The cuisine of the Southern United States is the historical regional culinary form of states generally south of the Mason–Dixon line dividing Pennsylvania and Delaware from Maryland as well as along the Ohio River, and extending west to southern Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.
The most notable influences come from African, English, Scottish, Irish, German, French, and Native American cuisines. Tidewater, Appalachian, Cajun (colloquial for Acadian, referring to the Acadians deported south in 1755-63), Creole, Lowcountry, and Floribbean are examples of types Southern cuisine. In recent history, elements of Southern cuisine have spread north, having an effect on the development of other types of American cuisine.
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 with Europe. Black-eyed peas, okra, rice, eggplant, benne (sesame) seed, sorghum, and melons, as well as the spices can be attributed to peoples of African origin.
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 English fry up, although it was altered substantially. Much of Cajun or Creole cuisine is based on France, West Africa, Caribbean and on Spain to a lesser extent. Floribbean is more Spanish-based with obvious Caribbean influences, while Tex-Mex has considerable Mexican and Native American influences.
Traditional Southern Dishes
A traditional Southern meal is pan-fried chicken, field peas (such as purple hull peas), greens (such as collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, or poke salad), mashed potatoes, cornbread or corn pone, sweet tea, and a dessert that is usually a pie (sweet potato, chess, shoofly, pecan, and peach are traditional southern pies), or a cobbler (peach, blackberry, or mixed berry are traditional cobblers). At least a dozen soups also have their origins in the American South.
Some other foods and beverages commonly associated with the South are grits, country ham, hushpuppies, Southern styles of succotash, mint juleps, chicken fried steak, buttermilk biscuits (may be served with butter, jelly, fruit preserves, honey, gravy or sorghum molasses), pimento cheese, boiled or baked sweet potatoes, pit barbecue (especially ribs), fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, bread pudding, okra (fried, steamed, stewed, sauteed, or pickled), butter beans, pinto beans, and black-eyed peas.
Fried chicken is among the region’s best-known exports. It is believed that the Scots, and later Scottish immigrants to many southern states had a tradition of deep frying chicken in fat, unlike their English counterparts who baked or boiled chicken. Pork is an integral part of the cuisine. Virginia ham is one example. Stuffed ham is served in Southern Maryland. A traditional holiday get-together featuring whole hog barbecue is known in Virginia and the Carolinas as a “pig pickin'”. Green beans are often flavoured with bacon and salt pork, biscuits served with ham often accompany breakfast, and ham with red-eye gravy or country gravy is a common dinner dish.
It is not uncommon for a traditional southern meal to consist of only vegetables with no meat dish at all, although meat or meat products are often used in the cooking process. “Beans and Greens,” which consists of either white or brown beans alongside a “mess” of greens has always been popular in most parts of the South. Turnip greens are generally prepared mixed with diced turnips and a piece of fatback. Another Southern staple is “Beans and Cornbread,” consisting of pinto beans, stewed with ham or bacon, and cornbread. This is served sometimes with collard, turnip, or mustard greens.
Southern Cuisine for the Masses
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 specialise 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, Waffle House, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, Chicken Express, Church’s Chicken, Mrs. Winner’s, Sonny’s, Tudor’s Biscuit World and Popeye’s.
Southern Cuisine by Region
Southern cuisine varies widely by region:
- In Southern Louisiana, there is Cajun and Creole cuisine. Louisiana is also a large supplier of hot sauces with its peppers, as well as being the largest supplier of crawfish in the country.
- Rice was historically an important crop in the coastal areas of South Carolina, leading to local specialties like “Hoppin’ John” (a mixture of rice and Black-eyed peas flavoured with salt pork) and Charleston Red Rice.
- Barbecue has many regional variations in the South. Barbecue sauce, if used, also varies by location.
- Arkansas produces Riceland rice and sweet corn, both of which are staples of the cuisine of Southeastern Arkansas.
- Virginia produces Smithfield ham.
Oklahoma has a reputation for many grain- and bean-based dishes, such as “cornbread and beans” or the breakfast dish biscuits and gravy. Mississippi specialises in farm-raised catfish, found in traditional “fish houses” throughout the state. Arkansas is the top rice-producing state in the nation, and is also noted for catfish, pork barbecue at restaurants, and chicken. Tennessee is known for its country ham and Memphis, TN is known for several famous barbecue restaurants and a major barbecue cooking competition held in May. Maryland is known for its blue and soft-shell crabs, and Smith Island Cake. Florida is home of the Key Lime Pie and Swamp Cabbage. Orange juice is the well-known beverage of the state. Georgia is known for its peaches, pecans, peanuts and Vidalia Onions.
The Appalachian areas have ramps (onions and their relatives) and berries aplenty. Kentucky is famous for Burgoo and beer cheese. Texas specialises in barbecue and chilli as well as a regional variation of Mexican food unique to Texas called Tex-Mex. Brunswick Stew, which originated in the town of Brunswick, Georgia, is also popular. Generally speaking, many parts of the Upper South specialise more in pork, sorghum, and whiskey, while the low country coastal areas are known for seafood (shrimp and crabs), rice, and grits. The western parts of the South like Texas and Oklahoma are more beef-inclined and the eastern parts lean more towards pork.
Creole and Cajun Cuisines
Southern Louisiana developed significant culinary traditions: Louisiana Creole cuisine in southeastern Louisiana centred on New Orleans and Cajun cuisine in central to Acadiana in southwestern Louisiana. Both share influences of the traditional cuisine of France, though with greater use of rice. Both Cajun and Creole cuisine also had access to many native coastal animals, such as crawfish (commonly called crayfish outside the region), crab, oysters, shrimp, and fish. These seafoods were incorporated into their diets and are still seen today in the various dishes of the region. Fruits such as figs, plums and grapes are also grown in the region. Additionally, pecans and peanuts are native to the region, providing an alternative protein source.
Cajun cuisine includes influence from the Acadia region in Canada. Rice, which could be used to stretch meals out to feed large families, became a major staple food. Today we still see that resourceful influence in many Cajun dishes which are served over a bed of rice. Stretchable corn was a major staple. Acadian families were introduced to vegetables such as okra, which is a key ingredient in gumbos as well as many other Cajun and Creole dishes. Southerners prepare deep-fried or pickled okra. See also : Cajun Cuisine and Recipes
Louisiana Creole Cuisine
Southeastern Louisiana was more heavily influenced by France, Spain, West African cultures and Latin America. The region maintained more trade with France, and incorporated more recent French culinary traditions well into the 19th century. The major city of New Orleans, long known for its fine restaurants, allowed development of more gourmet variations of local dishes. In 1979, Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme opened a popular restaurant in New Orleans which started significant influence of Cajun food on to Creole traditions. See also: Louisiana Creole Cuisine and Recipes
The Lowcountry region of the coastal Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia shares many of the same food resources as the Upper Gulf Coast – fish, shrimp, oysters, rice, and okra. It also displays some similarities to Creole and Cajun cuisines. See also : Lowcountry Cuisine and Recipes
Travel distances, conditions, and poor roads limited most early settlements to only foods that could be produced locally. For farmers, pigs and chickens were the primary source of meat, with many farmers maintaining their own smokehouses to produce a variety of hams, bacon, and sausages. Seafood, beyond the occasionally locally caught fish (pan-fried catfish is much loved) and crawfish, were unavailable until modern times. However, Appalachia did offer a wide variety of wild game, with venison and squirrel particularly common, thus helping compensate for distance from major cities and transportation networks. As wheat flour and baking powder/baking soda became available in the late 19th century, buttermilk biscuits became popular. Salt was primarily available from Saltville, Virginia, but until black pepper appeared, few other seasonings were used. Women were often herbalists, and used local plants like spicebush in seasoning. Chicory, which can be grown or gathered locally, was historically used as a coffee substitute during times when coffee was not freely available, such as during the American Civil War and the 2nd World War. The two primary sweeteners in Appalachia were sorghum and honey – the sugar cane molasses of the lowland South never was a dominant sweetener.
Today, a breakfast of buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy is common throughout the region, as well as places Appalachian people have migrated. Pork drippings from frying sausage, bacon, and other types of pan-fried pork are typically collected and used for making gravy and in greasing cast-iron cookware. Chicken and dumplings and fried chicken remain much-loved dishes. Cornbread, corn pone, hominy grits, mush, cornbread pudding and hominy stew are very common foods, as corn is the primary grain grown in the Appalachian hills and mountains. Fruits that tend to be more popular in this area are apple, pears, and berries. Sweetened fried apples remain a common side-dish. Maple syrup and maple sugar are occasionally made in the higher elevations where sugar maple grows. Wild morel mushrooms and ramps (similar to scallions [spring onions] and leeks) are often collected. In Appalachia one may find festivals dedicated to the ramp plant. Home canning is a strong tradition here as well. Dried pinto beans are a major staple food during the winter months, used to make the ubiquitous ham-flavoured bean soup usually called soup beans. Canning included green beans (half-runners, snaps) as well as shelly beans (green beans that were more mature and had ripe beans along with the green husks). Kieffer pears and apple varieties are used to make pear butter and apple butter. Also popular are bread and butter pickles, fried mustard greens with vinegar, pickled beets, chow-chow (commonly called “chow”) and a relish called corn ketchup. Tomatoes are canned in large numbers, and fried green tomatoes are common. Along with sausage gravy, tomato gravy, a roux thinned with tomatoes, is very popular. A variety of wild fruits like pawpaws, wild blackberries, and persimmons are also commonly available in Appalachia.