Southern Food is known as a regional style of cooking in America. It is distinct. It is often classified as ethnic - whether called southern home cookin' or soul food. Newspaper and magazine articles extolled southern cooking in the early through mid-1900s as a distinct style of cooking. Barbecue pitmasters, fried chicken cooks, biscuit champions, small country ham producers, the cake and pie recipes of countless southern ladies, a few colorful cajuns with big personalities and a knack for telling humorous stories and even the legendary Colonel in his white suite, became institutions. In some ways, Southern food is more popular now than ever.
What, however, makes southern cooking unique? The South is a collection of states that lie between the Mississippi River and south of the Mason Dixon Line, encompassing an area somewhat larger than the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. The Southern states are at least as old as the northern states. So, why is southern cooking distinct from American cooking in general? Although often classified as ethnic cuisine, Southern cooking is distinct form all ethnicities - Southern cooking is not found in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Africa, France or anywhere else our Ancestors came from. It is unique.
When my Pilgrim ancestors came south, after disembarking the Mayflower and briefly occupying the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were Johnny-come-latlies to the south. The first English "permanent" settlement in America was Jamestown. Before that was the "Lost Colony" of Sir Walter Raleigh. The Spanish were here before and during that time. Before both was, of course, the Indians - Native Americans in today's parlance. When my (Dutch) Pilgrim ancestors got here, they met both my English ancestors who had been here for a while and my Native American ancestors who knew no other homeland. Sometimes, they met a mixture of both... The Lumbee Tribe.
My family has many roots and branches in the Cheraw and Pone Tribes (probably more), amd we have a lot of Lumbee blood. The Lumbees are widely believed (although it has never been proved) to be a mix of Cheraw (and maybe Tuscarora, Cherokee and Waccamaw) Indians with the descendants of the Lost Colony. It is very common for Lumbees to have brown or even red hair, green eyes and English surnames. Therefore, I would consider the my ancestral homeland, in the low country swamps of Virginina, North Carolina and South Carolina, to be America's first true melting pot.
The South was populated by Indians, English, Irish, Scottish, Scots-Irish, French, German, Dutch and some Swiss... predominately. The English dominated the coast and near-inland areas, where royal land grants gave them huge plantations. The Irish usually stayed at the coast or went a step further inland to prove to the English that they could own as much land and become just as damn prosperous as the bloody English. The Scots took to the mountains (for the highlanders) and the lowlands - for the loyalist followers of Scottish Queen Flora MacDonald, who took refuge in eastern North Carolina. The Scots-Irsih went where the British forced them to go, generally resenting everyone and forming very loyal bonds with each other. The Germans settled, largely in the piedmont favoring the foothills area and the Dutch, generally between them and the Scots. The Africans, of course, went where they were taken as slaves. The Indians hunkered down in area where white folks dared not tread. There were not as many French who settled in the south (outside of Louisiana) but, thank God, those who did settled along the ports and great rivers... making up about half of my ancestry. Italian and Jewish settlers came later, predominately settling in the larger, already established cities.
All of the above ethnicities and nationalities had their influence on Southern food. Why then, is Southern food considered ethnic? We do not have (for the most part) China-towns, Little Italys or Jewish neighborhoods like other regions. We do not have large, identifiable German, Polish and Chech neighborhoods like the midwest. We do not have major Mexican influences like Tex-Mex cuisine. Outside of Louisiana's Creole influence, we do not have any major, formal European influences on our cooking.
BTW: For the sake of this blog, I will not consider Cajun food as ethnic. Mainly, this is because Cajun food is so very similar to my family's own home cooking - the French, English, Irish and Native American influences lined up in much the same way. In fact, some of the Fench in my family may have come via Acadia. When the British drove the French from the area around Nova Scotia, they were sent to many areas outside of Louisiana... some even mutinied against their British captors and landed in various areas of the Southern coast, drifting inland to escape the British Colonial government. Interestingly, about the time the British expelled the French from those northern Canadian islands, new French surnames began to appear in the Huguenot community on the Cape Fear River that my family called home. So, while Cajun cooking is a distinct tradition, for the sake of this blog, I will call it Southern.... one could hardly call it anything else. Hell, the Quebecois sure don't cook southern!
So, there is not a single distinct major ethnic or national influence on Southern Cooking that would somehow differentiate it from American cooking. Perhaps then, the Southern states were founded later in American history like the west coast, Alaska or Hawaii... that would make them new and different than the food traditions that "grew up with the country." But, no, the South was settled before the New England states. Jamestown, VA was founded in 1607 and settled in 1616. Charleston and Georgetown, SC, Savannah, GA, Saint Augustine, FL, New Orleans, LA, etc were utilized before then, but the Spanish must have tired of shrimp and grits and moved on... the Europeans fought it out amongst themselves and we ended up fighting the British. I suppose that if the French had won, I'd start with the first French settlement, but they didn't, so I won't.
Anyway, the first English settlements and colonies in America were in the South. Not surprisingly, the first American Revolutionaries were southern. The first Americans to declare independence from England, muster into a fighting force and whip their pasty, arrogant, inbred asses were southern. Near modern day Elizabethton, TN, a group of (mostly) Scottish and Scotts-Irsh mountain men had a settlement. They were fiercely independent. They worked together, in the Jeffersonian model, each man providing for his family, tending his own land and banding together with his neighbors for the common defense and good. They called themselves the Watauga Settlement. They were mostly minding their own business when the British Colonial Government sent tax collectors and political officers up to enforce their loyalty and tax payment. They told them to go to hell... or back to England. The Brits came back and told them to swear allegiance to the crown or die. The Over Mountain Men (as they called themselves) met and decided to teach the Brits what a bunch of southern woodsmen could do. They marched, over the mountains and through the woods, for hundreds of miles to meet the British forces at Kings Mountain, NC. There, they so badly defeated General Ferguson and his well trained and armed British forces that they were eradicated. Most of them then marched to Cowpens, SC and defeated the British a second time. These were America's first major victories and General Washington would soon credit the Over Mountain Men with not only showing the colonists that the mighty British army could be defeated, but how.
The southerner, George Washington would go on to have many victories and to become our first president. In fact all of our early presidents were Southerners - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. These were the men who fought the Revolution, wrote the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and The Federalist Papers. Southerners founded and defined America. Sure, yankees helped, but they followed the lead of the South. They dumped tea in the Boston Harbor. We made corn whiskey, refused to pay taxes on it, drank a lot of it and defeated the British.... twice (including the War of 1812).
If the peoples who settled the South were not distinctly dissimilar than those in the north, how then did such a sharp distinction in food traditions come about? According to Chef Walter Staib (Chef at Pennsylvania's City Tavern and star of television's A Taste of History), the most popular cookbook (or most indicative of cooking styles) in colonial times Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple. Glasse's cookbook showed strong British and German influences. Most (I haven't tried all) of the recipes are superb and many still find homes in Southern kitchens, where her name and book are likely unknown. The great, heavy meat dishes often using organ meats certainly deserve a popular comeback! The first regional cookbook and, if I am not mistaken, the first cookbook published in America, was The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. Mrs. Randolph was a relative of both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (Arlington was Lee family land). She was the first person to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Mrs. Randolph's book is spectacular! Although many of her recipes would fit well in The Art of Cookery, her book also included Fried Chicken, Cornbread, Okra, biscuits and many other Southern specialties. Thomas Jefferson also wrote a cookbook and Martha Washington left a collection of recipes - each of these included high class English and European recipes along with southern food like sweet potato muffins and macaroni and cheese. (Surprise! Mac and Cheese is Southern - Thomas Jefferson invented the dish!) Following Mary Randolph, came cookbooks along the same theme by other prominent women, including the Carolina Housewife and the Kentucky Housewife.
By the early days of our nation, a Southern cooking style had been established, but was not entirely dissimilar to cooking in the northern states, as Fannie Farmer's book shows, but including regional dishes. So, the ingredients then, must be distinctly different in the South. Well, not really. Sure - there are some vegetables that grow better in the warm climate of the South. These foods mainly include those native to this continent. When the early explorers landed, they found the Indians eating foods unknown to Europe - turkeys, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, pumpkins, chili peppers, egg-plant, peanuts, etc. The explorers took those foods back to Europe and by the time America was settled, most of these foods were common in European countries. The British were, of course, the hold outs always hesitant to embrace "foreign" influences. Even when tomatoes were so popular that they were thought to be native plants to Italy, Spain and France by most Europeans, the British still believed them to be poisonous. It was Thomas Jefferson who finally convinced the the Americans of English descent to eat them. The northern colonists then, were likely as aware of most native American foods as Southerners - but, as peppers, tomatoes, squash and such grow better in the South, Southerners would obviously use them more. Also, hard wheat grows better in cooler climates so northerners could more easily bake European style breads. Southerners had to make do with soft wheat biscuits and corn bread. Beyond that, Southerners had more ready access to cane sugar than maple sugar, blue crabs than lobster and corn whiskey than home brewed beer. Southerners also had access to a few vegetables of African origin thanks to slavery - most notably okra and cowpeas.
So, save the differences in a handful of foods, southern ingredients, cooking styles and heritage were largely similar to those of the north. How then, to explain the differences that would develop over the next hundred years or so?
My convoluted and unproven theory is based mainly on two factors - poverty and immigration. In the early years of our nation, most of the wealth was in the South. Longer growing seasons meant increased agricultural output with which the north simply could not compete. Ports from Maryland to the mouth of the great Mississippi River teamed with trade in rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco, molasses, tar, whiskey and much more. Moreover, the South was rich with gold - major deposits especially in North Carolina and Georgia. Much of the land in the South was owned by large farmers and opportunities for new immigrants did not come as easily as they did in the north with its smaller farms and larger cities. Immigrants poured into the north especially into Philadelphia, New York and Boston. These European immigrants certainly brought stronger Italian, German, Irish, etc influences to the communities in which they thickly populated. This is not intended to be a criticism of northern food - I'll eat my weight in pizza or perogies any day! I'm just pointing out the differences.
Even before great immigration differences though, the Revolutionary War took a great toll on the South. Having barely recovered from the Revolution, the War of 1812 began. To put it in perspective, my 8th (if my math is right) great-grandfather, who fought in the Revolution had barely settled down to raise a family when he was again called to fight in the War of 1812 at the age of about 50. Barely two generations later, his grandson would fight for the South in the Civil War. The Civil War devastated the South. In the Civil War (or War of Yankee Aggression as I insist on calling it), 700,000 to 1,000,000 Americans were killed in battle. Southerners were out numbered and approximately 3 Southerners were killed for every northerner. Additionally, nearly all of the battles took place in the South and civilian Southern casualties were massive. To put it in perspective, consider the impact of the Vietnam War in American society. No Vietnam battles were fought on American soil and approximately 58,000 Americans were killed in battle or as POWs. Moreover, the war criminals Sherman, Grant and their ilk burned Altlanta, GA, Columbia, SC and other Southern Cities to the ground, killing civilian men, women and children. They traveled the rivers burning large homes. They burned crops, slaughtered livestock, killed every boy old enough to hold gun, raped the women and left men, women and children, white, black and Indian to starve. To put that in perspective, just remember how rightfully outraged we all were when terrorists killed over 3,000 people in the World Trade Towers, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania - four jets, 3 building and 3,000 people senselessly killed by evil men, as opposed to hundreds of thousands and entire cities burned.
In no way do I mean to minimize the Vietnam War or 9/11, or to justify slavery (there were many causes to the Civil War, among which one was slavery - many who did not own slaves or support slavery fought for the South mainly on the principle that having just fought the Revolution for the right to voluntarily form a government, they retained the right to leave that union). My point is that the South was decimated. In my own family, only one man was left who bore our family name. Had my ancestor not fathered a son before he left for Fort Fisher, the entire line would have been wiped out. He was captured by the Yankees, became sick due to inhumane conditions on the ship in route to prison in NY, was thrown overboard and drowned alive. Families were decimated, homes destroyed, generations of wealth lost, disease ran rampant and society was shattered.
Following the Civil War came Reconstruction - a years long process in which the north purposely sought to punish and weaken the South for rebellion and the assassination of President Lincoln. They suspended Southerners rights to vote, appointing local, state and federal political figures who would do the bidding of the north. They drained the South of its wealth. This led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in response and furthered divisions between races and religious denominations that shattered much of the unity left in Southern Society. Old Southern Families, like my own, include Catholics whose roots run just as deep and who have shed just as much blood for the South as any protestant (most of the state of Louisiana, for instance). They suffered immensely as the Klan took particular revenge on Catholics, blaming them for supporting the abolition of slavery. My Native American ancestors, who had shared churches and inter-married somewhat freely with whites before the War was now faced segregation and Jim Crow laws. They had to build their own churches and schools and even fought actual armed battles with the Klan. Things were certainly flawed in the old South, but in many ways, or at least for many people if not for others, they were even worse following the War.
Barely had the South recovered from the Civil War, when World War I began. Then came The Great Depression. Then, World War II. It was really not until the 1950s that the South would begin to catch up with the rest of the nation in terms of industrialization and prosperity. Then, of course, came the social upheaval of the 1960's, then the decline of farming and manufacturing in the 1980's and 90's... and in many ways those last few blows destroyed the remaining fabric of the traditions that defined the South.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself...
If the food traditions of north and South were largely similar in early America, my theory is that the differences truly developed after the succession of wars and upheavals that the South experienced and was affected by so much more dramatically than the north. The north industrialized, modernized, attracted immigrants, grew and prospered, while the South did so at a much slower rate. This is not only the reason that northerners consider Southerners backward, but also the difference in our food. Traditional Southern cooking remained largely as it was in the beginning. Southerners continued farming out of necessity. Southerners continued hunting and fishing out of necessity. Southerners remained close to their elders due to the agricultural nature of the South. Families had to pull together during hard times. With survival came pride in survival and Southern traditions. Southerners took pride in our food... not to mention our music - country, blues, jazz, bluegrass, rock n' roll, soul, r&b, gospel, etc - our friendliness, manners, small towns and other traditions that stood in contrast to the north.
To sum up my theory, in many ways, when northerners re-discovered southern cooking in the 1900s they were drawn to it because it reminded them of their own grandmothers' cooking. It was a rediscovery of tradition in the face of a quickly modernizing and changing world. Now, they are still drawn to it (as is everyone else), often calling it comfort food. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the South has become infected with the same fast food and broken family culture as the rest of the nation and we are quickly losing those traditions. I invite you to join me in Reclaiming Southern Food.