Cuisine of the Southern United States
The Cuisine of the Southern United States is
defined as the historical regional culinary form of states
generally south of the Mason Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from
Maryland and Delaware as well as along the Ohio River, and
extending west to Texas.
most notable influences come from African American, Scottish,
Irish, French, Native American, British, and Spanish cuisines.
Soul food, Creole, Cajun, Lowcountry, and Floribbean are examples
of 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.
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 British fry up, although it was altered
substantially. Much of Cajun or Creole cuisine is based on France,
and on Spain to a lesser extent. Floribbean is more Spanish-based
with obvious Caribbean influences, while Tex-Mex has considerable
Mexican and native tribes touches.
Southern American Indian culture is the "cornerstone" of
Southern cuisine. The immigrants could not have survived without
the instruction and assistance of American Indians, who had
mastered hunting, planting, and food processing in this
environment thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
From their culture came one of the main staples of the Southern
diet: corn, either ground into meal or limed with an alkaline salt
to make hominy, also called masa, in an American Indian technology
known as nixtamalization. Corn was used to make dishes from the
familiar cornbread and grits to liquors such as whiskey and
moonshine, which were important trade items. In most of America
"hominy" came to mean lye hominy, or whole kernels that had been
skinned but not ground.
The Indians also introduced Europeans to the concept of true
slow cooking with smoke. In the 16th century, the Spanish
introduced the pig to North America, while the Indians showed them
how to cook it.
A lesser staple, potatoes were adopted from Native American
cuisine and were used in similar ways as corn.
American Indians introduced the first Southerners to many other
vegetables still familiar on southern tables. Squash, pumpkin,
many types of beans, tomatoes, many types of peppers and sassafras
all came to the settlers via the native tribes.
Many fruits are available in this region. Muscadines,
blackberries, raspberries, and many other wild berries were part
of Southern American Indians' diet.
“To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the
most important food dishes of the Southeastern Indians live on
today in the "soul food" eaten by both black and white
Southerners. Hominy, for example, is still eaten ... Sofkee live
on as grits ... cornbread [is] used by Southern cooks ... Indian
fritters ... variously known as "hoe cake," ... or "Johnny cake."
... Indians boiled cornbread is present in Southern cuisine as
"corn meal dumplings," ... and as "hush puppies," ... Southerners
cook their beans and field peas by boiling them, as did the
Indians ... like the Indians they cure their meat and smoke it
over hickory coals.” - Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians.
Southern American Indians supplemented their diets with meats
derived from the hunting of native game. Venison was an important
meat staple due to the abundance of white-tailed deer in the area.
They hunted rabbits, squirrels, Virginia Opossums, and raccoons.
Livestock, adopted from Europeans, in the form of hogs and cattle
were kept. When game or livestock was killed, the entire animal
Aside from the meat, it was not uncommon for them to eat organ
meats such as liver, brains and intestines. This tradition remains
today in hallmark dishes like chitterlings (commonly called
chit’lins) which are fried or boiled small intestines of hogs,
livermush (a common dish in the Carolinas made from hog liver),
and pork brains and eggs. The fat of the animals, particularly
hogs, was rendered and used for cooking and frying. Many of the
early European settlers were taught Southern American Indian
cooking methods, and so cultural diffusion was set in motion for
the Southern dish.
Main article: Soul food
Plantations were born after
Southern settlers realized the region's great potential for
agricultural profit. The wealthiest land owners began to cultivate
the land in larger tracts, utilizing mostly African slaves to work
Most Africans’ diets consisted of greens, various
vegetables, and also stews were common and rice was a familiar
staple to them. Foods that became part of the Southern diet from
African heritage include eggplant, kola nuts, sesame seeds, okra,
sorghum, field peas, black-eyed peas, African rice and some
The term "soul food" dates only to the first half of
the 1960s, and to some extent can be considered an expatriate
version of Southern country or home cooking familiar to both
blacks and whites of the South. There are many stories about white
Southerners going to other parts of the country and having to seek
out African-American restaurants for the food they grew up on. In
some cases they have been told they cannot get certain grocery
items and to try the foreign sections.
Generally speaking, white
Southerners traditionally eat the same food prepared the same way
as black Southerners. However, there are subtle differences in
preparation, such as types of spicing, and in certain regions,
such as Florida, there are distinct variations between white
Southern and black Southern cuisine. There are also class and/or
racial differences affecting the Southern table in significant
ways. For example, the less palatable or nutritious results of
butchering, such as chitlins and pig's feet, were often the only
meats available to slaves or people living in poverty (which
affected a larger percentage of the African-American population),
and creative solutions to making such food edible are therefore
more a part of black Southern cuisine than white.
As more African
Americans enter the middle class and become health- and
weight-conscious, they find themselves confronted with the
decision of whether to abandon certain high-salt, high-fat,
low-nutrient food items previously eaten only from necessity, or
to embrace them out of cultural loyalty or personal preference.
Grits play such a role for some Southerners of both races in
having become a fashionable "Southern" dish, but still being
associated in the minds of many Southerners with the unvarying
menu of their poverty-stricken up-bringing.
Much of Southern
cuisine developed from African foods and traditions of
preparation. Often in charge of Southern kitchens, from slave
times on down to the institutional kitchens of schools, African
Americans have played a pivotal role in the development of
Southern cuisine. In addition, many famous Southern restaurants
have had African Americans as their chefs.
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 specialize 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, Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits, Church's
Chicken, Mrs. Winner's, Sonny's, and Popeye's.
Southern cuisine varies widely by region:
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.
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 flavored with salt pork) and
Charleston Red Rice.
Barbecue has many regional variations in
the South. Barbecue sauce also varies by location.
noted not only for its Smithfield ham, but also for its major
supplies of apples and peanuts.
Oklahoma has a reputation for
many grain- and bean-based dishes, such as "cornbread and beans"
or the breakfast dish biscuits and gravy. Mississippi specializes
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.
Appalachian areas have ramps (onions and their relatives) and
berries aplenty. Kentucky is famous for Burgoo and beer cheese.
Texas specializes in chili, while Brunswick stew originated in the
eastern parts of the South. Generally speaking, many parts of the
Upper South specialize 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.
Southern Louisiana developed significant culinary traditions:
Louisiana Creole cuisine in southeastern Louisiana centered 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.
Main article: Cajun cuisine
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. In addition to the above
listed foods, Acadian families were introduced to vegetables such
as okra, which is a key ingredient in gumbos and étouffe as well
as many other Cajun and Creole dishes. Many Southerners also enjoy
deep-fried or pickled okra.
Main article: Louisiana Creole cuisine
Louisiana was more heavily influenced by France, Spain and Latin
America than Acadiana. 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.
Main article: Lowcountry cuisine
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. Not surprisingly, it also displays some
similarities to Creole and Cajun cuisines.
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, bacons, and sausages. Seafood, beyond the
occasionally locally caught fish (pan-fried catfish is much loved)
and crawdads, 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 immensely popular.
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 also very 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 is occasionally made in the higher elevations where sugar
maple grows. Wild morel mushrooms and ramps (similar to green
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-flavored
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
See also: List of foods of the Southern United States
traditional Southern meal is pan-fried chicken, field peas,
greens, mashed potatoes, cornbread, sweet tea and a dessert that
could be a pie (sweet potato, chess, shoofly, pecan, and peach are
traditional southern pies), or a cobbler (peach, blackberry or
mixed berry are traditional cobblers).
Some other foods
commonly associated with the South are mint juleps, pecan pie,
country ham, fried chicken, chicken fried steak, grits, buttermilk
biscuits (especially with gravy or sorghum) pimento cheese, sweet
tea, pit barbecue, catfish, fried green tomatoes, fried dill
pickles, bread pudding, okra, butter beans, pinto beans, turnip
greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and black eyed peas. A
common snack food, in season, is boiled peanuts.
Fried chicken is among the region's best-known exports, though
pork is also an integral a part of the cuisine, with Virginia ham
being one renowned form. A traditional holiday get-together
featuring whole hog barbecue is known in Virginia and the
Carolinas as a "pig pickin'". Green beans are often flavored 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. A bit of fatback is added to many vegetable dishes,
especially greens, for flavoring.
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. It is often said that Southerners
tend to cook down their vegetables a little longer and/or use more
seasoning than other Americans, but it often depends on the cook.
Southern desserts include many dishes such as strawberry
shortcake, banana pudding, baked apple slices, sweet potato pie,
apple pie, pumpkin pie, and many other pies utilizing fruits that
are grown around the area.