Culture and Cuisine in the American South
Food and cooking play a huge role in the everyday lives of families and communities, Justin Nolan says across the globe. In the American South, ‘Soul Food’ has a particularly significant place among the population. Warm, hearty, and packed with calorie-dense and nutritious ingredients, Soul Food represents an intersection between geographical location (and the local plants and wild game of the region) and the exchange of cultural information among the peoples who have lived there, and who live there presently.
Justin Nolan, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, has spent the better part of his career studying cultural food ways in the American South. His research into the origins of soul food and the customs surrounding cuisine in the deep south reveal an incredible multicultural milieu steeped in history. Dishes that some know as quintessentially American draw on far more than flavor profiles, but also on the histories of the land and the people who have come and gone through that region. Justin Nolan states that food ways across any region of the world where humans coalesce might be understood as adaptive and distinctly human, creative processes, and are vital today in maintaining community belonging, social identity, and cultural survival. In the American south, where barbecue and grits reign supreme, the history of food is revealing.
Corn and Grits
For most Native Americans in the Southeastern Woodlands, corn became the primary subsistence crop according to Justin Nolan. It could grow easily in the warm, wet climate of the region and be accompanied by local game to make a satisfying meal. As colonists appeared as early as the seventeenth century, a cultural mixing began to make a mark on Southern food. New influences from English, French, and Spanish immigrants led to a blending of preparation styles, seasonings, and resources in local cuisine. For example, in the Piedmont and Low Country of the Carolina's, people began blending sea and land in their food traditions, forming the popular shrimp and grits combination we know today. Adaptations continued to suit preferences and available resources. Grits transformed in the west, in Mississippi and Louisiana, accompanied by the inclusion of stewed meats like chicken and pork. Often accompanying these seared proteins was grits, smothered in heavy gravies made from flour and animal fat.
The colonization of the American South also led to a new variety of crops. Soybeans, cotton, indigo, and (importantly) rice were grown by the European plantation owners. Rice quickly became another basis for food customs, including the popular Jambalaya. A combination of smoked and seasoned meat derived from Native American, Cajun and Creole customs, and cultivated vegetables stewed in thick stock formed this iconic spicy southern dish. For Justin Nolan, Jambalaya is more than a hearty dish from the American South, but a melding of Native American, French, Spanish, and African traditions representing the people of the region, particularly in Coastal and Central Louisiana, dating back centuries.
Even barbecue was influenced by a collision of cultures. African preferences for seasonings like garlic, onions, ginger, and spicy peppers left their mark on the flavor profiles of barbecue. The use of meats like chicken, pork, and beef from the European colonizers formed the basis for the protein. These traditions combined with the Native American custom of smoking wild game for long periods of time over hot wood coals eventually became what is now known as barbecue, a quintessential American style of cooking food. It even adapts to smaller regions in the United States through flavor preferences in the sauces used. In the Southeast, people tend toward lighter vinegar and mustard bases. To the west, thicker and sweeter tomato bases are more common.
Nolan’s Final Thoughts
Corn, grits, jambalaya, and barbecue, while best known for their origins in the American South as comforting soul food, are emblematic examples of multicultural cuisine. The soul of these foods are the people, their experiences, their hardships, and their interactions with others through the course of history. For Justin Nolan, the study of these food ways in the American South is essential to understanding the history and social ecology of the region and, perhaps, provides important insights into communities and their collective identities.