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.

The Diet of Black American Slaves and the Diet of the English Rural Poor

Slave narratives provide valuable insights into the kinds of foods that were given to the black slaves of the Southern States of North America, which varied somewhat, but shared a number of core foodstuffs in common.[1][2][3] The slave diet that emerges from these narratives is one that included boiled meat, pickled pork, salt bacon, fat meat, chitterlings, ribs, pickled pigs’ feet and ears, greens (particularly collards and cabbage), pot liquor, beans, cornbread, dumplings, and molasses. The adult slaves tended to eat various kinds of meat – largely pork products – and lots of vegetables, while their children were often given the pot liquor left over from the cooking, eaten with cornbread or dumplings, as well as greens and molasses.

Some of the narratives mention the gardens that slaves maintained, which provided many vegetables that enriched their diets. Robert Shepherd of Georgia recalled that his master taught him how to grow vegetables (‘My Old Marster done larnt me how to gyarden’) and that ‘He allus made us raise lots of gyarden sass such as: beans, peas, roas’in’ ears, collards, turnip greens, and ingons (onions)’.[4] Julia Larken, also of Georgia, similarly reported: ‘On de other side of de house was a large gyarden whar us raised evvything in de way of good veg’tables; dere was beans, corn, peas, turnips, collards, ‘taters, and onions’.[5]

While much in the slaves’ diet is unappealing to modern tastes, the widespread assumption that it was somehow uniquely bad does not appear accurate when the diet of poor whites – both in the South and in England – is examined. Without doubt, slavery was a vile and brutal institution. Many slaves were not adequately nourished and the manner in which slave children reportedly often received their food – in troughs of the type used to feed farm animals – shows the utterly degrading manner in which they were treated and viewed. However, the diet itself was not dissimilar to that of poor white people. In fact, with its reported wide variety of vegetables, it was likely more nutritious than the foods eaten by some whites.

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

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

And the next day:

I was almost tired in baptizing of children — and laid myself down for the night frozen with the cold without the least refreshment, no eggs, butter, flour, milk, or anything, but fat rusty bacon, and fair water, with Indian corn bread, viands I had never before seen or tasted.[6]

Woodmason also commented on the lack of concern the slaveholding class showed towards poor whites:

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.[7]

The meats given to slaves, such as pickled pork, chitterlings, and pigs’ feet and ears were not as unappealing as they may appear today. In the colonial and post-independence South, items such as chitterlings and pigs’ feet and ears were enjoyed by the wealthy, as evidenced by recipes of the time.[8] Indeed, accounts exist of slaves being punished for not preparing chitterlings to their masters’ satisfaction,[9] and foods such as pickled pork and pigs’ ears and feet appear in English cookery books written for the kitchen staff of the wealthy elite that were hugely popular in the colonial period and beyond.[10] Chitterlings were also enjoyed by rural Southern whites and were a much celebrated food well into the 20th Century, playing an important role in the construction of a regional identity.[11] While, in the later era of slavery, chitterlings and the like had ceased to have the status of prestige foods, they were far from being unappetising detritus that was merely endured, and were evidently enjoyed by the slaves. Their continuing popularity within the ‘soul food’ tradition is illustrative of this fact.

The ‘variety meats’ given to the slaves were not in any way part of a uniquely Southern diet, either. In fact, just as they had originally been much favoured foods of the English elite, they had also, as in the South, over time become in England associated with the poor. When slaves ate chitterlings, brawn, pigs’ feet, and so on, they were not consuming a uniquely depraved diet. Indeed, such items were an important part of the diet of the English poor as late as the 20th Century. In Gloucestershire, chitterlings, sweetbreads, and fat bacon were still being eaten; in Bristol, faggots, pork ribs, chitterlings, and pigs’ cheeks; in Dorset, chitterlings and brawn; and, in the West Midlands, chitterlings, cows’ udders, chickens’ feet, pigs’ feet, brawn, and brains.[12]

When the diet of the slaves is compared with the diet of the English rural poor, we see that it was essentially almost identical. Even the much-talked-of ‘potlikker greens’, which is an important dish within both Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking today, was not unique to the slaves, and was also eaten in England. In the slave diet, we see pot liquor being eaten with cornbread and dumplings. Today, ‘potlikker greens’ are commonly served with cornbread, which is used to ‘sop up’ the pot liquor. The idea of using bread to ‘sop up’ dripping, gravy, or liquids has a long history in England (see, for example, a 1761 definition in The Royal English Dictionary [13]) and the ‘sop’ was ‘one of the most common constituents of a medieval meal’.[14] In 18th Century England, the poor subsisted on a diet of foods such as ‘water porridge and garden greens’ (similar to grits and greens), as well as bread, treacle (molasses), potatoes, dumplings, broths, and stews.[15] The similarity with the slave diet is clear. Rabbit stew and dumplings is an example of an English dish of the era that still survives today, and it can also be found in the slave narratives (see the account of Will Sheets of Georgia).[16]

In 1892, the English writer Richard Jefferies published an account of the lives led by the rural labourers of his home county of Wiltshire, expanding upon a piece he originally wrote for The Times in 1872.[17] Jefferies noted that the poor English agricultural labourer ‘presents in his actual condition at this day a striking analogy to the agriculturist of a bygone time’. Jefferies wrote about the diet of these agricultural labourers, arguing that ‘a more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth’. The ‘usual fare in the small farmhouses’, wrote Jefferies, consisted of ‘the traditional bacon and greens dinner’. This was mirrored in the diet of Southern farmers who, according to an 1860 article in The Southern Cultivator magazine, ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’ (collards being colewarts; strong leafy greens of the cabbage family, originally brought to colonial Virginia from England).[18]

However, in the cottages of the poor labourers, the diet consisted ‘chiefly of bread and cheese, with bacon twice or thrice a week, varied with onions’. The bacon was described as ‘the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff’, and greens in fact made up the bulk of the labourers’ diet:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity… [H]is vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity.

As for the children:

Their food is of the rudest and scantiest, chiefly weak tea, without milk, sweetened with moist sugar, and hunches of dry bread, sometimes with a little lard, or, for a treat, with treacle. Butter is scarcely ever used in the agricultural labourer’s cottage. It is too dear by far, and if he does buy fats, he believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping. Children are frequently fed with bread and cheap sugar spread on it. This is much cheaper than butter. Sometimes they get a bit of cheese or bacon, but not often, and a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor.

Just as gardens were important for the slaves’ diet, Jefferies writes of the poor English rural labourer: ‘Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have’.

The English rural poor of 19th Century England, then, ate a diet of strong cabbage and pot liquor, cheap cuts of meat, bread, animal fats, and molasses. They also relied on their vegetable gardens as a principle source of their sustenance. This diet is almost identical to that reported in the slave narratives, although foods such as pickled pork and chitterlings are notably absent. Even the foods given to children – pot liquor, bread, and molasses – are identical to those given to the slave children of the Southern plantations.

The diet of the slaves, then, was neither uniquely bad, nor uniquely Southern. The manner in which slaves were treated – and the fact that they were being held in bondage – is obviously worse than anything experienced by poor whites in the South or by the English rural poor, but the food they were given to eat was often no worse than that being eaten by white agricultural labourers. Sometimes, the diet of slaves was arguably better than that of poor Southern whites, and it was essentially identical to the diet of the poor rural whites of England. It seems highly likely, in fact, that the rations given to slaves in the South were modelled on the diet of the poor of England. Given the fact that slavery in the South was first instituted under English colonial rule, and given the fact that slaves in the South rubbed shoulders with poor white indentured servants of English origin, it is unsurprising that the foods of the slaves so closely parallel those of the rural poor of England. The diet of slaves was not uniquely bad, or even uniquely Southern, even if the monstrous way in which the slaves were often treated was.

Foods of the Old South

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the next day:

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

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

Cornbread and Grits:

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

Fried chicken:

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

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

Fried chicken now became available to all.

Biscuits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbecue:

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

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

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

Hoppin’ John:

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

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

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

Gumbo:

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

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

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

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

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

Jambalaya:

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

Deviled Eggs:

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

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

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

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

Sweet Potato Pie:

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

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

‘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.

The English Origins of Sweet Potato Pie

The sweet potato is native to South America and Christopher Columbus records its discovery in his journals from his fourth voyage (to Yucatan and Honduras). Columbus introduced the sweet potato to Spain around 1493 and by 1500 they were an established crop in Europe. Sweet potatoes were ‘enormously popular in sixteenth century Europe, especially England’.[1] Sweet potato enthusiasts included Sir Francis Drake and King Henry VIII, whose favourite foods included heavily spiced sweet potato pies.[2] Sweet potatoes even make an appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (‘Let the sky rain potatoes…’).

Sweet potatoes were grown in Spain and, at considerable expense, imported to England, where the climate was unsuitable for their cultivation. Attempts to grow them in England had been unsuccessful, with, as John Parkinson writes in his Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), ‘the roote rather decaying than increasing in our country’.[3] ‘Spanish potatoes’ continued to appear in English recipes, with Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727), for example, including recipes for a ‘sweet lamb pye’ and a ‘sweet chicken pye’ which called for sweet potatoes.[4] Hannah Glasse likewise includes ‘To make a very fine sweet lamb or veal pye’ (made with ‘Spanish potatoes’) in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747).[5] However, generally there was a switch in English cookery from the sweet potato to the white potato, which grew well in England. Where once sweet potatoes were mixed into spiced pies and puddings, it now became more common to find sweet root vegetable dishes made using potatoes, carrots, and artichokes.

An early printed recipe can be found in the 1685 edition of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (first published in 1660). May’s recipe is titled ‘To bake Potatoes, Artichocks in a Dish, Pye, or Patty-pan either in Paste [pastry], or little Pasties’ and reads as follows:

Take any of these roots, and boil them in fair water, but put them not in till the water boils, being tender boil’d, blanch them, and season them with nutmeg, pepper, cinamon, and salt, season them lightly, then lay on a sheet of paste [pastry] in a dish, and lay on some bits of butter, then lay on the potatoes round the dish, also some eringo roots, and dates in halves, beef marrow, large mace, slic’t lemon, and some butter, close it up with another sheet of paste, bake it, and being baked, liquor it with grape-verjuyce, butter and sugar, and ice it with rose-water and sugar.[6]

Robert Smith’s Court Cookery: or, The Compleat English cook (1725) includes a number of recipes for dessert dishes made using potatoes, carrots, and artichokes.[7] Smith, states the book, was a cook to King William III, the Duke of Buckingham, and others amongst the nobility and gentry of England, for whom his book is intended (it opens with the words ‘To the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain…’). Smith’s recipe for pies made using artichokes or potatoes calls for the tubers to be boiled and sliced, seasoned with mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and salt, then mixed with the marrow of three bones, fruit, and preserves. We also find two recipes for carrot puddings, as well as a recipe for ‘An admirable Potatoe Pudding’:

Take two pound of white potatoes, boil and peel them, and beat them in a mortar, so small, as to not be discovered what they are; then take half a pound of butter, and mix it with the yolks of eight eggs, and the whites of three; beat them very well, and mix in a pint of cream, and half a pint of sack [sweet fortified wine], a pound of refined sugar, with a little salt and spice, and bake it.

As well as containing two recipes calling for sweet potatoes, Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727) also includes a recipe titled ‘To make a Carrot Pudding’:

Take raw carrots, and scrape them clean, grate them with a grater without a back. To half a pound of carrot, take a pound of grated bread, a nutmeg, a little cinnamon, a very little salt, half a pound of sugar, and half a pint of sack, eight eggs, a pound of butter melted, and as much cream as will mix it well together; stir it and beat it well up, and put it in a dish to bake; put puff-paste [puff pastry] at the bottom of your dish.[8]

Later in the same century, yams imported from the West Indies started to be incorporated into English root vegetable pies and puddings. Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) includes a recipe for ‘Yam pudding’:

Take a middling white yam, and either boil or roast it, then pare off the skin and pound it very fine, with three quarters of a pound of butter, half a pound of sugar, a little mace, cinnamon, and twelve eggs, leaving out half the whites, beat them with a little rose water. You may put in a little citron cut small, if you like it, and bake it nicely.[9]

Hannah Glasse included this recipe in later editions of her seminal work The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy.[10] Also found in The Art of Cookery are three potato pie recipes, one of which reads as follows:

Take two pounds of white potatoes, boil them soft, peel and beat them in a mortar, or strain them through a sieve till they are quite fine; then mix in half a pound of fresh butter melted, then beat up the yolks of eight eggs and three whites, stir them in, and half a pound of white sugar finely pounded, half a pint of sack, stir it well together, grate in half a large nutmeg, and stir in half a pint of cream, make a puff-paste and lay all over the dish and round the edges; pour it in the pudding, and bake it of a fine light brown.[11]

These cookery books were not only popular in England, but were also hugely popular across the Atlantic, because ‘British cookery dominated food preparation in the English-speaking colonies in North America’.[12] As ‘most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks’,[13] initially imported from England, and later republished in America.[14] Amongst these books, those of Elizabeth Raffald and Hannah Glasse were two of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[15] Indeed, in the case of Glasse:

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.[16]

The root vegetable pies found in the works of Raffald and Glasse would, therefore, have well-known in colonial America, as well as in the post-independence period. The recipes include mashed root vegetables, butter, eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg, and cinnamon. When we look at American recipes for root vegetable pies made using sweet potato, pumpkin, and squash, it quickly becomes clear that these are variants of the original English recipes, incorporating ingredients from the New World. The Northern cookery book Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie (1837), for example, includes recipes for pumpkin, squash, yam, sweet potato, and potato puddings.[17] All of them are variations on a theme – using eggs, butter, cream, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Southern cookery books likewise feature recipes for root vegetable pies, with sweet potato becoming particularly popular as time went by (unsurprising, given the South’s climate is ideal for their cultivation). Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824), for example, contains a ‘sweet potato pudding’ recipe that blends the approaches of Raffald and Glasse (and earlier English authors), incorporating mashed sweet potato, eggs, sugar, butter, brandy, lemon peel, and citron. ‘Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner’, notes Randolph, ‘but is not so good’.[18]

Skipping forward a few decades, an Alabama cookery book titled The Gulf City Cook Book (1878), for example, offers the following recipe for sweet potato pie:

One pound of potatoes boiled and rubbed smooth, half pound of sugar, a small cup of cream, one fourth pound of butter, four eggs; nutmeg and lemon to suit the taste; bake in a crust.[19]

Minnie C. Fox’s The Blue Grass Cook Book (1904), offers a collection of recipes popular among the wealthy elite of Kentucky, many sourced from black cooks.[ref] The book offers two recipes for sweet potato pie. The first recipe uses butter, cream, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, while the second includes lemon rind, brandy, and ‘fine bits of citron’.[20]

Last but not least, it’s worth also looking at the sweet potato pie recipe found in Abby Fisher’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881).[21] Fisher’s book is of historical interest, as Fisher was a former slave and plantation cook, and her book is one of the first cookery books written by an African American. Perhaps we might find something more unusual in her sweet potato pie recipe? Well, yes and no. Fisher’s recipe does incorporate orange juice and orange peel – where most other sweet potato pie recipes of the citrus variety make use of lemons – but even here this simply harks back to the recipes of Hannah Glasse, whose second and third potato pudding recipes include ‘the juice of a Seville orange’ and ‘orange peel cut thin’.[22]

King Henry VIII of England dined on sweet potato pies in the sixteenth century, and the seventeenth century recipes of King William III’s cook include a potato pudding seasoned with mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. The recipes of English cookery books that were hugely popular in colonial and post-independence America likewise include recipes for sweet puddings and pies made using potatoes and other root vegetables. When these recipes are compared with recipes for sweet potato and pumpkin pies found in cookery books of both the northern and southern states, we see that they are clearly derived from the cookery of England. Sweet potato pie is today seen as quintessentially Southern, and mass produced versions can be purchased cheaply in American grocery stores, yet it started its life as a luxury dish found on the tables of royalty and the gentry of England.

The English Roots of Southern Barbecue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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