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Southernfood.com, L.L.C.
1205 Johnson Ferry Rd Suite 136-419 Marietta, GA 30068

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Southern food History

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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 Southern Hospitality.

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 raw.

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.

Supper

Crab Flakes Maryland

Veal and Ham Pie, Jellied

Dressed Cucumbers

Augustine's Chicken Croquettes

Goose in Aspic

Chilled Sliced Tomatoes

Hot Rolls

A Trifle with Syllabub

Peach Ice

Lemon Iced Cream

Little Sponge Cakes

Maids of Honor

Queen's Punch

Claret Cup

Cherry Bounce

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, taste first.

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.



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