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, Scottish, 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 and peaches.
Fried foods are common in the South, since Africans of the time were fond of deep fat frying. Whites mostly avoided African cultural influences, but cooking styles quickly seeped into all corners of the South. 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 best-known exports, though pork is also an integral a part of the cuisine, with Virginia ham being the most renowned form. Green beans are often flavored with bacon and salt pork, biscuits served with ham often accompany breakfast, and ham with red-eye gravy is a common dinner dish though most genuine Southerns prefer country gravy made with milk.
Southern cuisine varies widely by region. In Southern Louisiana , Cajun and Creole cuisine have developed. African American soul food is well known, and is commonly eaten by black populations throughout the country, as well as by whites in the South. Rice was historically an important crop in the coastal areas of North Carolina and South Carolina , leading to local specialties like "Hoppin' John" (a mixture of rice and black-eyed peas flavored with salt pork) and Charleston Red Rice. Although Tennessee and Texas are particularly noted for their barbecue, it is extremely popular throughout the South with many regional variations of its own.
Evolution of Southern cuisine
Southern food is steeped in tradition, as seen on a sign for the Granny Cantrell's chain of restaurants in the Florida Panhandle. The first settlers to arrive in the southern South] 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 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 cuisine and were used in many similar ways as corn.
Native Americans introduced the first Southerners to many other vegetables still familiar on southern tables. Squash, pumpkin, many types of beans, tomatoes (though these were initially considered poisonous), 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 (commonly called 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 along with American comfort 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.
Southern chains that are popular across the country include Stuckey's and Popeye's. The former is known for being a "pecan shoppe" and the latter is known for its spicy fried chicken.
Other Southern 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 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 influences 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 coastal 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.
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.
Most Africans’ diets consisted of greens and various vegetables. Stews were common and rice was a familiar staple to them.
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.
Appalachian Mountain Cuisine
Food served in the Appalachian Mountains differs slightly from other southern cuisine. Terrible travel conditions and poor roads limited most settelments to only foods that could be produced locally. Seafood, beyond the occasionally locally caught fish, was unheard of. Diets were almost meatless, except for wild game, particularly during the winter. Pigs were raised and the meat cured for later consumption, but often, the meat was used as a flavoring instead of as the main course. For example, sausage was often cooked in small portions primarily to obtain grease for use in gravy instead of as a main course. Cornbread was eaten regularly since corn grew well locally. As flour became available, biscuits and johnny cakes became more popular. Salt was available, notably from Saltville , VA , but until black pepper appeared, few other seasonings were used. Women in this area were often herbalists, and may have used local plants in seasoning. Chicory, which could be grown locally, was a well known coffee substitute. Corn whiskey, milk, and water were available from the farm. Coffee, sugar, and tea were all slower to become available.
While the opening of these isolated areas by better roads changed the cuisine, the food remained much closer to Scottish and Irish fare than other Southern Food. This type of food still remains very popular in the Appalachian Mountains consisting of Scottish and Irish ancestry.
Foods that are part of traditional Southern cuisine
- Buffalo Rock ginger ale
- Dr Pepper
- Mint julep
- Muscadine wine
- Orange soda
- R.C. Cola
- Sugarcane juice
- Sweet tea
Meats, poultry and seafood
- Barbecue (Pork or beef are most common, but goat and chicken are also seen. Sauces vary regionally.)
- Boudin, Spicy sausage, either White boudin, made with dirty rice in a casing, or Red boudin, a spicy 'blood sausage'.
- Chit'lins (Fried small intestine of a hog)
- Chicken gizzards (fried)
- Chicken Sauce-Picquante, Chicken cooked in a tangy stewlike form with tomatoes and spices, often served over rice.
- Fried chicken (usually flour battered and pan fried, with or without skin)
- 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 fowl 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)
- Ham hocks
- Smithfield ham
- Head cheese
- Liver (Most usually pork or fried chicken liver)
Soups and stews
- Brunswick stew
- Conch chowder or Gumbo
- Etouffee (a very thick stew made of crawfish or chicken and sausage, okra and roux served over rice)
- She-crab soup
- Terrapin stew
It is not uncommon for a traditional southern meal to consist of only vegetables with no meat dish 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)
- Corn pudding
- Cooked greens (collard, turnip, kale, pokeweed, and mustard greens, and sometimes cabbage)
- Hoppin' John
- 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)
- Swamp cabbage
- Squash ( often cooked down with onions or fried like okra)
- Tomatoes (sliced ripe or fried green)
- Sweet potatoes, including sweet-potato pie
- Biscuits (traditionally prepared with buttermilk)
- Corn pone (hoecake, Johnny cake)
- Hush puppies
Side dishes and complements
- Cane syrup
- Deviled eggs
- Dressing (similar to northern stuffing, but with [[[cornbread]] as a base and prepared and served separately from 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 meat.
- Mayhaw jelly
- Muscadine jelly
- Pickled or brandied peaches
- Sorghum syrup
- Watermelon rind pickles
Desserts and sweets
- Coconut cake
- Pound cake
- King cake
- Peach shortcake
- Red velvet cake
- Tea cake (more of a cookie than a cake)
- Benne seed candy
- Peanut brittle
- Pecan brittle
- Blackberry cobbler
- Dewberry cobbler
- Peach cobbler
- Apple pie
- Chess pie
- Fried apple pie
- Key lime pie
- Lemon ice box pie
- Pecan pie
- Shoo fly pie
- Sweet potato pie
- Banana pudding
- Bread pudding
- Rice pudding
- Peach pudding