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Frankly, My Dear, I Don't Give a Grit! Southern Cooking History

written by: Vicki Perry • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/28/2015

Bring on the grits, black-eyed peas, cornbread, ham hocks and beans and fried chicken, chess pie for dessert, and you've got a meal. Southern cooking has become more popular with the recent cooking show hosts and the idea of good home-style comfort food, but how did southern cuisine get its start?

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    What's a Grit?

    grits When thinking of great tasting comfort foods, many are reminded of southern home cooking. Regional cuisine begins, like the name suggests, in the regions they come from. The heritage of southern cooking is no different — it began in the south. Southern cooking includes various dishes like grits, found mostly in the south. However, these dishes are becoming a bit more popular around the rest of the country due to cooking shows with hosts like Trisha Yearwood and even Guy Fieri, who is a grits fanatic.

    With my father a native of Tennessee, I grew up on many of the southern-style dishes, including grits. Moving to Oregon, I have found it is difficult to find any cafe or restaurant that has the white corn dish on the menu. While the states of the U.S. are all joined, the differences in cultural aspects are remarkable, even when it comes to foods.

    Because of the coast, the Pacific Northwest carries a strong line of seafood dishes, and tend to lean more toward organic and natural food menus, where southern states serve fried foods such as fried green tomatoes and chicken. Grits and other dishes that are traditionally found in the southern part of the U.S. can be found in grocery stores of the northwest, but the overall public outlook in the northern U.S. is geared more toward the regional foods. I have found that most people of the Pacific Northwest have never tried grits nor do they have an idea of what a "grit" is.

    Why do people on one side of the continent cook differently from those on the other side? Going back to the history of southern cooking answers this question. Is it all a matter of regional availability?

    When my family moved back to the south, my younger sister was given a school placement test. A couple of the questions pertained to the southern culture, such as "what are the advantages of a brick house?" From birth to her first grade position she had lived in the northwest part of the country. The Pacific Northwest uses mostly wood to build their homes due to availability. She flunked the question because it surrounded regional supply of goods and cultural adaption. The same is true of foods from one state to another. Idaho may serve numerous potato dishes due to the ability of farmers to grow more spuds in the region. Much of the history of any genre of cooking has to do with regional culture and food availability. Southern is no different. From one coast to another, foods are served or cooked with the supply and history behind every last ingredient.

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    The History of Southern Cuisine

    The same basic foods in the south exist as they did three centuries ago when the settlers arrived in the 1700s. The land was fertile and the opportunity to have plentiful crops was there. Corn became the staple crop. The Cherokee Indian tribe moved to the south and west during five decades from 1720 to 1770 as the settlers were coming from Ireland and Scotland.

    The Native Americans taught early settlers how to prepare, grow, store and cook corn. Families thrived with gardens full of vegetables of all types and their hunting skills. Since most everything from bread to whiskey was made from the corn crops, they traded the garden crops and hunted game for corn. Potatoes became a staple that was accepted by the Appalachians.

    Throughout this time, the African diet shared in the New World extended from their experiences in different cultures and regions. Major changes took place in the African diet as a direct result of the slave traders. Slaves often suffered from malnutrition on ships due to a poor diet. Many could not bring enough food to last through the trip. The lack of sunlight would cause deficiency issues from remaining below deck through the long trips across ocean waters. Yams, rice and grains were the main diet of most slaves and with any rare luck, they might have been provided with meats or fruit. When the slaves reached the New World, it would normally take months to bring their health back up to par.

    The comfort foods the slaves enjoyed after arriving in the New World they brought themselves, which were often enjoyed and eaten with foods from Africa, brought by the slave traders. Field peas, okra, peanuts, eggplant and yams are native African foods that eventually became part of the southern cuisine of today.

    Plantation workers were often given a sparse supply of food that normally boiled down to meal, rice, vegetables, salt, molasses, some pork and on more rare occasions, fish and coffee. Pork was received in portions of about three to four pounds per week. Slave families often hunted or grew their own crops in vegetable gardens to supplement their diets to avoid malnutrition.

    As time went on, slaves worked as sharecroppers, their diets remaining mostly the same. This new title gave them a bit more freedom, or at least enough time to fish, hunt and plant gardens.

    Much of the food eaten in the south came from the enhancements of Native American culture and from the slave and sharecropping days. The settlers relied on the wild game in the area for food or at least until they cleared land, planted corn and vegetables and learned from the Native Americans how to prepare and eat certain foods, such as squash, peppers and cowpeas. Tomatoes were discovered and produced by the Native Americans; however, most southerners would not touch the unique red vegetable due to the fact they felt it was poisonous up until the 20th century.

    Cooking techniques came to the south through the teachings of Native Americans as well. They taught the settlers how to dry meats and vegetables of various types. The settlers also learned how to make preserves and jerky through the Native Americans. Women soon became good at processing corn to create breads and cornbread. With an ash hopper, they could soak the dry grains to produce “hominy" or “hominy grits." Grits became a popular staple of southerners during this time and even today it is traditionally set on a southern table, at least for a breakfast food.

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    Southern Barbecue

    Southerners are also associated with some great barbecued food. With mouth-watering barbecued pork, chicken, burgers and steaks,Chicken and waffles - a perfect southern meal  the barbecue sauce is a joining of the perfect blend of spices, brown sugar and tomato products to soak into the perfect piece of meat, infusing all of it together on the grill.

    The word, “barbecue" has chants of several tales of historical beginnings. Depending on whom it is you are talking with or what you are reading, many tales of where the word got its start are told. The definition of where the word began that makes the most sense is of being a derivative of a West Indian word, “barbacoa." This term stands for "slow-cooking meat over hot coals," which would make sense for the world barbecue.

    If you’re reading "Bon Appetit" magazine, they follow the word to Haiti’s past. The magazine states the word is derived from a French phrase, “barbe a queue," that falls under the definition, “from head to tail." Another well-known magazine, "Tar Heel," claims the word barbecue happens to extend from a 19th century ad for a local joint that served roast pig, along with the whiskey bar, beer hall and pool playing that went on. So the term, “BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG" came from the bar. Once word got out, it went from the descriptive action words to a shorter spoken word known as "barbecue." Following the historical past of foods in the south, the first explanation of where the word came from makes the most sense.

    Before the Civil War, five pounds of pork were eaten for every one pound of beef by Southerners. During this time, the slaughtering of pigs was a time for celebration and joy. Mostly every part of the pig was utilized, leaving some more non-traditional pieces eaten elsewhere in the country, for delicacies. Even today, pickled pigs feet is one of the favorites of some in the south. Hamhocks are added to navy beans or white beans for the traditional, "ham hocks and beans," normally served up with some cornbread, once again, using the historical ways of using corn (cornmeal) and using all the pieces of the pig.

    Neighborhood barbecues became more popular before the colonial period to share the food with everyone in a colony or community. It was 50 years before the Civil War period that traditions of barbecuing became a matter of fact during daily living. Plantation owners traditionally had large barbecues, even sharing some of the less eaten pig parts for the slaves. The barbecue practices throughout the years created more of a need to import pigs, as most weren’t raised in the south itself. The pigs began to be better cared for with farmers having more of a demand.

    During the 19th century, barbecue practices became a weekend habit for most people. It’s a favorite of families everywhere, with the southern recipes at the top of the list in many homes. Even if you don't barbecue, try a side dish of grits with butter or crumbled bacon for breakfast. Serve them slathered in gravy for dinner, along with a pork chop. Collard greens go well with pork chops, grits and sweet potatoes to create the perfect southern dish. Or try the traditional plate of chicken and waffles to perk up dinner or breakfast by serving something new and different. Have a taste of the wonderful homemade meals of the south.

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    What's in Your Region?

    The heritage of southern cooking is the basis for the wonderful meals served in the south today. Grits became a part of the Native American culture, bringing it to the south by teaching the methods of processing the corn to the settlers. As in every part of the world, the cuisine is based on the culture, produce and meats available in that particular region.

    In Japanese culture, you find more fish and rice. Rice fields are plentiful in Japan due to the watery areas available to grow the crop. Fish are a staple food, readily available because of the water that surrounds the island. Seaweed is served throughout diners and homes throughout Japan. It's all a matter of availability, history and environment.

    California has a warm climate and produces more citrus and vegetation not found in the cooler regions, such as Oregon or Washington. A trip to Iowa would show more corn crops since the weather is suitable for the crop. What is in your area that is different from most of the areas around you?

    The history of any cuisine comes from plant or animal availability, traditions brought forth to the current times, weather conditions of the area, and basic geography of the region as well. Places that are mountainous may be able to produce certain crops, however you probably wouldn't find huge fields of corn or rice. Unless there are lakes, streams or oceans nearby, you probably won't find many seafood dishes.

    The traditional meals or dishes of relatives past often bring those same foods to the table today as well. Generations pass recipes on to the next generation and on through the history of the family. Recipes are shared through today's technology as well, producing a reliable source of regional food recipes for use everywhere. Southern cooking show hosts delve in to the many recipes on television as well, opening up a whole new understanding of other cultures and foods. In times of the past, you may not have had the chance to taste cuisine from places other than your hometown. With the sharing of information, food processing and transport advances, and the desire to taste that barbecue from the south or elsewhere that you've heard so much about, the possibilities are endless.