The South

Regional History and Influence on Cuisine


The roots of Southern cuisine predate the arrival of the English and Spanish in the Americas. As in most other areas of the United States, Native Americans of the region heavily influenced the cuisine. When the settlers founded Jamestown, in the Virginia Colony, they encountered the Powhatan tribe of the Algonquian Native Americans and shared a dish of succotash, venison, and berries. The Native Americans' diet included meat and seafood cooked over open fires, thought of by many as the original barbecue. Game stews, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and corn were also staples of this region.

New Settlers

After the Carolinas were founded in 1670, the first wave of settlers moved south and west, eventually crossing the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky. The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, called the Philly Road, was completed in the 1750s and linked Philadelphia to South Carolina. The immigrants traveling down the Philly Road were typically of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, and German descent. From Augusta, Georgia, wagons left the Philly Road and followed the nation's second road, the Upper Federal Road, through Georgia and Alabama to bring goods to market towns like Columbus, Mississippi. A second wave of immigrants split off from the Philly Road in North Carolina in the 1790s to settle in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the valleys and plateaus of Tennessee.

The Old South

The Old South can be defined as the states of the pre-Civil War period from 1820 to 1860 and consisted of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Arkansas became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and received statehood in 1836. Its tie to the South was its main crop, cotton. During the pre-Civil War period, the main cash crop in all of the Southern states, from North Carolina to Texas, was cotton. The tobacco and cotton plantations led the economic growth of the South and, in turn, provided the materials for the industrialization of the North.

The New South

The Reconstruction era began with the emancipation of the slaves after the Civil War. Cotton plantations, small family farms, subsistence farming, and sharecropping defined the region's economy. By 1900, the expansion of Southern railways, cotton textiles, tobacco and forest products, and the iron, steel, and coal industries were the benchmarks of the New South. During the 1920s cotton was still the region's main cash crop, others being rice, sugar, and tobacco.

The cultivation of apples, peaches, peanuts, pecans, and soybeans also began about this time. President Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933 allowed Southern farmers to replace 50 percent of the topsoil depleted by cotton acreage with soybeans, peanuts, hay, wheat, and truck crops. Truck crops included fruits such as peaches, apples, grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe, and blueberries.

Major Influences

When Rice Was King

The introduction and successful cultivation of rice was a significant development in colonial South Carolina. From the mid-1700s to the late 19th century, South Carolina was the nation's leading rice producer and rice was exported by the ton. Rice cultivation, which required intensive labor, provided the basis for an extensive slave-based plantation economy. Charleston was an affluent port serving wealthy plantation owners in rice production. Rice became a staple used frequently in the cooking of the Low Country—an area of swampy marshes, inlets, and bayous that extends from Orangeburg, South Carolina, to the coast, and the length of the state from the North Carolina border to Georgia's Savannah River. Southerners added rice to casseroles, soups, breads, and puddings.

Although the production of cotton and tobacco eventually surpassed that of rice in South Carolina in the first half of the 19th century, rice culture had a significant impact on the landscape, economy, and society. The Civil War, hurricanes, and the end of slavery took their toll on the rice industry in South Carolina, and by the end of the 1800s, most rice production had moved to Texas, California, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Southern Plantations

The agricultural economy and much of life in the South revolved around plantations. Magnificent estate houses and extensive gardens reflected the gracious living, hospitality, and elegance of plantation life in the South. A complete plantation complex as it existed in the 18th and 19th centuries functioned as a small self-sustaining town. The mansion for the owner and his family was generally flanked by a number of outbuildings including the overseer's house, slave quarters, summer kitchen, smokehouse, icehouse, poultry house, cotton barn, and corn house. Slaves raised crops, tended livestock, and cultivated gardens. The smokehouse was an integral component of every plantation and a cured ham represents one of the original elements of the Southern diet. Poultry was also an important part of the Southerner's diet. Most plantations kept a variety of domesticated fowl, including chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, and turkeys. Chickens were the most popular, and Southern fried chicken is a mainstay of the traditional Sunday dinner.

Wealthy planters enjoyed the finest of everything and served elegant, elaborate, labor-intensive meals to guests. They had the financial resources to import costly spices, wines, and fine European foods. Controversial as it was, this lifestyle became known as “Southern hospitality,” and even those who lived in humble circumstances prided themselves on being gracious and welcoming to guests.

The African Influence

The food and style of cooking in the South was profoundly influenced by the African slaves. Not only did African-American slaves introduce many now basic foods, such as okra, yams, black-eyed peas, collard greens, sesame seeds, and watermelon, they also brought cooking techniques that had been familiar to them in West Africa, such as deep-fat frying. Working as plantation cooks both during and after slavery, they were considered to be even better cooks than the French chefs who had been brought to America. Southern food replaced the plain, bland English cooking and African Americans developed much of what is now thought of as Southern regional cooking.
But the slave cooks had to be creative and inventive when they cooked for their own families. They were provided only the waste products after preparing the finer cuts of meat for their owners. Pork was the staple meat of the region, and it was rendered into lard while the hog's skin was fried and called “cracklings.” Other ingredients commonly used by slaves included hoofs, ears, tails, brains, and intestines. With food supplies limited to the vegetables that they could grow, and only a limited amount of free time for hunting or fishing, slaves relied on their African traditions to combine complementary ingredients with small portions of meat stretched to flavor vegetable dishes. The term soul food referred to food made with feeling and care, and that came from the soul, or one's memory. Recipes were typically handed down through the generations by word of mouth. When millions of African Americans migrated to northern industrial cities in the 20th century, soul food became a way to recognize and celebrate their African-American identity.

For many years, Fripp Island, St. Helena's Island, and the nearby Sea Islands were cut off from mainstream South Carolina. As a result, a small group of freed African-American slaves, known as “Gullahs,” were able to preserve their culture. The Gullahs came from what is now Sierra Leone in West Africa. Most notable was their language—a mixture of contemporary English, older English, and African. They developed their own music and their own rice and fish dishes, and they wove grass baskets that were both sturdy and colorful. Food in this culture took the form of one-pot meals and are represented by recipes such as Frogmore stew, a blend of shrimp, blue crab, sausage, potatoes, and corn. Red rice, hoppin' John, okra soup, shrimp and grits, pilau, peanut soup, and red beans and rice have their origins in these islands as well.

Mountain Cooking

When the first pioneers came to the Southern Appalachian Highlands that now are made up of the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama, they faced a constant struggle against known and unknown dangers. But the hardy English, Scotch, Irish, Germans, and others tamed the wilderness and left their mark on the region. Industrious and ingenious, these early settlers cultivated fruit, berries, and nuts, as well as grew vegetables, collected honey, and had livestock. By necessity, tastes were simple, food was plain, and thrift was a natural way of life. With neighbors living miles apart, trails rugged, and communications slow, they learned to make the most of what they had on hand. Cooking was done by early settlers in open fireplaces and brick ovens and was more of an art than a science. Fruits and vegetables were preserved in brine or sugar, or both, in order to have foods for the winter months. A great variety of sweet-and-sour preserves, pickles, chow-chows, and relishes were put out at every meal. Ducks, quail, doves, wild turkeys, and geese were the most sought-after game birds. Other small quarry such as rabbit, squirrel, and raccoon were also used and often roasted, fried, stewed, or smothered in a sauce or gravy.

Southern Living

Rich or poor, native or immigrant, the South's style of cooking made food a central feature of Southerners' lives. Throughout the region's history, Southern hospitality has revolved around Sunday dinners and public feasts, and the tradition of getting together is taken seriously. It is worth noting that what the rest of the country refers to as “lunch,” Southerners call “dinner” and their evening meal is called “supper.” No matter the purpose, Southerners are known for their abundant food and timeless, gracious hospitality.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 3.2.5).