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.