Real Southern Cooking: What's It All About?
Won’t you come with me to Alabammy, let’s go see my dear old mammy,
She’s got baked ribs and candied yams, sugar-cured Virginia hams,
Hot corn bread, black eyed peas, you can eat as much as you please,
And that’s what I like about the South.
Is Southern cooking all about ribs, candied yams, Virginia ham, corn bread, and black-eyed peas? In light of the controversy surrounding Paula Deen and the authenticity of her Southern cooking, I thought I’d do a little digging to find out just what we mean by “the South”, and what is real “Southern” cooking. Here’s what I found.
What and Where is the South?
I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie land. Dan Emmett
The Land of Dixie
The South brings to mind cotton fields, large plantations, and beautiful women in hoop skirts: a place where summers are long and hot, and the rain comes down in torrents; where work is hard, speech is slow, manners are good, except when tempers flare, and the people are easy-going. We think of Dixie.
Ev’ry night when I go to bed, I thank the Lord that my kids are fed.
They live on beans eight days and nine, but I get ‘em fat come Pickin’ Time.
Fried chicken, barbecued pork, corn on the cob, grits and greens, cornbread and black eyed peas are typical Southern foods. But experts on Southern cooking will tell you that the “South” is not a homogeneous place where everyone eats the same thing. It is a patchwork of cultures, and its influences range from Native American to European and African immigrants.
Southern cooking goes back to the Native Americans, whose food still defines true Southern cooking: simple, brought from the earth to the table with very little preparation, and augmented with whatever they could kill or catch. Every time you bite into an ear of sweet corn, you can thank the native inhabitants. They passed it on to the settlers, along with beans, peas, squash, greens, onions, berries, nuts, and several kinds of fruit.
The Spaniards were the second source of true Southern cooking. They added pork to the diet and a technique for grilling meat outdoors known as Barbacoais., which became, you guessed it—Barbecue! The South can also thank the Spaniards for avocados, hot peppers, and many popular hot sauces still eaten with barbecue today. In Louisiana, people combined peppers with tomatos and developed the standard formula for Creole cooking.
Then came the British settlers, who set up their kitchens like the ones they had at home: open hearths, adjustable spits for roasting, and Dutch ovens with long legs and tight fitting lids which were buried in hot coals to allow the contents to cook slowly. They created stews and soups using native American products flavored with herbs and spices grown in their gardens.
The Influence of African Americans on Southern Cooking
The most important influence on Southern cooking came in 1619, when a Dutch ship anchored off the coast of Jamestown, Virginia, and brought a handful of slaves transported from Western Africa. For the next two centuries, African slaves were put to work in Southern fields and kitchens where they demonstrated a flair for blending local ingredients with foods from their homeland. The cooking that resulted from their ingenuity made Southern cooking legendary.
Even though African Americans were uprooted from their mother continent, the memory of food from their daily life remained and influenced their cooking in the new world. While the climate in America did not allow them to introduce all of the foods from their old lives, a few survived . Okra is one of the foods most treasured by Africans in America. The okra plant comes from Nigeria, where the Igbu called it okuru. It was grown in the slave gardens throughout the South. Cooks put it in soupy stews that became known as gumbo (from the old word guingombo).
Watermelon also originated in Africa. Would it surprise you to learn that pictures of watermelons appeared in Egyptian tomb paintings, and that it was highly regarded by people of the Kalahari? It was particularly prized in areas where drinking water was unsafe; and was used to cool folks down in hot weather. Watermelons came to the United States in the early 17th century and became identified with African Americans.
For those of you who think of “Black Eyed Peas” as a hip hop group featuring rappers Taboo and Fergie, think again. It’s also a very popular legume in the South, best known as an ingredient in “Hoppin’ John”, a dish of rice and peas. The black-eyed pea found its way to the Carolinas in the early 1700s by way of Central Africa and the West Indies. Black-eyed peas are considered lucky by some African cultures, and Hoppin’ John is served in many Southern homes on New Years Day in the hope that it will bring good fortune throughout the year.
Thomas Jefferson: The South’s First Foodie
Organic and locally grown are terms we toss around today to show our concern for ecology. But Thomas Jefferson beat us to the draw on both counts. If you sat down to eat at his table, you would have been served grass-fed beef and lamb; smoked hams from pigs raised on his plantation, and organic produce. He also worked with his head chef Peter Hemings to brew an excellent beer from malted Indian corn.
Jefferson was concerned with healthy eating: high quality cooking oils, moderate use of complex carbohydrates, and vegetables grown in his own gardens. The slaves who cultivated his gardens and ran his kitchen raised 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, including eggplants, runner beans, chiles, broccoli, artichokes, lima beans, okra, corn, and squash; plus 15 types of English peas and 170 kinds of fruit trees. He also insisted on a wide variety of greens and lettuces in his salads.
Ben and Jerry can thank Jefferson for popularizing ice cream, and Kraft owes him a debt of gratitude for making mac and cheese a Southern staple. When Jefferson traveled throughout Europe, he brought foods from the countries he visited back to Monticello, including vanilla extract, olives and olive oil, Italian pasta, Dutch waffles and French wines. He entertained lavishly, often hosting as many as 50 guests at dinner and offering course after course accompanied by fine European wines.
Plain People of the South
Not everyone ate or entertained like Thomas Jefferson. But Southern hospitality could be found even among the plain folk. In any of their homes, you would be served food "so good it'd make you want to slap your mama": a pot of greens with ham hocks, fried chicken, black eyed peas with rice, and, for dessert, an old-fashioned vanilla seed pound cake.
Another variation on Southern cooking was revealed by Ernest Matthew Mickler in his famous study White Trash Cooking, a book the author suggests you keep on your coffee table next to the Holy Bible. Not to be confused with the pejorative term often used to describe down on their luck Southerners with no manners, Mickler’s White Trash folks might have been poor, but they “…never failed to say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’; never sat on a made-up bed (or put their hat on it); never opened someone else’s ice box; never left food on their plates; never left the table without permission; and never forgot to say thank you for the teeniest favor. And they always cooked enough food for unexpected company.”
"Only a Southerner knows and understands the difference between a red neck, a good ol' boy, and po' white trash".
Three of the main ingredients of White Trash cooking are saltmeat, cornmeal, and molasses. Every vegetable is seasoned with saltmeat, bacon, or ham. Cornbread, made with pure cornmeal, is a must with every meal, especially if there’s pot liquor. Many foods are rolled in cornmeal before they are fried.
Black, cast-iron pots and skillets give White Trash cooking a distinctive flavor and a golden brown crust. And you don’t have to be too concerned about keeping them clean. According to Mickler, “all you gotta do is rench ‘em out, wipe ‘em with a dishrag, and put ‘em on the fire to dry out. Then tear off a piece of grocery bag, fold it, dab it in grease, and smear it round the bottom and sides of the skillet. Let it cool, and hang it on a nail”.
White Trash recipes were swapped and passed around. Mickler published them exactly as they were given to him. He promises “…you’ll just lie down and scream when you taste “Loretta’s Chicken Delight”, “Miss Bill’s Bucket Dumplins”, "Aunt Donnah's Roast Possum", "Butt's Alligator Tail", and “Tutti’s Fruited Porkettes”. And how can you miss with a dessert that calls for 23 Ritz crackers, Resurrection Cake with whiskey sauce, or a Water Lily Pie?
White Trash Cooking: Always finish what's on your plate.
Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking: Begged, Borrowed, or Stolen?
So where does the recently deposed Paula Deen’s cooking fit in with that of Jefferson, plain folk of the South, and White Trash? Some would suggest it doesn’t. One critic claims …”her overuse of fat, salt, and sugar is a far cry from real Southern food, which is based on local ingredients, using what’s available to you, and making it stretch. It’s one chicken coupled with some dumpling dough and nothing else but salt and pepper. It’s using the water in a pot of greens picked from the garden as potlikker to soak up with cornbread. It’s nose to tail eating—from ham hocks to pickled pigs feet to chitlins.” The same critic also faults Deen with “stealing food developed by African American cooks throughout history and claiming it as her own.”
Deen herself is more charitable about her own talents and authenticity. She says her grandmother taught her the hand-me down art of Southern cooking. She used her cooking skills first to open a catering business where she made sandwiches and meals which her sons delivered and later a restaurant in Savanna, Georgia, “The Lady and Sons”. She went on to become a celebrity chef, cooking show host, and author until a lawsuit accusing her of racial slurs and segregationist practices brought about a personal fall from grace. Is she the real deal—or did she just beg, borrow, and steal. You decide.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times