The Sobering Origins Of Southern Food May Change What You Put On Your Plate

Biscuits. Fried chicken. Hoppin’ John. Sweet potatoes. Okra. The staples of Southern fare extend far beyond this list, but they all have a few things in common. They’re delicious, and they’ve stood the test of time. But they also share a dark history that not many people know – until now.

As Kelly Alexander of Indy Week wrote in 2019, it’s not just those in the South who love the food. She explained, “Southern cuisine is beloved beyond the Mason-Dixon, not just because mason jars are cute and fried chicken is delicious, but because our way of cooking is flexible and inclusive.”

Of course, to native southerners, the cuisine means even more. Southern Living magazine’s Kaitlyn Yarborough wrote, “They say that New Orleanians come out of the womb knowing how to make red beans and rice; same goes for Kentuckians with burgoo. Though there are some [dishes] that every Georgian, Mississippian, and Tennessean alike should know, we like to give certain regions their ‘thing,’ whether it be gumbo to Louisiana or chicken-fried steak to Texas.”

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On that note, there’s a slew of dishes for which the South has become known. There are, of course, the staples, such as buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, and pimento cheese. But Yarborough highlighted the fact that different states and cities also have their own specialty dishes. And they all have flavors – and origins – as varied as the locales from which they come.

For starters, there’s chicken and dumplings. Without a specific origin, many credit its creation to the Midwestern and Southern U.S. And, in fact, it’s still a popular entree in those areas today. Most agree that it came to be a staple during the 18th century, when financially pressed home cooks had to be frugal with their fare.

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Either way, the dish is, for many, the definition of comfort food. After cooking chicken in water, the resulting broth is then used to cook flour-and-shortening-based dumplings. Of course, this isn’t the only way Southern chefs prepare chicken. You can find fried versions of it just about anywhere in the region.

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Some regions have customized the batter-and-fry method for creating this savory, crunchy variety of chicken. Take Nashville, Tennessee, and the city’s famous hot chicken. It’s prepared much like a traditional serving of the delicious meal, but a spicy, cayenne pepper-based sauce makes it a much zestier option

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Down in Texas, the batter-and-fry method for coating chicken with crunch has a completely different implementation. The Lone Star State has a lock on chicken-fried steak, which, as you can guess, gets cooked just like a bucket of fried chicken. In the end, though, chefs slather the tenderized beef steak in either pepper-cream or red-eye gravy.

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If, however, you’re in search of something relatively light, look no further than the fried green tomato. Chefs pluck the least ripe, most vibrant tomatoes to prepare this Southern favorite. In most places, they’ll coat the slices with cornmeal, although certain regions might fry their tomatoes in a flour or breadcrumb coating.

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Just don’t expect all of your Southern fare to come in a crispy and golden coating. A trip to Louisiana will introduce you to a slew of foods prepared with more than just a fryer. Indeed, those who invented the recipes didn’t have the same resources today’s chef’s do. They, in fact, had to make do with just simple pots and pans. And, from there, red beans and rice was born.

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When red beans and rice came to be, Louisiana women spent Sunday cooking a big meal. Monday, however, was washing day. So, to save time, they would fire up a pot filled with the dish and leave it to simmer all day long as they did their laundry and cleaning. Naturally, everyone had a different recipe. Most, though, would add leftover meat and bones, as well as vegetables and spices to the beans.

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You can find also grab-and-go Southern fare in Louisiana. Indeed, look no further than that New Orleans classic, the po’boy sandwich. It may seem simple, if you think of the snack as just a French baguette full of roast beef or seafood. But the slathering of gravy and hot sauce on top makes it a flavorful, filling lunch.

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The po’boy has held its position in Southern cuisine for quite some time, as evidenced by its name alone. Former streetcar conductors Clovis and Benny Martin served the sandwich at their New Orleans restaurant. In 1929, when the city’s conductors went on strike, the Martins fed them for free. They nicknamed their non-paying customers “poor boys,” which may have given the ever-popular foodstuff its name.

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Seafood, though, doesn’t just fill the po’boys of New Orleans. Somewhere in the Lowcountry – the coastal stretches of Georgia and South Carolina – someone came up with the idea to mix fresh shrimp with a plate full of grits. The combination still makes a popular breakfast main, although Southerners can and will eat shrimp and grits all day long.

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Indeed, much of the South’s classic cuisine is based on the ingredients that people had at-hand – and for good reason. Kentucky’s classic chicken and mutton-filled stew, burgoo, exemplifies this fact. According to Southern Living magazine, an old adage described the potential additions one could make to a pot of the hearty soup. It goes, “If it walked, crawled or flew, it goes in burgoo.”

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Hoppin’ John is another Southern dish with a story attached. You’ll find black-eyed peas and rice at the core of the dish, and the former ingredient has a symbolic place in the recipe. The spherical seeds are thought to represent coins, and eating them on New Year’s Day is a promise of prosperity for the person noshing on the iconic Lowcountry recipe.

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In spite of the luck said to come from eating Hoppin’ John, the dish is an exemplary bit of Southern fare. But it’s for all of the wrong reasons. Indeed, the recipe has a history that seems to have been forgotten over time. And Georgia native and farmer Cornelia Walker Bailey broached this topic with National Geographic magazine in 2014.

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Bailey’s home, Sapelo Island, has the same dimensions as Manhattan, but housed a mere 50 residents as of 2014. And most of those people are descended directly from slaves who made their homes there after they were freed. They found sustenance in the foods they grew, cultivated and cooked, including the red pea.

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Back then, Sapelo Island residents used the red pea as the main ingredient in their pots of Hoppin’ John. But the legumes didn’t originate in Georiga or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter. Instead, the red pea came from Africa along with the slaves shipped across the ocean and forced into servitude.

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Bailey explained, “Slave owners sent back and got seeds for what the slaves were used to eating, because they weren’t used to the food here in America. That meant the slaves could plant for themselves.” The red pea is just one example of the many foods that arrived on U.S. soil in this fashion. And lately, food historians, chefs and farmers have begun to highlight this culinary heritage.

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For Bailey’s part, she got to experience the similarities between African and Southern cooking on a trip overseas. She noted that her favorite meal featuring red peas came from Africa and featured another Southern staple. The farmer said, “I had quite a few okra dishes when I went to West Africa.”

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While the West African cuisine might have surprised other tourists, Bailey had no such trouble. She said, “They had [okra] in stews and stuff – very, very similar to what we eat here. The strange dishes they were serving us weren’t strange to me, because I was going, ‘Hey, we eat this back home.’”

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Okra also holds a special significance for Jessica Harris. The food historian told National Geographic magazine that she’d even made the vegetable a feature of her business card. For her, it serves as a symbol of her Southern roots and the lineage that traces back to Africa. Harris, however, felt that others had begun to associate the vegetable with the southern U.S. only. And that was something she wanted to fix.

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Harris explained that “okra is connected indelibly with the American South” through the New Orleans dish, gumbo. Even today, chefs beef up the popular dish with the finger-shaped vegetable. But that technique first appeared in a Senegalese stew called soupikandia, which was originally brought to America by slaves. They prepared it for themselves and their masters.

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And yet, Harris said, “Gumbo has become totemic, linked forever in the American mind, particularly with southern Louisiana.” Of course, the dish isn’t the only example of a food introduced by slaves but credited to pioneering chefs of the American south. And she knew exactly how that happened.

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It all came down to the fact that white owners erased their slaves’ contributions from the records, Harris said. No one protested, either, because that was the way of life at the time. As the food historian put it, “Black people have been in the room, but for so long they were so good at being invisible.” As a result, their culinary talents didn’t make it into history books.

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But more research is proving one thing to be true. Southern cuisine, it seems, has its roots in two places. Typically, slaves incorporated the ingredients they knew from Africa with the new foodstuffs they found in America. The latter included particular produce grown on the plantations, as well as dishes served in the kitchens.

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Christa Dierkshede worked at President Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, as of 2016. While there, she found food to be a popular topic of conversation. The historian told NPR that more visitors had begun to ask, not about the home’s famous owner, but rather, its enslaved staffers. She said, “It’s really been in the past few years that people come here and they say, ‘What did the slaves eat? Did they grow their own produce? Did Jefferson give them food?’”

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The visitors’ intrigue made sense to Dierkshede. She explained, “Food is such a great equalizer. And everybody has some kind of food tradition in their family. And to talk about what that tradition or culture was among the lives of African-Americans is a way for us to try to understand the lives of enslaved people in a more holistic way.”

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Fortunately, plenty of people have begun to do just that, thus spreading the word of the slaves’ culinary importance. Writer and food historian Michael Twitty has made it his mission to figure out where Southern cuisine comes from and then share that information with the world at-large. He explained to the Smithsonian magazine in 2017, “Our food is our flag. That’s why this is important.”

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Twitty’s interest in culinary history was piqued when he was a kid. He went on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a living-history museum where he watched a demonstration on the era’s food. After that, he went home and started whipping up age-old recipes himself – and has yet to stop doing so.

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But Twitty eventually realized that his at-home historical studies didn’t necessarily align with what he learned at school. He said, “When I was growing up, I remember fifth-grade Michael Twitty was taught about his ancestors, like, ‘Oh, your ancestors were unskilled laborers who came from the jungles of West Africa. They didn’t know anything. They were brought here to be slaves and that’s your history.’”

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On the rare occasion that slaves’ cuisine did get mentioned, Twitty found the descriptions dry, to say the least. He told NPR in 2016, “There was no sense of their personal stories, no sense of their familial ties, no sense of their personal likes or dislikes. It was just straight up a very bland, neutral version of history.”

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So, Twitty did his part to enrich the world’s knowledge about slave culture and cuisine. He majored in anthropology and African-American studies at Howard University, continuing his own research after graduation. He mastered a slew of antebellum recipes and went on the road to deliver lectures. The expert even gained personal experience by toiling on a historic plantation.

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Twitty also embarked on a tour of the south to reconnect with his own family’s history, as well as important sites in the region’s culinary history. All of his travel stories, findings and recipes became then a book called The Cooking Gene, which he published in November 2016.

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Through Twitty’s book, he continued his quest to share the history of African-American slaves. The author shared their staple recipes, as well as the interesting ways in which they cooked their meals. For instance, he learned that some would repurpose their bed frames as barbecue pits for cooking everything from goats and hogs to deer and bears.

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The barbecue-centric finding left Twitty momentarily skeptical, but ultimately impressed. He admitted, “I was like, ‘No way in hell that a mattress frame was that big y’all could do all that.’ But more than one person told me till I found out it was actually a thing. That was amazing. I was like, okay, people are doing things, they made that barbecue happen.”

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And Twitty’s not the only one who thinks these little details – however small – are worth sharing. Chef Matthew Raiford also runs a farm, ownership of which, since 1874, has been in his family. Through his post, Raiford came to obtain a letter written to his grandmother from her mom, which described how best to grow crops, including watermelon, sweet potatoes and sugar cane.

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That fading piece of paper is another perfect example of why the slaves’ culinary history is still so vital today, Raiford told National Geographic magazine. He said, “It’s important to continue this conversation, about who brought what [to America] and why we eat what [we eat]. Those conversations need to happen so everyone has a voice at the table.”

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Red pea farmer Bailey could only agree with Raiford. She concluded, “Everybody needs to keep in touch with their ancestors, and through food is one of the best ways to get close. They could have been gone 300 years ago, but to say my great-great-great-grandparents used to use this and cook this and plant this, that gives you a good feeling.”

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