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Southern Cooking

Though the “south” is a geographically vast area of the United States, it has several cooking traditions that are common, with local variations of course, throughout the group of states that call themselves “southern.” Exceptions arise at the cuisine-rich extremes of the region: the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia and Maryland, the culinary wealth of Louisiana, the expanses of Texas, but by and large, southern food has several major unifying characteristics:

  • It tends to use basic, inexpensive ingredients and simple, direct seasonings. The southern cook will in turn favor simple, inexpensive pots, pans, and utensils. Cast-iron pans and pots will be lovingly maintained and seasoned, then passed down to future generations of cooks as family heirlooms.
  • It favors slow cooking, in pots for gumbos and stews, in barbecues for meats.
  • The southern cook is willing to make up for the simplicity of the inexpensive ingredients by doing careful, labor-intensive preparation and patient, loving cooking.
  • Except in Texas, where beef rules, the pig is the supreme provider of meat. Every part of the pig is used. Cured pork products like ham and bacon are ubiquitous. Pork fat (lard) greases the cornbread dish, bacon fat adds “that certain something” to the fried chicken, pork is essential for greens, red beans and rice, and other typical southern dishes.
  • In all southern regions, including Texas, barbecue (slow cooking at low heat using smoke rather than direct heat) is not a cooking technique, but a religion. (In should be noted that the term “barbecue” is frequently used in other parts of the country to refer to plain grilling, using direct heat, rather than indirect cooking with smoke.)
  • The preferred type of frying is deep-frying, but even if pan-frying, the southern cook doesn’t stint on the fat.
  • Southerners tend to like sweet tastes and are prone to add sweeteners—sugar, honey and molasses—to savory dishes.
  • The southern cook (except in barbecue) is stereotypically female, and rules the kitchen with an iron hand.
  • In barbecue, the stereotype, and often the reality, calls for the “pit-man” to be an older male, toughened by years of working in heat and smoke, proudly laboring to merge the concepts of barbecue and perfection on earth. Though whites certainly produce superb barbecue, black southerners are rightly proud of their barbecue traditions; the black pit-master is a cultural icon. Like his product, he may appear tough and wizened on the outside, only to reveal a great tenderness and sensitivity on the inside.
  • Southern cooks consider themselves the best cooks in the United States. They may be right.

An ideal southern breakfast might include ham and eggs, sausage and eggs, bacon and eggs (or all three pork products and eggs), grits and biscuits, in country gravy (a white, flour-based gravy), or redeye gravy (a gravy made from stuck-on pan scrapings of the ham, deglazed with coffee). The southern biscuit has both flaky and chewy variations. Grits are made from corn that has been ground to a sand-like consistency. Associated with breakfast, grits may also appear at lunch or dinner.

A southern lunch might include fried chicken (or southern fried catfish), or perhaps a sandwich of barbecued pulled-pork slathered in sauce: a sweet sauce in some regions, a vinegar-based sauce in others, with or without tomato depending on region. The pork will be slow smoked for twelve hours or more, after which point it will be so tender that it can be shredded—“pulled”—with a fork; if a knife is needed, the pork is not yet done. Stews, Brunswick stew being a perennial, are popular, as is gumbo, a thick soup associated with Louisiana and the Cajun culture but popular throughout the south.

Southerners enjoy a wide range of vegetables, but two that really stand out are okra and greens. The okra, originally an import from Africa, is frequently breaded and fried. Greens—collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale and other varieties—are typically slow cooked with some kind of contribution from a pork product: a ham hock, salt pork, fatback or the like. Cole slaw and various relishes are popular. Among starches, in addition to biscuits and grits, beans and rice in many forms are typical. Rice and beans are often enjoyed in combination as a side dish or even as a main course. Dumplings in gravy are another popular side dish.

In a class of its own as a southern staple, comfortable at breakfast, lunch or dinner or even by itself, is cornbread, a substantial quick-bread fashioned of a base of cornmeal and wheat flour, using baking powder and baking soda for leavening. Through the breadth of the south, and into the north, cornbread sees numerous variations.

Southern desserts are numerous, but the pecan pie may well serve as the best regional icon: sinfully rich, sweet almost beyond endurance, with a buttery, flaky crust that melts in the mouth. A close second may be the sweet potato pie. A simple, fluffy angel food cake is typically southern, as is strawberry shortcake. Substantial fruit pies and cobblers round out the mix.

Since southerners, white and black, have accomplished frequent northward migrations over the course of the nation’s history, their foodways have influenced much of mainstream American cuisine. Many dishes that originated in the south—fried chicken being the prime example—are now considered “American” rather than southern food. Conversely, an area like south Florida exhibits few southern foodways as a result of large migrations from the north and from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Just as there are regional variations in cuisine throughout the south, there are variations in cooking techniques and traditions between white and black southern communities and, in fact, within these communities. Southern food associated with African-Americans is often termed “soul-food,” and is easy to find in northern cities that have seen large migrations of blacks from the south. African-American cooks have undoubtedly had major developmental influences over many facets of southern cuisine. Despite any apparent differences, however, most of the unifying facets of southern cuisine—the penchant for simple ingredients, the slow cooking, the tendency to deep fry, the love of barbecue, the proclivity toward pork, the sweet tooth—apply equally to southern cooks of both races.

Most definitions of “the south” include the states that between 1861 and 1865 formed the Confederate States of America: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Parts of the “border” states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri share many southern food traditions.