While many American regions and cities have famous fare, few will argue that the South wears the culinary crown. Southern identity is stronglylinked to its cuisine, and food has long been an enticing (and profitable) draw for tourism in the South. Southern food has inspired trails, websites, songs, books, television shows, and movies (Fried Green Tomatoes, anyone?).
The influences for many of the Southern foods we enjoy come directly from colonial and antebellum slave quarters. Southern food, often perceived as the quintessential American cuisine, is actually derived from a complex blend of European, Native American, and African origins that found realization in the hands of enslaved people. While Southern food has evolved from sources and cultures of diverse regions, classes, races, and ethnicities, African and African American slaves have one of the strongest yet least recognized roles (Though some culinary historians, like Michael Twitty, are attempting to change that). For enslaved people, cooking was about culture and community as much it was about survival. Through the horrors of the Middle Passage and bondage in North America, generations of slaves preserved and created culinary traditions that remain strong today. Southern food reminds Americans of this difficult past but it can also help us understand it and respect it.
African Roots: From the Middle Passage to Slavery
From the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, food was both a form of resistance for and a tool of control over enslaved people. Over the course of 400 years, millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas and the Caribbean across the Atlantic Ocean. This forced migration is known as the Middle Passage. In Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, Stephanie E. Smallwood discusses how slavers used a rigorous system of violence to turn human beings into “commodities” during the Middle Passage. Food was an important element of this process. Rations were scientifically calculated to provide the cheapest, minimal nutrition to keep enslaved people alive.
When enslaved people reached North America (5% of Africans who were enslaved in the transatlantic trade were sent to North America), rations were often used as a powerful form of control on many plantations. By supervising food, slave-owners could regularly establish their authority over enslaved people, while also attempting to prove their “generosity” toward their slaves. Slaves’ diets were frequently a primary point of debate between abolitionists and slaveholders, with pro-slavery supporters using rations to “prove” the good quality of life African Americans had under slavery. James Madison defended slavery by arguing that slaves have better diets than the lower classes in Europe:
“They are better fed, better clad, better lodged, and better treated in every respect…With respect to the great article of food particularly it is a common remark among those who have visited Europe, that it [slave diet] includes a much greater proportion of the animal ingredient, than is attainable by the free labourers even in that quarter of the Globe.”
Coming from diverse regions and communities, Africans adapted their cultures to the influences, resources and severe restrictions they experienced in slavery. Though rations took away the power of choice, slaves could supplement their meals by hunting, fishing and gardening. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, West African agriculture had already incorporated many of the same crops as the South, such as rice. Though slave-owners demanded these skills be used first and foremost on the plantation fields, slaves also cared for their own personal gardens and pass down practices and preferences to their families. Gardening gave slaves an avenue to make their own choices about their diets. The labor was excruciating. Slaves had to tend to their gardening or other food procurement on their own time at night, after working on the plantation for a full day.
African and African American slaves developed a uniquely African American culture, presence and influence on the South, strongly preserved by today’s Southern cuisine. Many of the foods we celebrate and enjoy today have their roots in enslaved peoples’ toil, tradition and creativity.
Barbeque is the heart and soul of Southern cuisine. There are probably few other foods that incite as much fierce adoration as delicious smoked meat (note: yes, to be real barbeque it must be cooked over a long period of time…. your Fourth of July “barbeque” of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers is not actually barbeque. See The Root’s discussion here). While beef is uniquely associated more strongly with barbeque in Texas, the majority of the South worships the other king of the smokehouse: pork.
Pork has been the reigning delicacy in the South for a very long time. Before refrigeration, most of the meat in Southerners’ diet was preserved, not fresh. As had been the practices for centuries all over the globe, meat was dried out with salt or, in some cases, pickled in order to safely store it for long periods of time. Southerners much preferred the taste of salted and smoked pork over pickled beef. Superior in preservation and taste, pork took the South by storm. By the eighteenth century, pork was served at almost every meal on most Southern tables and wealthy planters prided themselves on their smoked meat. By the nineteenth century, some estimate that “the per capita consumption of pork during the period at three times that of Europe.” One traveler in the South observed that “the people of the South would not think they could subsist without their [swine] flesh; bacon, instead of bread, seems to be THEIR staff of life.” As historian Sam Hilliard states, “If the ‘king’ of the antebellum southern economy was cotton, then the title of ‘queen’ must go to the pig.”
While pork barbeque was mainstream, enslaved people were the driving force behind the art of the barbeque and the core of today’s barbeque obsession: smoke and sauce. On plantations, slaves prepared and cooked the majority of the meat for planters’ tables. Slaves tasked with readying meat for the smokehouse faced a long and grueling regime of slaughtering and butchering the animals, salting the meat cuts, hanging the dried meat in the smokehouse, carefully keeping a low-burning fire under the meat for weeks, and then storing the smoked meat. Many of the innovations in curing techniques, including using different woods for different flavors, would likely have been initiated or executed by African-American hands.
While pork was a dominant food source for free white Southerners, enslaved people were even more reliant on pork as a meat source. Pork, along with corn, was the primary ration issued to slaves on many plantations. Though rations could vary widely, slaves typically received an average of three pounds of pork per week. Slaves, however, would usually be issued what was considered to be the lesser cuts of the hog, such as the feet, head, ribs, fatback, or internal organs. To hide the poor flavor of these cuts, enslaved people drew inspiration from traditional African cooking and used a powerful mixture of red pepper mixed with vinegar on their meat. West African cuisine relied heavily on the use of hot spices, and slaves continued this tradition by growing various peppers in their gardens to add to their dishes. Eventually, Southerners adopted this hot pepper-vinegar method of flavoring for all cuts of meat, and this combination still serves as the base for a large portion of barbeque sauces (particularly in the North Carolina region).
If barbeque is the heart of Southern cooking, cornbread is the backbone. Whether it comes white, yellow, soft, crusty, cool, hot, savory or sweet (the debate over proper cornbread is almost as lively as the debate about barbeque), cornbread is a delicious accompaniment to any meal and is particularly useful in soaking up every tasty morsel of sauce or juice.
Introduced to settlers by Native Americans, corn was an early staple for Euro-Americans. Corn, however, had a particularly strong hold in the South. Corn could grow well on less fertile land, which made it an ideal staple for planters who saved the best land for cash crops, such as cotton By the nineteenth century, only the Midwest “corn belt” outproduced many southern states. Like pork, corn was widely consumed by both free and enslaved people, but slaves were particularly reliant on corn. Corn was the most common ration for enslaved people in the South.
Since enslaved people ate form of corn at almost every meal, they created a variety of ways to prepare it drawing inspiration from their Native American neighbors. In the seventeenth century, many enslaved Africans may have noticed similarities between their cultures. Historian Jessica B. Harris noted that drawings of Native Americans in North Carolina made by English colonist John White in the sixteenth century depict communal eating from a bowl, which was also a common practice in West Africa. Native Americans shared their expertise of growing and preparing maize with both African and Europeans, including the art of making bread from corn instead of wheat. To prepare this bread, Native Americans created dough from cornmeal and water, covered the dough with leaves, and then placed the covered dough in hot ashes to bake. This recipe and technique is almost identical to the ways many slaves would make breads variously called hoecake, ash-cake, spoonbread, corn pone (the word pone comes from the Algonquian word apan), and cornbread. Irene Robertson, a former slave from Arkansas, had the following recipe for bread:
“Sift meal add salt and make up with water, put on collard leaf, cover with another collard leaf put on hot ashes. Cover with hot ashes. The bread will be brown, the collard leaves parched up…”
Polly Colbert, a former slave from Oklahoma, recognized the strong influence that Native Americans had on the large variety of corn recipes her and her family made. Colbert recalled that “we cooked all sorts of Indian dishes: Tom-fuller, pashota, hickory-nut grot, tom-budha, ash-cakes and pound cakes besides vegetables and meat dishes. Corn or corn meal was used in all de Indian dishes.”
Cornbread was also related to the cruelties of forced bondage. Enslaved people, who were given limited rations and limited time to eat and prepare their meals, became heavily reliant on cornbread. Cornbread and its varieties were ideal for slaves who worked in the fields, because it did not require utensils, could be easily transported, and it could last a long time. Most slaves were given little or no breaks for meals. Bill Heard, a former slave from Georgia,recalled that “Marse Tom fed all his slaves at de big house; he kept ‘em so regular at wuk dere warn’t no time for ‘em to do their own cookin’.” Cornbread was also an easy food to prepare for enslaved children, many of whom remember being fed from a trough like the animals.Robert Shepherd, a former slave from Georgia, remembered dinner of vegetables and cornbread as a child on the plantation and that “Aunt Viney crumbled up dat bread in de trough and poured de veg’tables and pot-likker [water from boiled vegetables] over it.”
Developing from Native American influences in hands of enslaved cooks, cornbread varieties eventually made their way into the cookbooks of plantation households. James Monroe’s family recorded recipes for egg bread and spoon bread that, while they employed similar techniques as ash-cake made by enslaved people and Native Americans, utilized the richer ingredients of milk and butter that planters’ kitchens had access to. One of George Washington’s favorite breakfast foods was hoecakes drizzled with honey and butter.
If you have the willpower to pass on hushpuppies or macaroni and cheese as sides to your Southern entrée, you may find yourself enjoying some greens. Today’s greens are typically collards, a leafy cabbage-like vegetable, flavored with hot peppers, pork, and other spices. Inspired by boiled vegetables and one-pot meals common to West African cuisine, slaves often prepared a dish that is extremely similar to modern greens, but with a much more diverse repertoire of vegetables.
Slave would gather and boil various kinds of leafy foods, such as collards, kale, he tops of beets and turnips, or wild weeds. In various instances, slaves boiled greens that were traditional to some Native American cuisines, such as marsh marigold and milkweed. Slaves would flavor the dish by boiling a piece of pork fat or bacon with the vegetables. Since slaves received such poor cuts of meat, their rations were often more ideal for flavoring foods, rather than serving as a meal itself. Many archaeological excavations at slave quarters turn up small, fragmented animal bones, which suggest that slaves often used their small meat rations in soups or stews. Wasting nothing, slaves enjoyed the “potlikker,” or the water that the vegetables had been boiled in, to gain additional vitamins. Cornbread, still a popular accompaniment to greens today, was often used to soak up this juice. Easter Huff, a former slave from Georgia, remembered greens and cornbread:
“Victuals dem days warn’t fancy lak dey is now, but Masrster allus seed dat us had plenty of milk and butter, all kids of greens for bilein’, ‘tatoes and pease and sich lak. Chilluns et cornbread soaked in de pot liquor what de greens or peas done been biled in. Slaves never got much meat.”
Enslaved cooks who were in charge of preparing meals for the entire community constantly struggled with cooking for so many people with limited ingredients, materials and time. Greens were an ideal food since they could be cooked with little attention, in a single pot. Carol Graham, a former slave from Alabama, noted this challenge:
“There were so many black fo’lks to cook fuh that the cookin was done outdoors. Greens was cooked in a big black washpot jus’ like yo’ boils clothes in now. An’ sometimes they would crumble bread in the potlicker an give us spoons an we would stan’ roun’ the pot an’ eat.”
Today, we like to enjoy sweet potatoes with lots of extra sweetness. We drizzle them with butter, sugar, cinnamon, toasted marshmallows or just go ahead and turn them into pie form. The sweet potato, however, was originally favored as a simple, more wholesome vegetable.
Sweet potatoes are hearty vegetables that grow well in less ideal soil, which made them an ideal crop for enslaved people and lower class whites. Slaves often gardens grew sweet potatoes in their gardens, utilizing skills that African Americans passed down from generation to generation. Anthony Taylor, who was enslaved as a young child in Arkansas, remembers learning how to grow potatoes on the plantation after freedom and he continued to raise sweet potatoes in his older age.
“We stayed on the old plantation for seven or eight years before we had sense enough or knowed enough to get away from there and git something for ourselves. That is how I come to raise such big potatoes. I been raising them fifty years. There are hill potatoes. You have to know how to raise potatoes to grow ‘em this big.
Like corn, the prevalence of sweet potatoes in Southern food is a marriage of African and Native American practices. The sweet potato is native to the Americas and was a familiar staple to many Native American nations. Posing a strikingly similar resemblance to the yams of West Africa, enslaved people could apply their traditions and techniques previously reserved for yams to the sweet potato with relative ease. Sweet potatoes were a flavorful starch that could be easily and quickly cooked. Slaves could roast potatoes in hot ashes while wrapped in leaves, like they would with cornbread or ash-cake, or cook them over the fire with other foods. Nellie Smith, a former slave from Georgia, remembered her grandmother would bake potatoes alongside a roast.
The South knows how to do vegetables right. If they are not flavored with meat or animal fat (see greens above), they are often fried. One vegetable that is particularly favored as a fried delicacy in the South is okra.
Native to Ethopia, okra is one of the many food staples that traversed the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Americas and is one of the most prominent food associated with the influence of African culture on the New World. Even the word okra is derived from the Igbo word for the vegetable, okuru. Following the forced relocated of enslaved people, okra spread to North America from the Caribbean by the 1700s. In West Africa, okra was often used as a thickening agent for soups and one-pot meals and many slaves grew okra in their gardens.
Through slaves’ influence and the transatlantic trade, okra began to appear in planters’ gardens as well. In the popular 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, two stews appear that used okra, including the now-familiar and much loved dish called gumbo. Gumbo is referred to as a “West India Dish” which reflects how the influences for the meal traveled from Africa, to the Caribbean, to North America. The two recipes are as follows:
“Ochra and Tomatos. Take an equal quantity of each, let the ochra be young, slice it, and skin the tomatos; put them into a pan without water, add a lump of butter, an onion chopped fine, some pepper and salt, and stew them one hour.
Gumbo—A West India Dish. Gather young pods of ochra, wash them clean, and put them in a pan with a little water, salt and pepper, stew them till tender, and serve them with melted butter. They are very nutritious, and easy of digestion.”
Southern Food Today
Southern food has developed from over 400 years of exchange, innovation, and resilience, but the journey isn’t over. Our culinary traditions will continue to draw inspiration from generation to generation and take on new forms. Sociologist William C. Whit predicts that the next revolution in Southern food will be reconciling traditional, rich flavors with modern lifestyles. Slaves depended on salty, fatty foods to survive demanding work. Today, we no longer engage in that level of physical activity, but the fat content of Southern food endures. Chefs are now churning out new blogs, cookbooks, and techniques that creatively attempt to keep the tastes we love, while protecting our health. We can’t wait to see what comes out of Southern kitchens next!