr., singing in 1988 about that very thing. ‘New country’, it turns out, is not so new.

While Hank Jr.’s generation embraced a form of country music mixed with elements taken from ‘big city blues’ and R&B, many of today’s younger country listeners like their country mixed with some rap and EDM. The use of rap and hiphop influences in contemporary commercial country music has drawn the ire of traditionalists, but, given how culture works in the real world, it was an inevitability. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times notes:

By the mid 2000s, thanks to the successes of the labels Bad Boy and Death Row, built upon by the dominance of Jay-Z, 50 Cent and others, rap had become the lingua franca of American popular music, especially for young people.

Young people who listen to country music are no exception to this. For generations, young people raised in the inner city, the suburbs, and rural areas have all had access to exactly the same cultural influences: MTV, TV shows, movies, and then the Internet all made up key parts of this shared cultural experience. Rural youngsters were just as familiar with rap as their urban counterparts, and just as enthusiastic. As pioneering country rapper Bubba Sparxxx put it, he was part of ‘a generation of people that love 2Pac and Hank [Williams]’. Likewise, David Peisner, reporting on his experiences at a mud bogging event in Georgia, writes:

More than a dozen off-road vehicles line the outside of the track, blasting a hazy mash-up of songs that’s pretty typical of what the music fans here play all weekend: Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” Young Jeezy’s “Where I’m From,” Sam Hunt’s “House Party,” Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Young Thug’s “Best Friend,” the Lacs’ “Kickin’ Up Mud.”

Country rapper Upchurch states: ‘I almost drowned in the river where Hank said we can survive’. Country rapper Swamp states: ‘Them city boys better understand, that a country boy can survive’. And then there’s this report on country rapper Yelawolf:

When I walked into his two-story condo, he was sitting on the couch, clutching a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels and blasting Waylon Jennings through his Apple TV.

Clearly, then, rural young people see no contradiction between a love of country and a love of rap. Indeed, in the age of streaming and playlists, they – as with young Americans in general – often don’t see these genre distinctions as particularly important. On the mainstream side, Florida Georgia Line have been highly successful through combining country pop with hiphop and other influences. As they put it in their smash hit ‘This Is How We Roll’: ‘The mixtape’s got a little Hank, little Drake’. And in ‘Sun Daze‘: ‘I’m gonna play some flip-cup and rock a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger’. Even country veteran Tim McGraw put out a track in which he sings:

Got Lil’ Wayne pumpin’ on my iPod
Thumpin’ on the subs in the back of my crew cab…

Our party in the club is a honky tonk downtown
Yeah that’s where we like to hang out…

Got a mixed up playlist, DJ play this
Wanna hear a country song

Back in 2010, Chet Flippo, wrote an interesting post for CMT titled ‘Why the Term “Country Music” May Disappear’. Flippo writes:

Genre divisions in music have always existed, but they became an important marketing development over the last 100 years as the commercial recorded music industry grew and flourished and sold actual, physical product in huge numbers.
Now, as that enterprise dwindles and transforms into a song-dominated download industry, genre distinctions are becoming blurred and even non-existent for many listeners. As songs trump the notion of artists, artist loyalty may become eroded as well…
I suspect it’s pretty much a given that when albums finally disappear, so will genres, as genres… [W]hat has been defined as country will be a free-for-all.
And what about the future of country radio? They will find a way to survive. However devious it may be. They always do.
Flippo wasn’t entirely correct, given that downloading has increasingly given way to streaming, but the essential argument has turned out to be true. Mainstream country music may not yet constitute a free-for-all, but it is inching ever closer. And if country radio has indeed employed a ‘devious’ strategy of sorts, it is simply following the same strategy employed by the big Nashville record labels. That strategy has involved releasing numerous records classified as ‘country’ which manifestly either borrow heavily from other genres, or arguably really belong in other genres altogether – largely rock and pop.

The success of Sam Hunt – a hugely polarising figure in the country music blogosphere – gives an indication of how far ‘country’ music has now moved towards pop:

In Nashville, country music has been importing hip-hop flourishes since about 2012, generating signature hits for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, among others. Before abandoning this approach in favor of neutered warm-bath ballads, Florida Georgia Line built a career on it: The remix of its megahit “Cruise,” featuring Nelly, was the pioneer of the form.

But country did not truly have a modern pop star until the breakthrough of Sam Hunt four years ago. An intuitive melodist with hip-hop in his DNA, Hunt is a fully hybrid performer, and his 2014 debut album, “Montevallo,” is the new-sound prototype. He’s recently been joined by Kane Brown, who is part country traditionalist, part genre disrupter. Country stars have been mega-popular before — Garth Brooks, Shania Twain — but the music has not sat at the leading edge of pop ideology until now.

Numerous songs of recent years that have been classified as country and played on country radio are transparently more pop than anything resembling what was previously understood by the term ‘country’. Consider, for example, the 2017 hit ‘Meant to Be‘, performed by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line. It was classified as country and as such received heavy airplay on mainstream country radio, yet this is clearly simply an urban pop song. It’s hard to see how Kane Brown’s ‘Good as You‘ is country music. Dan + Shay’s ‘Speechless‘ is pop. Thomas Rhett’s ‘Look What God Gave Her‘ is pop. Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘Miss Me More‘ and ‘Dibs‘ are pop. Maren Morris’s ‘The Bones‘ is pop.

Even the singers who are held to be more ‘traditional’ on country radio are arguably producing music that at the very least is of mixed genre. Blake Shelton’s ‘God’s Country‘ is really a Southern rock track; Justin Moore’s ‘The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home‘ is a rock song and even his recent ‘Why We Drink‘ is really rock music with a little twang; Jason Aldean’s ‘Rearview Town‘ is rock with a Southern accent, and ‘Big Green Tractor‘ is country-themed pop rock; Luke Combs’ ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart‘ is a rock song and he has collaborated with country rapper Upchurch; Chris Stapleton is essentially a soul singer and has collaborated with Justin Timberlake.

There are a number of reasons for this significant shift in the sound of mainstream country music. Firstly, these songs are produced for the simple reason that they are popular and they sell (or stream). Despite what some online writers might lead you to believe, there is no grand conspiracy afoot here – it’s simply old fashioned American Capitalism in action. The Nashville machine isn’t churning out these records because it has some secret hatred of ‘traditional’ country music; if that style could sell hundreds of thousands of records then they’d still be promoting dozens of Hank Williams Senior soundalikes. The country radio audience’s tastes have shifted, just as they always have. The rock-influenced Waylon Jennings and co sounded very little like Appalachian folk music, and neither, in fact, did the blues-influenced Hank Williams. Hank Williams Jr brought R&B sounds into country because his generation liked that sound – and to make money. Sam Hunt brought influences from artists such as Drake into his music because he is part of a generation raised on hiphop and because there is a ready audience for that style. Florida Georgia Line mixed country rock with rap because younger generations enjoy both styles and, like them, listen to playlists with ‘a little Hank, a little Drake’. Record labels put out records that will sell. If the new country audience likes pop, rock, and rap, then that is what they will get – and have.

Secondly, massive social changes have taken place in America over the last two centuries, during which a largely rural country has shifted to being a largely suburban country. As Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire notes:

More that 90 percent of the U.S. population was rural in 1790. By 1920, that number had dwindled to just under 50 percent. Today, only 15 percent of the population resides in rural counties.

Today, farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totalling around 2.6 million people out of a population of more than 329 million. More than a third of rural counties have a shrinking population and the rural population growth that is occurring is increasingly non-white:

Hundreds of rural counties have far fewer people today than they did a century ago. In many, young adults have been leaving for generations, so few young women remain to have children. As a result, deaths exceed births in these counties, producing a downward spiral of population decline…

Other demographic changes are underway in rural America as well. The population is rapidly becoming more diverse. Minorities represent 21 percent of the rural population, but produced 83 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are particularly important to this growing rural diversity.

Children are in the vanguard of this change. The rural minority child population has grown significantly recently, while the number of non-Hispanic white children diminished.

This should come as no surprise, as rural whites have largely abandoned the land. While most farmers remain non-Hispanic white males, hired farmworkers (who make up less than 1 percentof all U.S. wage and salary workers) are mostly Hispanic, many of them migrants, about halfof them in the country illegally. The US Department of Agriculture notes:

Farm laborers are considerably less well educated, more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture, or than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.

The US rural population in 2015 was around 46 million, yet according to CMA Research, over 129 million Americans listen to country music (51% of US adults). Farmers make up a tiny proportion of the US population and most of the people they employ are Hispanic. The majority of Americans, then, now live outside rural areas and do not work in agriculture. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the majority of country music listeners also live in non-rural environments and have no involvement in agriculture. Country music has always been altering in the light of these social and economic changes. The idea that country music is in the main a manifestation of a living white rural culture that somehow exists in a state of separation from mainstream American culture is no longer plausible.

When country musicians sing about the rural life, they are providing a largely urban audience with a modern version of the agrarian myth. It’s nostalgia, not reality. Consider the case of North Alabama farmer J.D. Booker, who is cited in an article on the reliance of US agriculture on migrant labour:

J.D. Booker has owned his farm in Toney for 14 years. Booker is a former Marine and is not afraid of hard work. He said long hours is one of the reasons why there is a shortage of farm workers.

“It’s hard, hard work. Long hours. Sun up to sun down.”

Florida Georgia Line have sung:

Born and raised in the South
American and proud
Where the lost gets found
Livin’ off the land
And workin’ with our hands
Till the sun goes down

And likewise:

You see my roots are buried deep down in the South
And these boots don’t get muddy from sittin’ around
Out here in the holler, we work hard for a dollar,
From sun up to sun down.

Of course, in reality, farmers like J.D. Booker are not employing the singers from Florida Georgia Line, but Mexican workers instead, who don’t balk at the prospect of actually working on a farm ‘from sun up to sun down’.

As noted earlier, country music has documented the mass exodus of rural whites from the countryside and the rural economy into first a working class industrial life, and then into the suburbs. Increasingly, those Americans who vaguely look back to rural roots are actually university educated and working in white collar jobs. Modern country music illustrates this fact.

The first major transitional period in country music occurred after World War II, as ‘country’ people increasingly moved to urban areas to work industrial jobs. This period was defined by a sense of dislocation and is reflected in the often chaotic lives of singers of the time. With the shift to industrial society came relationship troubles and marital breakdowns, combined with a reliance on alcohol and other substances to get by. Looking at the lives of various key ‘classic country’ singers we see this played out in their personal lives.

Hank Williams was a twice married alcoholic who abused prescription drugs and died aged 29. Lefty Frizzell was an alcoholic and died at 47. Johnny Cash was twice married and abused alcohol and amphetamines. Johnny Paycheck was a drug user who spent time in jail and developed advanced-stage alcoholism. George Jones was married four times. Another alcoholic, Jones also abused amphetamines and cocaine, and was twice institutionalised as a result of his drinking. Merle Haggard was married five times and abused alcohol and cocaine. Such were the lives of these icons of country music.

The second major transitional period in country music has taken place in recent years, with the music’s audience shifting from being predominantly made up of members of the industrial and rural working class to being suburban, educated, and middle class. Recent CMA research confirms this shift: Country fans own their own homes at a higher rate than the general population, are employed full-time at a higher rate, are employed as executive/professional at a higher rate, and live in households with children at a higher rate. They are only marginally less likely to be graduates than the general population (35%/36%). Their average household income is more than $81,000 per annum (as opposed to $60,336 among the general population).

Today’s mainstream country stars live lives that are radically different to the blue collar divorce-ridden substance abusing singers of the past. Many country stars have attended university: Dierks Bentley (Vanderbilt), Lee Brice (Clemson), Luke Bryan (Georgia Southern), Eric Church (Appalachian State), Tyler Hubbard (Belmont), Sam Hunt (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Brian Kelley (Belmont), Dustin Lynch (Lipscomb University), Maren Morris (University of North Texas), Jake Owen (Florida State), Chase Rice (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Thomas Rhett (Lipscomb), Cole Swindell (Georgia Southern), Carrie Underwood (Northeastern State), Brett Young (Ole Miss), and Chris Young (Belmont). The singers weren’t studying agricultural subjects, but, rather, subjects such as Business Administration, Marketing, and Communications. In other words, higher education courses that would normally lead to middle class white collar work.

Many country singers are also happily married: Dierks Bentley (married since 2005), Lee Brice (married since 2013), Luke Bryan (married since 2006), Eric Church (married since 2008), Tyler Hubbard (married since 2015), Sam Hunt (married since 2017), Brian Kelley (married since 2013), Justin Moore (married since 2007), Maren Morris (married since 2018), Thomas Rhett (married since 2012), Carrie Underwood (married since 2010), Brett Young (married since 2018).

Today’s country singers and country listeners are increasingly successful and ‘respectable’ members of the American middle class. Yet, despite this shift into middle class society, the singers and fans are still drawn to an idealised image of the ‘country’. Joe Petrey lived in the city but drove a Chevrolet pickup truck with a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker. Many modern country fans arguably follow in that tradition. Indeed, the pickup truck remains an important signifier of a ‘country’ identity. James C. Cobb, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, argues:

With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today’s pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock, or much of anything else likely to scratch them. Though pickups continue to have some practical applications in theory, in practice, a great number of them serve their owners primarily as “lifestyle vehicles” or some might even say “lifestyle statements.” Indeed, for a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity.

Cobb compares the pickup truck of classic country with that of today:

More than 40 years later, the rusty rattletrap [David Allan] Coe had in mind is little in evidence in songs by Luke Bryan and others about good ol’ boys and gals dancing the night away to a deafening mix of country rock and hip-hop, or just sitting and sipping on the special “diamond plate” tailgate protector of a lavishly accoutered “big black, jacked-up” pickup, likely a Chevy Silverado, which Bryan himself favors.

Luke Bryan is not alone. References to Silverados turn up in the songs of, amongst others, Lee Brice (‘See About A Girl’ ), Billy Currington (‘Summer Forever’), Tyler Farr (‘Redneck Crazy’), Florida Georgia Line (‘Get Your Shine On’), and Tim McGraw (‘Lookin’ For That Girl’ ). However, auto market research shows:

The average household income of a new Silverado owner is about $76,000 per year and like the F-150, despite those romantic country images you see in advertising, the majority of new Silverados are owned in large and medium-sized cities.

Just as Cobb sees pickup trucks as ‘lifestyle vehicles’, Jon Smith argues:

Southern or otherwise, when a bourgeois man who doesn’t work with his hands affects a pickup truck or work boots, he generally expresses not an identity but a yearning for one.

This yearning for an identity is, of course, a particularly white phenomenon. Contemporary country music provides a way to claim an identity that is based largely on myth, nostalgia, and an idealised notion of ‘real America‘. It is no longer so much a manifestation of a rural culture than it is a fabrication of rural life and identity for mass consumption. Mainstream country songs do not focus on farm closures, the effects of tariffs on farmers, farming as agribusiness, the rise of the ‘mega farm’, the lives of migrant farm workers, and so on, nor do they focus on rural poverty and unemployment, or the opioid epidemic. The countryside of country music is filled with happy small towns, where people spend much of their lives partying and driving down dirt roads. The worst thing that happens in these small towns is having to deal with the aftermath of a couple breaking up. The small town, then, like the pickup truck, is more a symbol than it is a reality. It arguably represents another element in the construction of an identity for an increasingly urbanised white population.

Florida Georgia Line are particularly good at conjuring up the small town image. In ‘Y’all Boys‘ they sing:

Y’all boys with that Southern drawl, boys
Hell before you naw, rollin’ off just right
Man, that town is small, boys
But you have a ball, boys
Homemade alcohol on a Saturday night

In ‘Small Town‘:

If you leave your doors unlocked
If your garage is your body shop
If your dog’s got room to run
You might be from a small town
And if you’ve ever kissed a girl
Spinnin’ round on a Tilt-A-Whirl
At the county fair in the summer sun
You might be from a small town

And in ‘May We All’:

May we all get to grow up in a red, white, and blue little town
Get a won’t-start, hand-me-down Ford to try to fix up
With some part time cash from driving a tractor
Find a sweet little thang, wears your ball cap backwards
Kinda place you can’t wait to leave but nobody does
‘Cause you miss it too much

In reality, band members Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley grew up in Monroe, Georgia, and Ormond Beach, Florida, neither of which is a particularly small town. They met while studying at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Far from not leaving their ‘red, white and blue little towns’ because they would ‘miss it too much’, Hubbard currently lives in ‘a lavish estate outside Nashville’, while Kelley lives in a $6.24 million compound outside Nashville that ‘features three separate homes, a 500 sq. ft. recording studio and a bevy of bars’.

In ‘Thank God For Hometowns’, Carrie Underwood sings:

Thank God for hometowns
And all the love that makes you go round
Thank God for the county lines that welcome you back in
When you were dying to get out
Thank God for Church pews
And all the faces that won’t forget you
Cause when you’re lost out in this crazy world
You got somewhere to go and get found
Thank God for hometowns

Carrie Underwood grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, a genuinely small town. However, she sings of how she was ‘dying to get out’ of small town life, and she succeeded, winning the fourth season of American Idol in 2005. Following her TV success, Underwood embarked on a career in pop country music and has a net worth of around $80 million. She has recently moved from a 7,000 square-foot Nashville mansion, valued at over $1 million, to a $3 million 400-acre property in ‘the scenic and semi-rural suburbs of Nashville’. Underwood’s hometown may well ‘welcome her back in’, but she’s apparently got no interest in living there.

For both country music stars and urban and suburban country listeners, then, the ‘small town’, like the pickup truck, is about identity, not lived reality. The small towns of country music are not the small towns where Main Street is shuttered and most people shop at Dollar General or Walmart. They are not the small towns with high unemployment and large numbers of residents living below the poverty line. They are not Tchula, Mississippi, which has a 95% black population and 54% of its residents living below the poverty line. They are not the small towns where residents abuse oxycodone and crystal meth. They are not Clarksburg, West Virginia, AKA ‘Methburg’. They are not the small towns where a third of poor whites have abandoned church-going.

But the point of contemporary country music is primarily to entertain, not to strictly reflect reality, and that has always been the case in commercial country music. When country artists adopted cowboy names and clothing in the past, and sung about a world in which they had never lived, they were no less hypocritical or deceptive than Florida Georgia Line might be seen to be today.

The history of commercial country music is ultimately a history of white American identity, or the quest for one. It features mythical notions of the Old West, mythical notions of the family farm, mythical versions of the American small town. Its history also documents the changing tastes of white Americans and their changing social status and lifestyles. Early commercial country music called forth All American images of agrarian living and the iconic symbol of the cowboy. Country music after World War II began to incorporate elements from African American blues music, then African American rock ‘n’ roll music and R&B, and now African American hiphop music. Its history illustrates the long-running white interest in non-white music, yet these interests were rendered easier to ‘identify with’ when given the ‘country’ label and presented to whites by fellow whites. The fact that contemporary mainstream country music is now effectively a mashup of pop, rock, and hiphop is a reflection of the new world of white America. It is not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, as purists argue, but rather the inevitable evolution of a genre that has long been only vaguely related to the agrarian society in which it has its earliest roots.

The increasing marginalisation of ‘traditional’ country music styles in modern country music illustrate not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, but rather the passing away of older eras of white America and white American identity and their replacement with a new, more diverse, and less insular world: a world of shared cultural influences, of the Internet, of increasing racial tolerance (despite what the doom merchants may say in the era of ‘Trump’s America’), and even of increasing acceptance of those who are not heterosexual. Commercial country music still looks to an idealised vision of small town rural America as an image of American authenticity, complete with hard-working patriotic citizens who enjoy a cold beer or three and driving down old dirt roads in pickup trucks, but the citizens of this mythical small town are no longer racist and no longer live in a world so different from that of the suburbs. Whether or not country music can ultimately survive as a distinct genre in an increasingly urbanised world – and a world in which new methods of music consumption such as streaming and contextual playlists are continuing to take over from the traditional radio and album-based past – remains to be seen.

‘Southern’ Food That Isn’t

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

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

Ambrosia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken-Fried Steak:

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

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

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

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

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

Fried Green Tomatoes

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

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

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

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

Fried Oreos

Southern Living tells its readers:

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

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

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

Frito Pie

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

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

Pimento Cheese

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

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

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

Sweet Potato Casserole

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

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

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

Sweet Tea

Southern Living states:

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

However, writes Robert Moss:

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

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

Tater Tot Casserole

Southern Living states:

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

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

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

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 to 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.

Thomas Sowell and the Misrepresentation of Old South Culture

In 2005, Thomas Sowell, the renowned American economist and conservative social theorist, published a collection of essays entitled Black Rednecks and White Liberals. In the title essay (which can be read in full here), Sowell contends that negative behavioural traits and patterns found among ‘ghetto’ blacks in contemporary America – such as violence and murder carried out over ‘disrespect’, base pleasure seeking, and many children being born to unmarried mothers – arose not within the black community itself but, rather, through blacks in the Old South coming under the influence of lower class white ‘rednecks’, who came from the border regions of northern England and brought a unique and uncivilised culture with them. In making these claims, Sowell misunderstands and misrepresents the culture both of the Old South and of England.

Sowell argues:

More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education, violence, and sex — and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.

Sowell can’t quite seem to make up his mind as to whether there is a direct line between ‘rednecks’ of the past and ghetto blacks of today. At one point he states that ‘contemporary black ghetto culture in the United States is not, however, a simple linear extrapolation from the culture of Southern whites’, only to go on to state later in the essay: ‘Whether black redneck values and lifestyle are a lineal descendant of white redneck values and lifestyle, as suggested here…’ Essentially, the overall argument in ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’ is indeed that poor white Britons, who came to the South from the border regions of northern England (as well as from Scotland and Ulster), brought with them a degenerate culture that is the root of modern ‘ghetto’ culture:

What the rednecks or crackers brought with them across the ocean was a whole constellation of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going — and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst for centuries before emerging into freedom and migrating to the great urban centers of the United States, taking with them similar values. The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.

Leaving aside Sowell’s uncritical reliance on sources that were hostile to the South, there are a number of problems with Sowell’s argument, including a lack of understanding of English culture and the use of irrelevant material to supposedly strengthen his case.

I take no issue with the observation that there was drunkenness, violence, reckless behaviour, and premarital sex in the Old South, but Sowell’s claim that this was derived from a marginal culture found in the lawless border regions of England fails to understand the nature of England and its culture in general. Indeed, the notion that this was a uniquely ‘redneck’ phenomenon is undermined by Sowell himself, when he also cites the behaviour of the Southern aristocrats to show that the Old South was a terrible, violent place. Let’s look at each of these phenomena in turn.

Drunkenness

There is no doubt that ‘redneck’ culture (or that of ‘poor white trash’, as they were commonly referred to) was often reported to include a love of drinking alcohol, often to excess. In Daniel R. Hundley’s Social relations in our Southern States (1860), for example, we read of hill-dwelling poor Southern whites as follows:

Another evil which prevails greatly among the Sandhillers… is the iniquitous practice of drinking alcoholic beverages to excess. And then, too, such vile stuff as the poor fellows are wont to imbibe! Too lazy to distill honest peach or apple brandy, like the industrious yeomanry, they prefer to tramp to the nearest groggery with a gallon-jug on their shoulders, which they get filled with “bust-head,” “rot-gut,” or some other equally poisonous abomination; and then tramp home again, reeling as they trudge along, and laughing idiotically, or shouting like mad in a glorious state of beastly intoxication…

Yet the same book also refers to heavy drinking among rich Southerners:

When the rich Southern Bully comes into the possession of his estates, his first care is to fill his cellars (in case he has any, otherwise his store-room) with barrels of Old Eye, as well as brandy, gin, rum, and other kinds of strong waters, but rarely with any thing in the shape of wine. Wine may do for babes, but not for such a puissant gentleman as he fancies himself to be. Having laid in his stock of liquors, he proceeds immediately to gather about him a set of boon companions like himself — idle loafers, drunken over-seers, and may be one or two other fellows of like kidney; and now he devotes his nights to gaming, drinking, and coarse libertinism, and his days to fox-hunting, horse-racing, and the like.

In his essay, Sowell cites Frederick Olmsted’s Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom as an authoritative source. That same book also refers to drunkenness among wealthy Southerners, in this case planters Olmsted encountered on a steam boat in Alabama:

They were, generally, cotton-planters, going to Mobile on business, or emigrants bound to Texas or Arkansas. They were usually well dressed, but were a rough, coarse style of people, drinking a great deal, and most of the time under a little alcoholic excitement. Not sociable, except when the topics of cotton, land, and negroes, were started; interested, however, in talk about theatres and the turf; very profane… very ill-informed, except on plantation business; their language ungrammatical, idiomatic, and extravagant… I was perplexed by finding, apparently united in the same individual, the self-possession, confidence, and the use of expressions of deference, of the well-equipped gentleman, and the coarseness and low tastes of the uncivilized boor.

Elsewhere, we read of the wealthy of Alabama:

Traditions of aristocracy are deep-rooted in Selma, for most of the early settlers were well-to-do. The wealthy planter class was strong, and grew stronger as they built magnificent mansions, cleared 1,000-acre plantations, and planted cotton… Cotton was king. The planters enjoyed a halcyon existence, spiced with a taste for politics and liquor…

Significant alcohol consumption was common among wealthy Southerners from the earliest days:

Beverage consumption was deeply woven into Virginian social gatherings and hospitality, especially for elite planters. Almost every occasion was commemorated with alcohol, which was regularly consumed at funerals, weddings, court days, and elections. This common, regular consumption demonstrates how alcohol and other beverages were entrenched in one’s public appearance.

The Old South was awash with alcohol:

There can be little doubt that antebellum southerners drank too much. Temperance societies arose here and there, but they accomplished little… Most people, in fact, looked upon moderate drinking of hard liquors as beneficial, and “moderate” before the Civil War would probably be considered “heavy” today. Not long after the Louisiana Purchase a young Creole woman in Opelousas, Louisiana, criticized American men because they were always willing to take another bottle, even though they were already drunk. She seems to have been a fairly accurate observer.

There is a good reason for this widespread alcohol consumption in the Old South, which was practiced by every class, from planter aristocrats down to ‘poor white trash’ (Sowell’s ‘rednecks’). The reason is that the South was populated by settlers from England and the descendants of English settlers. The notorious English drinking culture goes back many centuries – as explored here – and it is this, not simply the presence of northern English borderers, that explains the drinking culture of the old South.

Violence

Sowell makes much of Southerners being quick to resort to violence in the face of a perceived insult, and he links this to contemporary black behaviour:

Centuries before “black pride” became a fashionable phrase, there was cracker pride — and it was very much the same kind of pride. It was not pride in any particular achievement or set of behavioral standards or moral principles adhered to. It was instead a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it.

Further on in the essay, Sowell again writes of ‘the many fights and deaths resulting from some insult or slight among people “touchy about their honor and dignity”‘, and claims that: ‘Again, all of this went back to a way of life in the turbulent regions of Britain from which white Southerners came’. Sowell’s ‘turbulent regions’ theory of violence in the Old South refers to his notion that it is from ‘rednecks’ that a culture of violence came, and that this culture then entered into the culture of Southern blacks. The problem with this theory is that much of the evidence cited by Sowell in support of the idea that the South was a particularly violent place actually refers to the upper classes.

On violence based around perceived insults, Sowell writes:

The history of the antebellum South is full of episodes showing the same pattern, whether expressed in the highly formalized duels of the aristocracy or in the no-holds-barred style of fighting called “rough and tumble” among the common folk, a style that included biting off ears and gouging out eyes… During the era when dueling became a pattern among upper-class Americans — between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War — it was particularly prevalent in the South… Most duels arose not over substantive issues but over words considered insulting.  At lower social levels, Southern feuds such as that between the Hatfields and the McCoys — which began in a dispute over a pig and ultimately claimed more than 20 lives — became legendary…

Sowell also cites an example of Southern violence taken from Olmsted’s book – the case of an armed duel which ended with the loser being killed with a knife. The problem for Sowell, here, is that he explicitly undermines his own thesis on the ‘redneck’ origins of Southern violence by pointing out the equally prevalent violence among wealthy planter aristocrats. Both rich and poor in the Old South were prone to violence, including violence over perceived insults. This clearly, then, contrary to Sowell’s overall thesis, was a Southern phenomenon, rather than a ‘redneck’ one, and cannot therefore be simply explained as dating ‘back to a way of life in the turbulent [border] regions of Britain’. And, again, it was also an English phenomenon.

The English in general have long been known as a violent people. In the medieval period, the southern counties of England were ‘more dangerous than Mexico today – and four times as dangerous as the United States’. The onset of modernity did little to change the violent nature of English culture, as quotes from nineteenth century books attest. James Anthony Froude noted that: ‘Invariably, by friend and enemy alike, the English are described as the fiercest people in all Europe (the English wild beasts, Benvenunto Cellini calls them)’. Similarly, the French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine wrote:

Here the temperament is different, more violent and more combative; pleasure is a brutish and bestial thing: I could cite twenty examples of this. An Englishman said to me, “When a Frenchman is drunk he chatters; when a German is drunk he sleeps; when an Englishman is drunk he fights.”

To this day, foreign visitors to England make similar observations. John Fleming quotes an Italian historian as follows:

The British fight in a totally different way.

If someone is offended, he turns suddenly and the most he says is “Fuck you!” then he immediately hits the other guy in the face with his fist. No-one has time to separate the two because, by the time they get there, a full fight has started. I saw it happen in a pub the second day I was in England and I have seen it many times since. Very few Italians have broken noses, but lots of English and Scots do because, with their sudden fights, there is no time to protect your face from the first punch.

The other facet which confuses foreigners is that so many British look like losers. They dress casually and shabbily, they don’t repair the legs of their spectacles for years and they look like they are past caring but, at some point, this apparently laid-back loser will turn round and break your nose. It is not a country where you insult someone lightly.

In 2014, the Portuguese academic João Magueijo wrote of his experiences in England and concluded:

I have never met such a group of animals. English culture is pathologically violent.

As with the drinking culture of the Old South, its culture of violence can also be far more adequately explained not through a flimsy argument based on the supposedly uniquely violent nature of the ‘redneck’ borderers, but rather by the fact that – again – the old South was largely founded by English settlers and their descendants (from the South and South West of England, the Midlands, and the border regions of northern England) and therefore exhibits strong similarities with the culture of England.

Reckless behaviour 

According to Sowell, ‘even where there was no conflict or hostility involved, Southerners often showed a reckless disregard for human life, including their own’. He continues:

For example, the racing of steamboats that happened to encounter each other on the rivers of the South often ended with exploding boilers, especially when the excited competition led to the tying down of safety valves, in order to build up more pressure to generate more speed.

It is unclear what this has to do with the ‘redneck’ culture of the border regions of northern England, which Sowell sees as the root of Southern (and black) recklessness. Indeed, the steamboat racing phenomenon has nothing to do with the culture of poor Southern whites and every to do with the gambling culture of the South, especially that of the wealthy:

The dominating vice of the antebellum period was gambling. Wagering was an exciting way of spending leisure time. In the early days, gambling among the social elite was essentially private. Isolated wagers would be made on a cockfight, the turn of a card, a steamboat race, or a horserace. Many of these activities were also orchestrated for public wagering, but no formal wagering authority existed. Steamboat racing was particularly popular, but the strain placed on the boats was blamed for boiler explosions and other river disasters.

Steamboat racing, then, had nothing to do with ‘redneck’ culture, and was one aspect of a far wider gambling culture – a culture arguably derived from the gambling culture of England, and brought to the South by English settlers. Steamboat racing may have involved a degree of recklessness, but so do motorsports today, for example. The case for a uniquely reckless Southern culture is very weak.

Premarital sex

Sowell writes:

Southern whites were as different from Northern whites when it came to sexual patterns as they were in other ways. Widespread casual sex was commented on by outside observers in both the American South and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners had come . Here again, the greatest contrast is with New England. While pregnant brides were very rare in seventeenth-century New England, they were more common in the Southern backcountry than anywhere else in the United States. A missionary estimated that more than nine-tenths of the backcountry women at whose weddings he officiated were already pregnant. In this, as in other respects, the “sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England.”

Here, the contrast between the sexual activity of rural Southerners and that of the sexually puritanical New Englanders is used to illustrate the supposedly aberrant nature of ‘redneck’ sexuality and its purported geographic uniqueness within England itself. It is worth noting that this is a false comparison: The fundamental difference between New England culture and Southern culture is that the former was an ‘American’ culture, while the latter was essentially the continuation of the culture of mainstream England on foreign soil. The New England culture was deeply concerned with sexual morality and its transgression in ways the South simply wasn’t.

Most importantly, was the sexual behaviour of poor Southern whites – especially the tradition of women being pregnant prior to marriage – solely a ‘border’ (‘redneck’) phenomenon? The simple answer is no. The following observations, for example, were written in the nineteenth century regarding the sexual customs of the people of rural Devon, in the South West of England (very far indeed from the northern border regions):

If a little may be said in favour of the poor girls, not a word can be said in favour of the agricultural men, who are immoral almost without exception, and will remain so until a better-educated generation with more self-respect arises. The number of poor girls, from fifteen to five-and-twenty, in agricultural parishes who have illegitimate offspring is extremely large, and is illustrated by the fact that, out of the marriages that take place—and agricultural poor are a marrying class—scarcely any occur until the condition of the girl is too manifest to be any longer concealed. Instances could be mentioned where the clergyman’s wife, with a view to check the immorality around her, has offered a reward of a piece of furniture to the first married woman who does not bear a child till nine months after marriage; the custom being within three months.

The sexual behaviour of poor rural whites in the South was patterned on the sexual behaviour of poor rural workers throughout England, then, and was not, therefore, uniquely a phenomenon of a ‘redneck culture’ derived from the border regions of northern England.

The drinking, violence, recklessness, and sexual behaviour found in the Old South were not, as Sowell would have us believe, rooted predominantly in the ‘redneck’ culture of people who came to the South from the border regions of northern Britain. They were, instead, well-established parts of the mainstream English culture of the period. When Englishmen and women came to the South from England (from a number of different counties and regions, and from a variety of social classes), they brought with them attitudes and patterns of behaviour that very often cut across class lines. White Southerners of all classes drank to excess, gambled, and got into violent altercations. Whatever moralists may make of it, this was not redneck culture – it was English culture.

The English Roots of Southern Fried Chicken

Southern fried chicken is a dish known throughout the world as one of America’s most iconic exports, as well as being, for many, the quintessential culinary representation of the culture of the Southern United States. Indeed, there are 900 KFC restaurants in the UK alone.

Most people, I imagine, would assume that Southern fried chicken is rooted firmly in the American South. After all, the clue is right there in the name. However, for those who may have an interest in the origins of this dish, a visit to any number of food-related websites will present a story of the dish coming about through a meeting of the foodways of Scotch-Irish immigrants and African slaves. So, we are presented with a romantic story of a meeting of the foodways of two underdog groups – indentured servants and slaves – which resulted in the creation of an iconic dish.

The current Wikipedia entry on fried chicken, for example, makes the following claims:

The first dish known to have been deep fried was fritters, which were popular in the Middle Ages. However, it was the Scottish who were the first Europeans to deep fry their chicken in fat (though without seasoning). Meanwhile, a number of West African peoples had traditions of seasoned fried chicken (though battering and cooking the chicken in palm oil). Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques were combined by enslaved Africans and African-Americans in the American South.

Another typical account reads:

The Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to the southern United States, had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat as far back as the middle ages, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken. When it was introduced to the American South, fried chicken became a common staple. Later, Africans brought over on the slave trade, became cooks in many southern households and incorporated seasonings and spices that were absent in traditional Scottish cuisine, enriching the flavor.

However, when one looks for evidence of a tradition of fried chicken in Scottish cookery, it is found to be lacking.

One example of fried chicken being mentioned in a Scottish context can be found in the travel journals of the Scotsman James Boswell. Boswell writes of a meal he enjoyed in the Hebrides in September 1773: ‘We had for supper… a large dish of fricassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken or something like it’. A prototypical fried chicken dish identified as a ‘A Fricassey of Chickens’ [sic] can be found in an English cookery book dating to 1725, but not in any Scottish sources I have been able to find, and this dish consists of chicken pan fried in butter, rather than deep fried in the supposed Scottish tradition.

Another example of fried chicken appearing in a Scottish context can be found in the 1825 Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, which has an entry for ‘fried chicken’, identifying it as being another name for a Scottish ‘broth’ called ‘friar’s chicken’. Interestingly, a correspondent writing to The Planter’s Review (a magazine for plantation owners in the antebellum South) in 1843, made the claim that ‘friar’s chicken’ is actually the original name for ‘the old Virginia dish, fried chicken’. The editors of The Planter’s Review rightly responded with incredulity: ‘We know and respect our correspondent’s love of ancient lore, which we think has mislead [sic] him a little upon the subject of Friar’s chicken. If to call a chicken which is fried, “fried chicken,” be a corruption, it is surely the most natural and excusable error of which we have ever heard’.

Two further examples of recipes for fried chicken in Scottish sources can be found in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, published in Edinburgh in 1825, and The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie – a book of recipes collected in the period 1841-1897 and published posthumously in 1909. Neither identifies fried chicken as a Scottish dish.

The Cook and Housewife’s Manual features ‘A continental method of dressing Cold Roast Fowls’:

Beat up two yolks of eggs with butter, mace, nutmeg, &c. Cut up the fowls, dip them in this, and roll the egged pieces in crumbs and fried parsley. Fry the cut pieces nicely in butter or clarified dripping, and pour over the dish any white or green vegetable ragout (that you may have left) made hot. Parmesan grated is used to heighten the gout of this dish.

The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie includes a recipe for ‘Fried Chicken Fillets’, which it names Gebackene Haendel, ‘a favourite supper dish at Vienna for the first month of spring chickens, when they are very young and plump’:

You take a plump little chicken, joint him and skin him, season the pieces delicately with cayenne, mace, salt, and pepper ; and fry him in a light batter in a saute pan, turning the pieces often as they cook, and he comes up dry outside, but juicy within. Squeeze a lemon over all if you like when dished.

The recipe is attributed to ‘John’/’JFC’. The author adds:

If for supper add a sauce in a boat made thus : Draw down the uncooked head, bones, and trimmings of the bird, with a little lemon peel to flavour; strain, and add a little mushroom to flavour, thicken the sauce with butter rolled in flour, add a liaison of 1 egg.

So, while references to fried chicken can be found in relation to Scotland, the only dishes that resemble the fried chicken we know today are attributed to continental Europe.

Friar’s chicken, on the other hand, is a soup-based dish, rather than anything like modern fried chicken, as made clear in the recipes found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (a 1747 English cookery book that also features a seminal fried chicken recipe), Maria Eliza Rundell’s Domestic Economy, and Cookery, For Rich and Poor (an 1825 English cookery book), Lady Harriet Elizabeth St. Clair’s Dainty Dishes (an 1866 book published in Edinburgh), The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, and The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie.

It is worth noting that salt, pepper, mace, and parsley feature consistently in recipes for friar’s chicken (as they do in later actual fried chicken recipes), that one recipe states that ‘the meat may be nicely browned in the frying-pan, before it is put to the soup’, and that the carrot, turnip, and onion stock called for in another bears some resemblance to the marinade in the 1911 fried chicken recipe of the African-American chef Rufus Estes. However, the notion that Southern fried chicken has any direct link to Scottish cooking is clearly without merit.

So, if the Scottish side of the Southern fried chicken narrative does not stand, then what of the claim that this ‘Scottish’ dish was combined with an African fried chicken tradition and ‘West African seasoning techniques’?

In his fascinating book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, the African-American scholar Adrian Miller examines numerous sources and ultimately concludes that ‘we can’t say for certain that fried chicken existed in precolonial West Africa’ (p.52) and that ‘[w]hile it’s difficult to assert a clear African provenance for American-style fried chicken, some evidence points to Britain’ (p.53). I will look at that body of evidence below, but it is perhaps worth briefly addressing the claim that ‘West African seasoning techniques’ are evident in Southern fried chicken recipes.

Looking at numerous recipes dating from 1824 to 1922 (and many more beyond that, up to the present day) found in American cookery books, authored by both white and black cooks, the seasoning for fried chicken remains remarkably similar: salt alone (1824), and salt and pepper (1839, 1878, 1881, 1883, 1885, 1886, 1913, 1916, 1917, 1922). What we find consistently is that Southern fried chicken is seasoned using simply salt and pepper. The notion that Southern fried chicken somehow benefited from the use of ‘West African seasoning techniques’, then, is likewise without merit.

If Southern fried chicken does not, after all, find its genesis in a meeting of ‘Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques’, where, in fact, does it come from?

In 1725, the Englishman Robert Smith published Court Cookery: or, The Compleat English Cook. This collection of recipes was, as the introduction to the book states, intended for the wealthy elite (‘the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain’). It is worth noting that this book was published a century before The Virginia Housewife, the earliest major Southern cookery book.

The dishes in Smith’s book include what is arguably a prototypical fried chicken recipe:

Take Rabbets [sic] or Chickens; but if Chickens, you must skin them; cut them into small Pieces, and beat them flat, and lard them with Bacon; season it with Salt, Pepper and Mace; dredge it with Flower [sic], and fry it in sweet Butter, to a good Colour.

This dish, Smith writes, is to be served with seasoned gravy (‘season it high’), sliced lemon, force-meat balls, crisp bacon, and fried oysters.

Also included are a recipe for pickled pork (a dish which remains ‘a staple of Cajun & Creole kitchens’ in Louisiana today); a recipe for ham which is salted and then smoked (similar to the ‘country ham’ of the contemporary South); a recipe for fried apple pies (another dish found in the South today); and a recipe for potato pie, which is seasoned with mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, and salt (and therefore has noticeable similarities with modern Southern recipes for sweet potato pie).

Eleven years later, in 1736, the Englishman Nathan Bailey published a book titled Dictionarium Domesticum: Being a New and Compleat Household Dictionary, For the Use Both of City and Country. The Dictionarium Domesticum includes the following recipe for ‘A Marinade of Chickens’:

Cut the chickens into quarters, and marinade them in the juice of lemons and verjuice, or with vinegar, salt, clove, pepper, chibols: or a bay leaf or two: Let them lie in this marinade for the space of three hours, then having made a sort of clear paste or batter with flour, white wine and the yolks of three eggs, drop the chickens into it, then fry them in lard, and serve them up in the form of a pyramid, with fry’d parsley and slices of lemon.

When prepared, this dish clearly resembles what we now know as fried chicken.

1747 saw the publication of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a book that went on to be not only very popular in England but also in the United States:

Her cookbook was on Martha Washington’s bookshelf; Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both had copies as well, with Franklin enjoying it so much that he brought it with him to France and had some of the recipes translated so he could keep eating Glasse’s food while abroad.

Glasse’s simple language, aversion to wastefulness, and belief that anyone could make great food fit in perfectly in the US.

Amongst the numerous dishes listed in Glasse’s book, we find recipes for calf’s chitterlings (‘blanche and boil them like hog’s chitterlins’), pickled pig’s feet and ears, fried potatoes and mashed potatoes, crawfish soup, potato pudding, and pound cake. We also find a recipe titled ‘To Marinate Chickens’:

Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay-leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter; some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat all very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in. Let them be of a fine brown, and lay them in your dish like a pyramid, with fried parsley all round them. Garnish with lemon, and have some good gravy in boats or basons.

The inclusion of gravy, sliced lemon, fried parsley and laying the chicken pieces in a pyramid shape shows clear continuity with the recipes of Smith and Bailey. The use of sliced lemon and parsley also shows some similarities with the fried chicken being cooked in Vienna, Austria, at the time.

Given the popularity of Glasse’s book among the elites of the US, we can say with certainty that her fried chicken recipe would have been in circulation, and Thomas Jefferson’s admiration for the work provides an interesting link to the state of Virginia, a state whose First Families were of English descent.

From one of those families came a woman named Mary Randolph, whose family had ‘roots extending back to the colony’s formative years’ and who went on to be the first person ever buried on the grounds which would become Arlington National Cemetery. In 1824, Randolph published the seminal Southern cookery book, The Virginia Housewife. The book was a great success, and Thomas Jefferson wrote to Randolph, thanking her for sending him a copy, which he said he held in ‘high respect and esteem’.

The Virginia Housewife includes a number of dishes similar to those found in modern Southern cooking, such as okra and tomatoes, catfish soup, barbecue pork, cornbread, mashed potatoes, macaroni pudding (macaroni and cheese), sweet potato pudding (sweet potato pie), and pound cake. It also features a recipe for fried chicken:

Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown.

The chicken is to be served with fried mush (leftover cornmeal), fried parsley, and a milk and parsley-based gravy. The similarities with the aforementioned English recipes for fried chicken are clear, despite Randolph’s recipe being somewhat simpler. Arguably, it is here that we see the true genesis of Southern fried chicken.

The recipe went on to be developed to include pepper as well as salt for the seasoning (as seen in Lettice Bryan’s 1839 book The Kentucky Housewife), which was really a return to the approach of Robert Smith, but little else changed for many years to come.

The continuity is clear: Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 book The Carolina Housewife calls for a cream and parsley gravy to accompany the fried chicken; Marion Cabell Tyree’s recipe in Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1878) features a butter and parsley gravy, and fried mush; Estelle Woods Wilcox’s The Dixie Cook-Book (1883) includes a milk gravy; ML Tyson’s The Queen of the Kitchen (1886) recommends a cream gravy, parsley garnish, and fried mush; Laura Thornton Knowles’ Southern Recipes Tested By Myself (1913) has a milk or cream gravy accompaniment; and Echos of Southern Kitchens (1916), published by The United Daughters of the Confederacy, California Division, swaps flour for cornmeal but keeps the cream gravy.

The recipes of African-American cooks have the same approach: Abby Fisher’s fried chicken recipe in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881) uses only salt and pepper for seasoning; Rufus Estes’ recipe in Good Things To Eat (1911) features a marinade similar to that of Nathan Bailey, and a fried parsley garnish; and Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes (1922) calls for salt and black pepper.

While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty how Southern fried chicken came to be, we can nonetheless suggest there is a strong probability that it has its origins in England. The idea that fried chicken was a Scottish dish is demonstrably false, for, aside from two 19th Century recipes for Backhendl (Viennese breaded fried chicken) found in books published in 1825 and 1909, Scottish sources are silent. There is likewise little to suggest that Southern fried chicken is actually a variant of a purported traditional African dish brought to America by slaves.

It seems highly likely that Backhendl is a ‘cousin’ of the fried chicken recipes found in English cookery books, as both use pan frying in lard, and feature parsley and lemon wedges as garnishes. Which came first, it is hard to say. However, there appears to be no direct connection between Backhendl and the development of fried chicken in the Southern United States. There were German immigrants to Virginia, but these were not drawn from aristocratic circles (Backhendl was a dish of the upper classes), and traditional Southern fried chicken does not employ the breading technique of the Viennese recipe.

We know that fried chicken was seen in the antebellum South as an ‘old Virginia dish’. We also know that fried chicken was already featuring in English cookery books a significant amount of time before the publication of The Virginia Housewife. Furthermore, we know that the Virginia elite (for whom fried chicken was prepared) were very strongly linked to England and made use of English recipes. So, when the sources are studied and the options considered, arguably the most convincing explanation for the emergence of Southern fried chicken is that the dish is an outgrowth of the cookery of upper class England.

The rise of intensive farming techniques and the emergence of fast food restaurants has resulted in Southern fried chicken becoming, today, a global phenomenon available to rich and poor alike. In 2017, UK customers spent an estimated £2.2bn in chicken restaurants. Little did most of them know that the ‘American’ food they were buying in all likelihood actually originated here.


 

Post-script: 

In the South, fried chicken is commonly served with biscuits and mashed potato and gravy. Mashed potato and gravy are clearly of English origin. Hannah Glasse’s book includes a recipe for mashed potato, and gravy is a common accompaniment for meat dishes in English cookery. Biscuits share a common root with the scones of Britain.