Southern cooking is as varied and steeped in tradition as the region it calls home. Styles of southern food range from Tex-Mex to Cajun-Creole, Soul food, Floribbean and the traditional American Southern foods. The influences for southern cooking recipes come from all over the world including France, Britain, Spain, the Caribbean, South America and indigenous America.
Themes in Southern Cooking
Southern cooking reflects the social and economic history of the region. Although the South is generally associated with big plantations and high society, most southerners were actually rural farmers who worked hard for what they had and created meals containing ingredients they hunted and farmed themselves.
Southern cooking dishes typically incorporate ingredients indigenous to the region. Corn, for example, replaced wheat in many dishes, sprouting delicious side dishes such as corn on the cob and hush puppies. Corn was an essential and versatile crop for early European settlers who used it for cooking all kinds of dishes from warm and hearty cornbread and the breakfast staple grits, to liquors such as whiskey and moonshine.
Native Americans played a large part in the creation of southern foods. They introduced the settlers to many of the ingredients familiar to the southern table such as squash, beans, tomatoes and spices such as peppers and sassafras. Native Americans also shared knowledge of indigenous game including rabbit and venison to complement livestock such as cattle and pigs. Settlers were taught to use all the parts of the animals for southern cooking including the liver and intestines, which has carried over to today in southern cooking staples like chitlins and livermush, which is made from hog liver.
African culture had a significant impact on traditional southern cooking. As the slave traders brought Africans with them to the Americas, they also brought along some of the staples of the African diet. These ingredients, including okra, peanuts and yams, became popular throughout the region. Additionally, they brought to America many of their African spices as well as a proclivity for stewing.
Another large part of the southern heritage is the good old-fashioned barbeque. Taken from the Indian word barbacoa, meaning literally to cook meat, Americans in the south have a long tradition of slow cooking meats braised lovingly with rich, hearty sauces.
Keeping with the theme of rich and diverse foods, southern cooking is well known for its extravagant desserts. Who could possibly refuse delicious concoctions as sweet-sounding as peach cobbler, applesauce cookies, lemon ice box pie and buttermilk pie?
Cooking the Southern Breakfast
Southern breakfasts are nothing if not hearty and full of energy rich foods. Expect an early morning meal of flaky biscuits with thick sausage gravy, bacon and eggs, grits with fresh butter and country-fried potatoes. Such large meals were needed to prepare for the long hard days spent working on the farm.
Cajun food was developed in the Acadian region of Louisiana by French-speaking immigrants from Europe and Canada. Acadians learned to adapt their traditional recipes to include local ingredients such as sugar cane, crawfish and rice. Cajun cooking uses a base of finely diced bell peppers, onions and celery (called the Holy Trinity by some Cajun chefs) to build the spicy and robust dishes for which the region is famous.
Some of the best-known Cajun dishes are Jambalaya, Boudin and Gumbo. Jambalaya typically contains rice . . . and just about anything else. Prepared in a pot and slow cooked with spices, vegetables and whatever meat is on hand, Jambalaya is a rich and hearty dish. Boudin is a traditional sausage made from pork, pork liver, onion and other spices. Gumbo refers to a category of soups that use okra as a base ingredient. Gumbos, like Jambalaya, can be made with whatever is on hand.
Southern food and southern cooking reflects the diversity of the people who lived in early America. From hearty southern breakfasts to rich Cajun dishes, southern cooking appeals to anyone with a sense of adventure and an appetite to match.