May 2, 2011

Southern Food: A Brief History

Once upon a time I devoted hours to reading and writing about Southern food culture and Southern Living magazine. Exactly four professors read my giant final report and let me have a degree (woohoo). Now the report lives at a nice j-library in Missouri. Other important things in life, like cooking and friends and family, distracted me from getting it published for the past year, but now I am resurrecting the best parts of said giant report in a more digestible blog version. I promise Southerners and their food are interesting.

It was an agrarian way of life in the Old South. There were fields and plantations and slaves. So people ate what came from the fields (revolutionary, right?)—after frying it up or boiling it with good ole fat-cured pork. They ate lots ‘o corn, but it didn’t make the “great triumvirate” of veggies: turnips, cowpeas (today’s blackeyed or crowder peas), and sweet potatoes.

Pork was long the staple from swine herds, but eventually, farmers in the region began to raise poultry, which gave rise to the delicacy of fried chicken.
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Cornbread served as the primary bread when Southern mills could not handle glutinous wheat and the wheat crop was small. In the second half of the nineteenth century, increased wheat production and new milling methods made wheat available to all classes, and hence wheat flour biscuits joined the ranks of cornbread in the Southern diet.

But then days of plantations came to an end. Northerners infiltrated the region. People moved to cities. What was to become of Southerners? What of the traditional culture would remain? Food! Sunday dinner. Biscuits and collards. Peach pie and pimiento cheese. Gravy and hushpuppies. Food provided definition, security, and stability to family and community life and to regional culture.

“The spiritual meaning of food in the South is perhaps best seen on Sundays. Dinner on the grounds brings together a church community in a symbol of wholeness. Sunday dinner at home has been a shared ritual of different Southerners for generations, reinforcing family ties over chicken and gravy. Breaking cornbread together and drinking sweet tea have been Southern sacraments, outward signs of deeper communion. Food in the South, and the shared importance of it to family and community among many kinds of Southerners, represents a peculiar resource for fellowship among the people of the South.”
-Charles Reagan Wilson, Foodways: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7, XVI-XVII

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