Breaking down and defining traditional Southern Cuisine can be a challenging task for any editorial. It is the central cuisine that has grown to define a significant portion of the American culinary lexicon and is deceivingly complex in flavors and origin. The truth is Southern Cuisine, much like American Cuisine itself, is a rich mix of several culinary and cultural traditions from beyond our borders. From the Indigenous Americans to Africans to the Scottish, German, and French Immigrants, all have played a part in developing and defining food in the South.
To the untrained eye or outsider, Southern food, much like Southern people, can appear to be simple, unrefined, and unsophisticated. But the truth is that Southern Cuisine is gloriously rich, intricate, and full of life and flavor. It is a true testament to the ingenuity of a people who cleverly developed so many flavors, usually with limited money and resources.
Explore some of the bedrock cuisines that have grown to define the South and our country’s culinary heritage.
From a 3,000-mile-high view, Southern cuisine can easily be defined as comfort food. Comfort is the one trait that links and binds all the regional Southern cuisines together. Southern Food has the unique characteristic of making anyone who tastes it feel like they are eating a home cooked meal, no matter where they are or where they come from.
Fava Bean Puree with Spinach
Closer to the ground, the flavors and ingredients can be more distinct and unique to their region. Sometimes these traits don’t even cross county boarders much less state lines. There are of course, those classic Southern dishes in which each region seems to have their own spin.
Fried food in general is a Southern staple with Chicken being the most popular element of which to fry. Immigrant Scots traditionally deep-fried chicken in fat unlike their European counterparts who baked or boiled the poultry meat. Native Americans in the South also fried foods like bread and fish. Despite tremendous hardship and tragedy, African Americans through perseverance and ingenuity played a significant part in refining these influences as well as mixing in their African culinary heritage to form the delicious Southern dishes we enjoy today, including fried chicken.
Before frying, chicken is usually dipped in buttermilk and then dredged in flour (sometimes it is dipped in buttermilk again for extra crispiness). The flour mixture will typically contain salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne pepper but can contain other seasonings such as garlic and onion powder as well. It is then dipped in canola, vegetable, or peanut oil (or even lard) that is 375°F.
Southern food is food that was born through perseverance. When meat was scarce during difficult times, Southern people had to make do with what they had available. Beans and Greens is a classic Southern dish which encapsulates this. It is traditionally made with either brown or white beans combined stewed turnip greens and a little bit of bacon or a piece of fatback from the pig. Other low meat dishes include beans with cornbread and Hoppin’ John, a dish with black-eyed peas, rice, onions, red or green pepper, and bacon.
A homemade version of Hoppin’ John.
Grits are another dish whose origins can be traced back to 16th Century Native Americans who were using ground corn or maize and mashing it into a soft texture. The Natives would eventually teach European Colonists how to make the dish and it has been a staple of Southern Cuisine ever since.
What started as a breakfast side has since transformed into a dish that is served in restaurants all over the world, often with grilled shrimp. Grits are also the official state food of South Carolina.
Homemade Shrimp and Grits with Pork and Cheddar
Traditionally, grits are white cornmeal that is boiled and then mixed with milk and butter. Then ingredients are added based on the dish whether it be a simple mix of cheese with chopped bacon or shellfish like shrimp or crawfish. Think of grits like a blank canvas for any flavor that can be imagined, whether sweet, savory, sour, etc.
Barbecue is universally Southern, but each region of the South has their own unique style. Most Southern Barbecue is cooked low and slow with indirect heat, but variations are defined by the meat being cooked and the sauce or dry rub it is seasoned with.
Middle Texas, for instance, is famous for using the cow and will typically incorporate a very basic rub that is mixed with salt, pepper, and little else.
In the Carolinas, the pig is the meat of choice, but the coastal regions prefer a vinegar based sauce, while the western region of North Carolina prefers a tomato and ketchup based sauce that is close in relation to the standard BBQ sauce seen in grocery stores and restaurants across the United States. The midlands of South Carolina, meanwhile, prefer a mustard based sauce while the rest of the state enjoys both light tomato and heavy tomato sauces.
These variations are prevalent are throughout the South. In some cases, neighboring counties in the same state will have two uniquely different barbecue styles from one another.
It almost seems redundant and insulting to try to distinguish Soul Food as a branch of Southern food. The fact of the matter is that without the influence of Africans who were brought over through the slave trade and their lineage of African Americans who not only cooked for themselves but for their plantation owners and their families, Southern food would not have nearly the same cultural and culinary legacy that it has today.
Soul Food today is a label that is both embraced and revered by Black restauranteurs. On one hand it is an effective and popular way to market their culinary heritage across the country and cater to their customers. On the other hand, many Black chefs feel pigeonholed and unfairly labeled as Soul Food chefs when their cooking reflects more versatility, influences, and history.
Southern Style Grilled Collard Greens
Maybe we can start with the foods and dishes that have uniquely African roots and have evolved into the Southern Classics they are today. Foods like the peanut, okra, and dishes such as Gumbo for instance. As the slaves learned frying techniques from Native Americans and the Scottish and Scandinavians, they incorporated okra and invented the classic, Southern fried okra into the culinary lexicon.
The previously mentioned Gumbo is the result of a dish that was born of necessity. In order to feed a large group of people efficiently, slaves would often cook large pots of stews while out in the fields. This allowed them to cook and work at the same time. They originally would mix Okra, rice, and other ingredients. French and Spanish ingredients as well as the local seafood would help the dish evolve into what it is today.
As American immigration expanded westward into Texas, the fusion of their cuisines along with locally available ingredients and traditional Mexican dishes and ingredients formed over time what is otherwise known as Tex Mex. Most of the food served in Mexican restaurants across the United States is usually a form of Tex Mex.
Burritos, for example, are not a traditional staple south of the border. Neither are nachos, chimichangas, fajitas, chili con carne, etc. In fact, beef really wasn’t used in Mexico except for the Northern border areas as Texas immigrants sold cattle to their Southern neighbors. This fluidity of cultures and commerce across borders is essentially how Tex Mex was born.
Chili con carne originated in Texas, not Mexico
The distinction is important because the cuisine gives credence to the Mexican heritage from which it was born while also acknowledging what makes it uniquely American. Like most, if not all American cuisine, Tex Mex is birthed from the interaction of both immigrant and native cultures who would ease tensions of unfamiliarity and cultural awkwardness by bonding over food.
In recent years, this style of cuisine has been refined by chefs all over the country turning what has been a pop culture food into something more elegant and rustic. These chefs, usually Mexican immigrants or their descendants, are doing so by bringing more of the Mexican influence back into traditional Tex Mex flair.
While considered Tex Mex because it was born in Houston, Fajitas (or Tacos al Carbon as it was originally named) is a dish that was first served by Mexican Immigrant owned Ninfa’s. Now with two restaurants, Ninfa’s Uptown Houston, and The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is still going strong, working tirelessly to live up to the standards and ingenuity set by the original owners. Still serving their classics, the restaurant is focused on pushing the boundaries of Texas and Mexican cuisine.
Gumbo, the iconic dish of the Cajun and Creole cuisines, is the quintessential dish that best represents America.
One glance at the ingredients and you’ll see a host of influences, both with native and immigrant origins in one dish. Traditional Gumbo includes French roux, African okra, Native American filé , Spanish peppers, Cajun sausage, and oysters supplied by a Yugoslav fisherman, all served over Chinese rice with an accompaniment of hot French bread made by one of the city’s finest German bakers.
Seafood Gumbo with Rice
Creole and Cajun can be confusing labels to outsiders, since both have similar regional origins. Creole is best described as a sophisticated urban cuisine that originated in New Orleans which was a port hub for many different settlers from all over the world. As different groups of settlers made their way into the city (bringing with them many different types of ingredients), Creole cuisine expanded and evolved over a few centuries. The heaviest influences being Native, African, French, and Spanish.
The French Quarter: New Orleans, LA
Cajun cuisine is the rural, more rustic cousin to Creole. Those living in the remote areas of the Louisiana countryside and the coastal bayous had to make do with whichever ingredients were locally available. Originally French settlers relied heavily on local Native American tribes to teach them cooking methods and using local ingredients so they wouldn’t starve. These methods and ingredients then blended with French culinary techniques. Similarly, to Creole cuisine, slaves from Africa, Spanish and German immigrants who were settling into these regions would blend their culinary traditions to form what we now know as Cajun cuisine.
Chicken and Andouille Sausage Jambalaya
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