The Southern United States has a distinct cuisine that draws heavily on influences from various groups that have inhabited the area. The most notable influences come from African-American, Native American , Irish, French, and Spanish cuisines. Soul food, Creole, Cajun, and Tex-Mex are examples of Southern cuisine. In more recent history, elements of Southern cuisine have spread north, having an effect on the development of other types of American cuisine.
Some foods commonly associated with the South are sweet tea, pit barbecue, grits, biscuits, especially with gravy or sorghum , catfish, casseroles, fritters, chicken-fried steak, cornbread, fried chicken, fried pies, okra and pickled green tomatoes, watermelon rind and peaches.
Fried foods are common in the South, a direct reflection of the influence of slave cooking on the region, since Africans of the time were fond of deep fat frying. White slaveowners mostly avoided African cultural influences, but cooking styles quickly seeped into all corner of the South because slave women did most of the cooking for plantations, and taught cooking techniques to slaveowners' children. As a result, traditional cooking in the U.S. South reflects the use of African techniques, often in an attempt to create European dishes, with Native American ingredients. An example of a traditional Southern meal is deep fried chicken, field peas, turnip greens, cornbread, sweet tea and a dessert that could be a pie (sweet potato , pecan and peach are traditional southern pies), or a cobbler (peach, blackberry or mixed berry are traditional cobblers).
Fried chicken is among the region's most well-known exports, though pork is as integral a part of the cuisine, with Virginia ham the most respected. Green beans are often flavored with bacon and salt pork , while ham biscuits often accompany breakfast and ham with red-eye gravy is a common dinner dish (in spite of a debate over whether to make red-eye gravy with water or black coffee).
Within the U.S. South, a number of specialized regions exist. In Southern Louisiana, Cajun and Creole cuisines developed, both distinct types that are commonly bundled together as "Cajun". African American soul food is well-known, and eaten among black populations throughout the country, as well as among whites in the South. In the Carolinas, the coastal region was a center for rice growing. Local specialties include rice and black-eyed peas flavored with salt pork (Hoppin' John) and Charleston Red Rice , as well as the famous Charleston She-Crab Soup . Tennessee and Texas are particularly noted for their barbecue; Carolina barbecue is unique in the South for its use of vinegar.
Evolution of Southern cuisine
The first settlers to arrive in the southern Appalachian region in the 1700s found the land to be fertile and agricultural opportunities abundant. One of the most important things that happened in this period was interaction with the native tribes of the area. From this interaction came one of the main staples of the Southern diet: corn (maize). Corn was an essential and versatile crop for the early Appalachian settlers. Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes from the familiar cornbread and grits to liquors such as whiskey and moonshine, which were important trade items. Though a lesser staple, potatoes were also adopted from Native American tribes and were used in many similar ways as corn.
Native American ingredients
Native Americans also introduced the first Southerners to many vegetables still familiar on southern tables. Squash, pumpkin, many types of beans, tomatoes (though these were considered poisonous in the beginning), many types of peppers and sassafras all came to the settlers via the native tribes.
Some fruits were available in the area. Muscadines, blackberries, raspberries, and many other wild berries were part of settlers’ diets when they were available.
Early settlers also supplemented their diets with meats. Most meat came from the hunting of native game. Venison was an important meat staple due to the abundance of white-tailed deer in the area. Settlers also hunted rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons, all of which were pests to the crops they raised. Livestock in the form of hogs and cattle were kept. When game or livestock was killed, the entire animal was used. Aside from the meat, it was not uncommon for settlers to eat organ meats such as liver, brains and intestines. This tradition remains today in hallmark dishes like chitterlings (pronounced chit’lins) which are fried large 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.
Southern cuisine for the masses
A niche market for Southern food has proven profitable for chains such as Cracker Barrel, who have extended their market across the country, instead of staying solely in the South.
"Fast food" Southern chains (which are traditionally characterized by fast service and what is usually considered to be lower-quality food, seen in abundance at Interstate rest stops) that are popular across the country include Stuckey's and Waffle House, the former known for being a "pecan shoppe", and the latter known for the number of the toppings one can put on his hash browns.
Other Southern food chains which specialize in this type of cuisine, but have decided mainly to stay in the South, are Po' Folks (also known as Folks in some markets) and Famous Amos. Another more "fast food" type of selection is Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q.
Cajun and Creole cuisine
Southern Louisiana developed significant culinary traditions, Louisiana Creole cuisine in southeastern Louisiana centered on New Orleans, Louisiana, and Cajun cuisine centered on Acadiana in the South-West.
Both share influnces of traditional cuisine of France with greater use of rice and local Louisiana resources as well as African imports such as okra.
These settlers also had access to many native costal animals such as crayfish (commonly called crawfish in 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 were also grown in the region. Pecans and peanuts were grown in the region, providing an alternative protein source.
Creole cuisine was long better-known nationally until the explosion of interest in Cajun food in the 1980s.
Main article: Cajun cuisine
Cajun cuisine includes influence from Acadia 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 influence in many Cajun dishes which are served over a bed of rice. And again, 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 etouffe as well as many other Cajun and Creole dishes. (Many Southerners also enjoy deep-fried okra.)
Louisiana Creole cuisine
Main article: Louisiana Creole cuisine
South-eastern Louisiana was more heavily influenced by Spain and Latin America than was Arcadiana. The region also maintained more trade with France and incorporation of 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 gormet variations of local dishes.
At the start of the 1980s Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme opened a popular restaurant in New Orleans which started significant influence of Cajun food on to Creole traditions.
Main article: Soul food
Plantations were born after the Southern settlers realized the great region's potential for agricultural profit. The wealthiest land owners began to cultivate the land in larger and larger tracts and in the process began bringing slaves to the region to work the fields. The African slaves brought with them their own dietary traditions.
Most Africans’ diets consisted of greens and various vegetables. Stews were common and rice was a familiar staple to them. At way stations in the West Indies, those people on their way to becoming slaves picked up various new ideas about spices and flavoring. Eventually employed in the kitchens of Southern plantations, the slaves passed on their way of cooking to the families they served.
Deep fat frying, cooked down greens and vegetables, puddings, and grilling can all be traced back to slave roots. Foods that became part of the Southern diet from African-American heritage include: okra, eggplant, sesame seeds, sorghum, and some melons.
The African influence is still most easily recognized in traditional Cajun cuisine. Gumbo (a stew using chicken or seafood, sausage, rice, okra and roux) and Etouffe, (a thicker, less liquid gumbo served over a bed of rice) are all born from African cooking tradition.
Foods which might be part of a traditional Southern meals
- Barbecue (Pork or beef are most common, but goat and chicken are also seen. Sauces vary regionally, tending to be thinner towards the east)
- Chitterlings (better known as "chit'lins") (Fried small intestine of a hog)
- Chicken gizzards (fried)
- Fried chicken (usually flour battered and pan fried, with or without skin)
- Boiled chicken (as in chicken and dumplings)
- Fried fish (Cornmeal battered or dredged and pan or deep fried. Catfish is a southern favorite.)
- Fried steak (flour battered and pan fried)
- Game meat (venison, squirrel, and various game foul are most common, but opossum, rabbit, and raccoon are also encountered.)
- Ham (could be fried, roasted, or smoked. May be sugar cured or country (salt cured) depending on use)
- Liver (Most usually pork or fried chicken liver)
It is not uncommon for a traditional southern meal to consist of only vegetables with no meat at all, although meat or meat products are often used in the cooking process.
- Beans (Limas, pole beans, pinto beans. Often cooked down with chunks of ham or onions)
- Carrots (cooked with butter and brown sugar)
- Corn (fried or creamed corn is a typical dish)
- Cooked greens (collard, turnip, kale, pokeweed, and mustard greens, and sometimes cabbage)
- Mashed potatoes
- Okra (flour battered and pan fried. Also boiled, stewed, or steamed.)
- Onion (Sliced Vidalia, or whole green onion)
- Peas (black-eyed, purple hull, field peas. Cooked down with chunks of ham or onions)
- Squash ( often cooked down with onions or fried like okra)
- Tomatoes (sliced ripe or fried green)
- Sweet potatoes, including sweet-potato pie
Breads, other side dishes and complements
- Biscuits (traditionally prepared with buttermilk)
- Corn pone
- Hush puppies
- Deviled eggs
- Dressing (similar to northern stuffing, but with cornbread as a base and prepared outside the meat)
- Gravy is used liberally on meats, potatoes, biscuits, and anything else. May be milk-based (country gravy) or based on coffee or water (red-eye gravy) mixed with the drippings leftover from cooking your meat.
- Sorghum syrup
- Sweet tea
- Etouffe (a very thick stew made of crawfish or chicken and sausage, okra and roux served over rice)
- Gumbo (A soup made of seafood or chicken and sausage, sometimes okra, and roux, served over rice in a bowl)
- Boudin, Spicey sausage, either White boudin, made with 'dirty rice' in a casing, or Red boudin, a spicy 'blood sausage'.
- Chicken Sauce-Picquante , Chicken cooked in a tangy stewlike form with tomatoes and spices, often served over rice.
- Blackberry cobbler
- Dewberry cobbler
- Peach cobbler