Because the United States was largely settled by immigrants, it’s a veritable melting pot of cultures and traditions. This is obvious in different regional cuisines found in America. Of all the ethnic and regional American cuisines, I find southern food the most interesting. My family has lived in the Deep South for generations, and I was born in Georgia. In fact, I’ve never lived anywhere else. Growing, procuring, and cooking different foods have always been very important to my family, including my forefathers, or “foremothers,” and much of this information has been passed down from generation to generation.
This article explores the history and influences of southern food – traditional foods, cooking techniques, and customs of the Deep South.
What is the Deep South?
Most people understand where the South is. Many consider it to be the states found below the Mason-Dixon Line. The Mason-Dixon Line was drawn in the mid-1700s by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Mason was an English astronomer, and Dixon was an English astronomer and land surveyor. The line was surveyed to settle a border dispute between Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, and it later played an important role in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. According to the Mason-Dixon Line, southern states include Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and states located to the south of these. These states or commonwealths, however, are not part of the Deep South.
The term “Deep South” is usually applied to the first states that seceded prior to the U.S. Civil War and formed the Confederate States of America (CSA). They included South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. When President Lincoln called for troops after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, four more states joined the CSA: Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Today, most people consider the Deep South to include the seven states that formed the original CSA.
Culturally speaking, only portions of Texas and Florida can be considered “Deep South.” Much of West Texas has been influenced by other cultures, so many of the “Old South” ways have been forgotten. The same holds true for south and central Florida, but most of northern Florida and the Panhandle region are definitely part of the cultural Deep South.
The First Southern Food
Every school child knows that before the influx of European settlers and explorers, there were many groups of indigenous peoples living in what is now the United States. As a collective group, we refer to these people as “Native Americans.” In the South, several tribes thrived prior to the arrival of the white man. These include the Catawba, the Cherokee, the Creek, the Coushatta, the Choctaw, the Seminole, the Timucua, the Chickasaw, the Alabama, and others.
These tribes survived by hunting, gathering, fishing, trapping, and tending their gardens. The dense forests of the Southeast provided deer, raccoons, bear, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, and birds. All kinds of fish, turtles, and eels were found in the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams, and the tribes living along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts took advantage of a wide variety of marine life. Fruits, berries, nuts, honey, wild greens, and roots were gathered to supplement the diets.
Meats and fish were eaten fresh or salted and smoked over a low fire for storage. Flesh from wild game, birds, and fish were roasted over campfires or cooked in large pots. In their dried forms, the meats were similar to what we call “jerky.” Sometimes meats, breads, and other foods were fried in bear fat.
The southern tribes were also farmers. The three main foods grown were squash, beans, and corn, often called the “three sisters.” Of these three crops, corn was probably the most important. Corn could be eaten fresh or dried, and dried corn could be stored for months. The dried kernels were often ground into a flour or meal. In this form, it was boiled into puddings or made into bread.
When Europeans arrived in America, many of the tribes were friendly and helpful to their new neighbors. The indigenous peoples taught the whites how to hunt, how to set snares, how to gather wild plants, and how to catch fish. The white also learned about smoking meats and fish from the Native Americans. Perhaps the most important thing the red man taught the white man, however, was how to grow and use corn.
European Influences on Southern Food
The first European to set foot in what is now the American South was Juan Ponce de Leon. Arriving in Florida in 1513, the Spanish explorer actually gave Florida its name. In 1539, another explorer from Spain landed in Florida, near the present city of Bradenton. His name was Hernando de Soto. He brought with him more than 600 men, over 200 horses, nine ships, and something that would have a major influence on southern food that can still be seen today: pigs.
The Native Americans living in the South had never seen a pig or tasted pork before de Soto’s arrival, but once they got a taste of the succulent flesh, they sought it eagerly. Pigs reproduce quickly, so it didn’t take long for the original Spanish pigs to increase their numbers. The tribes traded for pigs, stole pigs, and hunted pigs that had escaped. Since de Soto’s travels continued through northern Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, it’s likely that the other Native Americans he encountered might have also experienced their first pork.
In 1562, the first French arrived in the South. They built a fort in Florida at what is now Jacksonville. Most of the first French immigrants were Huguenots, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. They fled France due to religious persecution, arriving in Switzerland, England, Prussia, Germany, the Dutch Republic, Brazil, South Africa, and what is now the U.S.
Another important destination for the French Huguenots was Acadia, which included parts of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and what is now Maine. These immigrants, along with other Frenchmen, explored the Mississippi River and other areas in the South. Many settled in Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina.
The next group of European explorers and settlers to arrive in America were the English. The first English settlement in America wasn’t Plymouth Rock – it was Roanoke Island, North Carolina. It was led and organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1585. This group of colonists ultimately disappeared without a trace, but a successful English colony was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. From there, the English sent expeditions to South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tens of thousands of Irish immigrated to America, many as indentured servants. They settled largely in the South, including Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Louisiana. Due to the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century, almost two million Irish came to the U.S. Although many settled in cities in the North and the West, a large number settled in the South, where they often became overseers on plantations.
Immigrants from Scotland began arriving in America soon after the English and Irish. In the 1670s, Scottish Presbyterians began arriving in South Carolina. Between the years 1763 and 1776, more than 50,000 Scots settled in the original Thirteen Colonies, mostly in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.
Near the end of the seventeenth century, German immigrants began arriving in the American colonies. Most wound up in Pennsylvania and New York, but as their numbers increased, many made their way to the South. Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana all had thriving German communities.
Few Italians immigrated to America before the Civil War. In fact, most didn’t arrive until after 1870. For the most part, they left their native country because of overcrowding and economic factors. The Italian immigrants were attracted to large cities like New York, but many ended up in Florida and New Orleans.
So what do all these immigrants have to do with southern food? European immigrants to America didn’t become “Americans” overnight. They brought with them their own unique cooking methods, although they had to alter many of them to accommodate the unfamiliar foods they encountered. When it comes to southern food, some European influences are more obvious than others. For example, many dishes associated with New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana still carry their French names: etouffee, jambalaya, remoulade, and other dishes. The word “Cajun” was derived from “Acadian,” the French settlers who came to the South from Acadia. Another popular type of southern food, Creole, has heavy influences from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as from the Native Americans. Many southerners might be surprised to learn that pound cake, a favorite southern desert, is actually based on an old English recipe. The English also introduced dairy cattle to America, while beef cattle were introduced by the Spanish. The ice cream cone was invented by an Italian American, and we can thank German immigrants for hotdogs and beer brewing. Shortbread, griddle cakes, fried meats, and methods of cooking beef roasts were introduced by the Scottish, and the Irish gave us corned or salted beef, cabbage, and many potato dishes. The dish we southerners know and love called “oyster dressing” actually originated in France.
The Slave Culture and Soul Food
No other group of immigrants had such a profound and lasting impact on southern food as slaves from Africa. Virginia was the first English colony to acquire African slaves, in 1619, although the Spanish colonies had already been using slave labor for almost sixty years. Because most of the large-scale farming was done in the South, most black slaves wound up there, working the cotton, rice, sugar cane, indigo, and tobacco plantations. After 1810, almost all African slaves brought to America were sold in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Some slaves were able to bring seeds with them, and typical African foods were often brought to America by the slave traders, too. These included melons, peanuts, sesame, okra, field peas, and eggplant.
As rice plantations emerged, slaves from the west coast of Africa were much in demand because they were knowledgeable about growing rice. Most of the rice plantations were located along the southeastern coast of America, from northern Florida to southern North Carolina. These slaves were generally referred to as “Gullah” or “Gullah Gullah.”
The Gullah slaves had a much stronger identity and individuality than other slaves in the South. Because they lived in remote coastal areas and on islands that were difficult to reach, they remained apart from other groups of slaves and from the general population. This made it possible for them to keep their culture largely intact, including their cooking traditions.
The Gullah slaves received food allotments from their owners, but they also had their own gardens, and many were allowed to keep a few chickens and pigs. In their spare time, the slaves hunted, trapped, fished, and gathered wild plants, nuts, honey, and fruits from local woods. They learned about collecting and using sassafras leaves from the Native Americans.
Many Gullah dishes were based on rice, which was usually consumed at every meal. Stewed vegetables and meat, fish, or fowl were spooned over the rice. Like the Louisiana Creoles, peppers, celery, and onions were held in high regard and were added to a score of recipes. Peanuts, sweet potatoes, okra, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, eggplant, and watermelon were all familiar to the Gullah, so these ingredients were popular in Gullah foods, and so were grits and cornmeal that were ground from locally grown corn. Other common ingredients were cheap cuts of meat that were included in the food rations from the plantation masters: oxtails, pork ribs, pigs’ feet, ham hocks, cow tongue, and chitterlings.
The foods of the Gullah, along with the dishes and cooking techniques of other groups of African slaves, formed much of the basis of southern food, especially of Soul Food. The term “Soul Food” became popular in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement. As many blacks left the South to find better conditions and jobs in northern cities, they often had a difficult time finding foods that were familiar to them. When they did, the taste reminded them of their homes and the life they left behind. In other words, it “spoke to their soul.” Some popular Soul Food recipes include chitlins, crackling cornbread, collard greens and ham hocks, pickled pigs’ feet, fried chicken, dirty rice, oxtail soup, sweet potato casserole, watermelon rind preserves, and fried spare ribs.