Learning About Quintessential Southern Cuisine with Justin Nolan
A medley of cultural influences from around the world has helped make Southern cuisine what it is today. At its core, Southern food ways are rooted in local and imported ingredients, necessity and frugality. Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, Justin Nolan, specializes in cultural, biological, and ecological anthropology. As the author of Wild Harvest in the Heartland: Ethnobotany in Missouri’s Little Dixie and a wide range of academic publications, Nolan offers a holistic understanding of Southern cuisine. He highlights how cultural influences and regional geography inform past and present Southern cooking traditions.
The Core of American Southern Cuisine
Justin Nolan’s research in social ecology and ethnobiology includes traditional medicine and its recent incorporation into medical tourism in the Upper South and the conservation of Native North American food traditions. His studies and research have given him a clear picture of the rich history that contextualizes what we now consider Southern cuisine.
Justin Nolan explains that Southern cuisine in the United States is evolutionary and can best be understood as a composite of cultural influences, histories, and interactions. This includes Native American, African American, and Euro-American food traditions, which formed regionally in different areas of the South. They also formed in ways that reflect regional geography, soil composition, climate, and styles of subsistence, such as hunting, gathering, gardening, and large-scale food production.
To locate the origin of what is contemporaneously known as Southern cuisine, Nolan provides a brief overview of America’s settlement history in the South and the resulting food ways that emerged. He explains that for Native Americans of the Southeast Woodlands, corn became the principle calorie-yielding crop. Dried corn was ground into flour and baked to yield calorie-rich corn bread or soaked in lye to soften the hulls and provide sweet hominy. Wild game such as deer, wild fowl (geese, ducks, pheasants), freshwater and marine fish, and numerous small game (squirrels, rabbits) contributed to the Native diet. An diverse assortment of cultivated beans, peas, sunflowers, squash, and wild leafy greens (burdock, watercress) were also prominent. However, over time, Native American food customs hybridized with each immigration wave across the United States.
Nolan explains that as English, French, and Spanish colonists spread westward, a mosaic of food traditions formed. Each ethnic group introduced new and preferred food choices and cooking techniques. The Native Americans, in turn, adopted, melded, and incorporated other food traditions into their own. African Americans, for instance, were accustomed to frying meats in palm oil, and the cultivation of millet, okra, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas was unique to their subsistence history. The colonial “cast iron” cooking method advanced the custom of deep-frying proteins such as pork, catfish, and chicken in vegetable oil or bear fat.
As a principle food staple, corn was generally abundant in most regions of the Lower and Upper South. For the latter, meals were typically based on seasonally available wild game or domesticated meats such as smoked ham. Wild game was generally roasted or grilled, served with spoon bread and root crops. Wild greens, hickory and walnuts, and a host of berries were gathered in the Uplands as supplementary foods by Native and European Americans. In the nutrient-rich soils of the Deep South, rice, cotton, indigo, and soybeans became the primary plantation crops. Accordingly, rice would form the basis for several Plantation South food customs, including jambalaya, a spicy fusion of rice, smoked meat, and savory vegetables. Other Creole and Cajun dishes emerged in the Coastal Lowlands, where French, Spanish, Native American and African American food customs collided, primarily in Coastal Louisiana. This cultural “interpenetration” generated a rich and complex style of cooking, stewing, braising, smoking, blackening, and preserving saltwater protein sources and domesticated meats. Here, the African preference for spicy peppers, onion, and garlic can be found in the flavor profile of customary dishes. Blackened seafood (marine fish, shrimp, oysters) also left an indelibly sizzling mark on Southern cuisine in the Coastal Lowlands in particular.
Arguably, no dish is as emblematic of the Coastal South than ‘gumbo’. Nolan explains that preparing a gumbo was historically a group effort resulting in festive community feasts. Gumbo is a rich, spicy stew based on a “roux” in which garlic, bell peppers, and celery are simmered as stock is added, along with any available seafood (shrimp, crab, oysters), or chicken, smoked ham, duck, sausage, and okra on occasion. Conceptually, any ‘gumbo’, once seasoned and simmered, and served appropriately, reflects the ever-changing patterns of food acculturation among all ethnic groups residing in proximity.
Southern cuisine might best be understood as “soul food”, inspired by shifting African and European American food customs, all generally calorie-rich and nourishing. Family suppers in the US South are often elaborate during holidays and reunions especially. Battered and fried fish, chicken, or pork chops are served alongside fresh skillet corn, turnip greens, pinto beans, black eyed peas, and fried cornbread during family meals. Buttermilk and pecan pies, banana pudding and blackberry cobblers are favorites for communal gatherings as well.
All told, understanding food traditions in any region of the world extends our knowledge of the human experience more broadly. Foodways are processes, and they are vital to cultural survival, expression, and identity.