Origins of Southern Cuisine
Southern cuisine is defined as the regional culinary form of
states generally south of the Potomac River, and extending west to
The most notable influences come from
African American, Scottish, Irish, French, American Indian,
British, and Spanish cuisines.
Soul food, Creole, Cajun, Lowcountry, and Floribbean are examples of Southern cuisine. In
recent history, elements of Southern cuisine have spread north,
having an effect on the development of other types of American
Many items such as squash, tomatoes, corn
(and its derivatives, including grits), as well as the practice of
deep pit barbecuing were inherited from the southeastern American
Indian tribes such as the Caddo, Choctaw, and Seminole. Many foods
associated with sugar, flour, milk, eggs (many kinds of baking or
dairy products such as breads and cheeses) are more associated
The South's propensity for a full
breakfast (as opposed to a Continental one with a simple bread
item and drink) is derived from the British fry up, although it
was altered substantially. Much of Cajun or Creole cuisine is
based on France, and on Spain to a lesser extent. Floribbean is
more Spanish-based with obvious Caribbean influences, while
Tex-Mex has considerable Mexican and native tribes touches.
American Indian Cuisine
Southern American Indian culture is the
"cornerstone" of Southern cuisine. The immigrants could not have
survived without the instruction and assistance of American
Indians, who had mastered hunting, planting, and food processing
in this environment thousands of years before the Europeans
arrived. From their culture came one of the main staples of the
Southern diet: corn, either ground into meal or limed with an
alkaline salt to make hominy, also called masa, in an American
Indian technology known as nixtamalization. Corn was used to make
dishes from the familiar cornbread and grits to liquors such as
whiskey and moonshine, which were important trade items. In most
of America "hominy" came to mean lye hominy, or whole kernels that
had been skinned but not ground.
The Indians also introduced Europeans to
the concept of true slow cooking with smoke. In the 16th century,
the Spanish introduced the pig to North America, while the Indians
showed them how to cook it.
A lesser staple, potatoes were adopted
from American Indian cuisine and were used in similar ways as
American Indians introduced the first
Southerners to many other vegetables still familiar on southern
tables. Squash, pumpkin, many types of beans, tomatoes, many types
of peppers and sassafras all came to the settlers via the native
Many fruits are available in this region.
Muscadines, blackberries, raspberries, and many other wild berries
were part of Southern American Indians' diet.
Southern American Indians supplemented
their diets with meats derived from the hunting of native game.
Venison was an important meat staple due to the abundance of
white-tailed deer in the area. They hunted rabbits, squirrels,
Virginia Opossums, and raccoons. Livestock, adopted from
Europeans, in the form of hogs and cattle were kept. When game or
livestock was killed, the entire animal was used. Aside from the
meat, it was not uncommon for them to eat organ meats such as
liver, brains and intestines.
This tradition remains today in hallmark
dishes like chitterlings (commonly called chitílins) which are
fried or boiled small intestines of hogs, livermush (a common dish
in the Carolinas made from hog liver), and pork brains and eggs.
The fat of the animals, particularly hogs, was rendered and used
for cooking and frying. Many of the early European settlers were
taught Southern American Indian cooking methods, and so cultural
diffusion was set in motion for the Southern dish.
Main article: Soul food
Plantations were born
after Southern settlers realized the region's great potential for
agricultural profit. The wealthiest land owners began to cultivate
the land in larger tracts, utilizing mostly African slaves to work
Most Africansí diets consisted of greens,
various vegetables, and also stews were common and rice was a
familiar staple to them. Foods that became part of the Southern
diet from African heritage include eggplant, kola nuts, sesame
seeds, okra, sorghum, field peas, black-eyed peas, African rice
and some melons.
The term "soul food" dates only to the
first half of the 1960s, and to some extent can be considered an
expatriate version of Southern country or home cooking familiar to
both blacks and whites of the South. There are many stories about
white Southerners going to other parts of the country and having
to seek out African-American restaurants for the food they grew up
on. In some cases they have been told they cannot get certain
grocery items and to try the foreign sections.
Generally speaking, white Southerners
traditionally eat the same food prepared the same way as black
Southerners. However, there are subtle differences in preparation,
such as types of spicing, and in certain regions, such as Florida,
there are distinct variations between white Southern and black
Southern cuisine. There are also class and/or racial differences
affecting the Southern table in significant ways. For example, the
less palatable or nutritious results of butchering, such as
chitlins and pig's feet, were often the only meats available to
slaves or people living in poverty (which affected a larger
percentage of the African-American population), and creative
solutions to making such food edible are therefore more a part of
black Southern cuisine than white.
As more African Americans enter the middle
class and become health- and weight-conscious, they find
themselves confronted with the decision of whether to abandon
certain high-salt, high-fat, low-nutrient food items previously
eaten only from necessity, or to embrace them out of cultural
loyalty or personal preference. Grits play such a role for some
Southerners of both races in having become a fashionable
"Southern" dish, but still being associated in the minds of many
Southerners with the unvarying menu of their poverty-stricken
Much of Southern cuisine developed from
African foods and traditions of preparation. Often in charge of
Southern kitchens, from slave times on down to the institutional
kitchens of schools, African Americans have played a pivotal role
in the development of Southern cuisine. In addition, many famous
Southern restaurants have had African Americans as their chefs,
and barbecue restaurants, whether owned and patronized by blacks
or whites, typically have an African American as pitmaster.
A niche market for Southern food along with
American comfort food has proven profitable for chains, which have
extended their market across the country, instead of staying
solely in the South. Other Southern chains specialize in this type
of cuisine, but have decided mainly to stay in the South. Pit
barbecue is popular all over the American South; many rural places
even sport several locally run locations, although this is rare in
most other parts of the country.
There are many individual family style
restaurants based on the cuisine of the American South. Despite
the down-home image of many Southern-influenced restaurants, some
are more upscale. There are several chains with mass produced
items of Southern cuisine on their menus, such as Cracker Barrel,
Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits,
Church's Chicken, Mrs. Winner's, Sonny's, and Popeye's.