A Brief History of Southern Food
Regional cuisine develops as local food supplies blend with the varied cultural
backgrounds of its cooks. The rural agricultural South produced vegetables,
fruits, nuts, rice and corn. Game was plentiful: deer, rabbits, squirrels,
birds and ducks of all kinds. Oysters, crabs, shrimp, saltwater and freshwater
fish were easily procured. Native Americans, Spanish, English, African Americans
and French contributed varied ways of preparing the foods they found here
or brought from their homes.
Early European settlers starved until they listened to their Indian neighbors
and learned to enjoy corn, squash, pumpkins, beans of every color, wild onions,
blueberries and blackberries, native plums and cherries. Eventually lima beans,
chocolate, white and sweet potatoes and peppers made their way to our area
from Latin America. Corn, the fundamental gift of Native Americans was not
always appreciated. Early Frenchwomen along the Gulf Coast rebelled when they
were forced to use gritty meal for bread instead of their good white wheat
from France. But they survived on corn made into ashcakes, hoecakes, and johnnycakes.
Every one seemed to enjoy the Indian popping corn.
In the sixteenth century, another Southern food staple trotted into Florida,
Georgia, and the Carolinas behind Hernan de Soto's small army of explorers.
The Spanish brought pigs along as a moving meat market. Some of these porkers
ran away or were stolen by the Native Americans to become the ancestors of
today's wild pigs. Baked ham, country ham and cornbread are still very "Southern".
The earliest European settlers were looking for quick wealth so agriculture
in the South didn't take off until African farmers were brought here. African
Americans brought seeds of collard greens, peas, okra (kumba), yams, watermelons
and sesame (benne). They used the same farming techniques they had learned
in Africa, creating a surplus of crops that became the basis for traditional
The rural South of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced few
cities outside of ports like Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans. Travel
was difficult. Lonesome homesteads and plantations were far apart. Guests
expected to visit for days if not weeks. Not only did they need to rest, but
they brought news and entertainment to isolated families. Chickens and pork
were served in every possible fashion. Salted, smoked country hams were boiled
and baked and served with beaten biscuits. Greens and their potliquor were
served with cornbread. Desserts featured ambrosia, trifles, sweet potato and
pecan pies. Barbecues, and fish feasts drew distant neighbors together. At
oyster roasts, oysters were steamed, fried, stewed, served in patties or just
During the first half of the nineteenth century many of the richest citizens
of the United States lived in the South. Based on slave labor and ever expanding
land to the west king cotton reigned. When Southerners feasted they made a
good job of it. The following menu for an 1857 supper is from the Hammond-Harwood
House's cookbook, Maryland's Way.
Crab Flakes Maryland
Veal and Ham Pie, Jellied
Augustine's Chicken Croquettes
Goose in Aspic
Chilled Sliced Tomatoes
A Trifle with Syllabub
Lemon Iced Cream
Little Sponge Cakes
Maids of Honor
Now this was only supper, not a full-blown dinner and luckily for all those
19 inch waists, there was no dancing afterwards.
Corn in all its forms filled Southern tables. Hominy was served as a breakfast
porridge and leftovers fried for supper later that day. There could be cornpone,
corndodgers, grits and the delicate spoonbread too soft to be eaten by hand.
Did hushpuppies really get their namefrom hunters around a campfire throwing
their fried corn to the dogs to keep them quiet?
From the 1860's to the 1930's the South was the economic red-headed-step-child
of the United States. Its cooks learned to "make do" with the most
common cheapest foods. Loving hands still created good home cooking. When
it was available pork, chicken and game provided protein. Vegetable gardens
produced greens and potatoes. Pork fat and flour made a rich gravy. Leftovers
made good stews and gumbos. Stale bread became sweet dessert. When times became
better in the South, most African Americans were left out. The old standbys
became the ingredients of Soul Food. Soul Food is created and enjoyed with
all senses. A good cook doesn't depend on measuring spoons or cups. She uses
her instincts and her senses. She listens for the just right temperature of
frying oil; looks for the perfect color of biscuits; feels for texture, and
smells when the bread us just about ready; and tastes for seasoning. And when
you eat, you want to use all your senses , too.
Creole and Cajun cooking developed in Southern Louisiana. Basically Creole
cooking is city style and Cajun is rural. They both use many of the same locally
grown ingredients. Creole refers to a native development from the French and
Spanish colonial period. At one time anything grown locally was termed "creole",
so you could buy creole eggs, creole cream cheese, creole beef, etc. Today
the area's best tomatoes are creoles. Both styles have been influenced by
Indians, French, African Americans and Spanish. Both styles use fresh local
food but the preparation is different. Creole cooking is more elegant. Fish
and rice and a sauce might be used but in Creole dishes the sauce would be
more delicate and the ingredients served separately. In Cajun cooking it would
be more likely to put all the ingredients in one pot and serve it as a one
dish meal. Cajun cooking us known for its spiciness. If you're not born Cajun,
There is no one single type of cooking throughout the South. What is red
beans and rice in Louisiana is more like to be peas and rice, or "hoppin
john" in South Carolina while in Florida you find black beans and rice.
In Virginia and Maryland crabs are steamed and then seasoned while along the
Gulf Coast they are boiled in highly seasoned water. In Appalachia you find
the freshest vegetables and "red-eye gravy" with your country ham.
In North Carolina verbal warfare has been known to break out over the use
of tomatoes in barbecue sauces. Home cooking has been the best of Southern
food but today's restaurants are changing that picture. Corn, greens, pork
and chicken are still Southern mainstays. At Christmas you find baked ham
and turkey, sweet potatoes, rice, corn or oyster dressing and ambrosia and
pecan pies anywhere in the South.
Here are two great books if you want to read more about Southern Cooking.
Egerton, John; Southern Food ; University of North Carolina, Chapel
Hill, N. C.;1993.
Ferguson, Sheila; Soul Food; Grove Press; New York, N.Y. 1989.