Unlike the cuisines from our country’s other three corners, southern food has an identity and culture unto itself. Bound less by ingredients and recipes, and more by people and their stories, southern food embodies the lived experiences of the region’s people, both past and present.
We asked southern food experts to help us pin down what defines southern food today, and their responses shed light on the important role food has in the humanities.
“Food is a lens to society. It shows how power works, how structures are formed, and where change is possible,” said Elizabeth Engelhardt, Interim Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts and Humanities in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.
Engelhardt, who is a John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and a scholar of food studies, has an understanding of southern food that surpasses that of most others. She says that the stories people tell while cooking, eating and sharing southern food are just as important as the ingredients.
“We all eat, so if we really listen to each other about what we eat, who grows it, who cooks, who shops, how we use food in moments both portentous and quotidian, and all the rest of the ways we invest meaning in food, then we learn about ourselves and our neighbors,” said Engelhardt.
By looking closely at southern food today and its origins, we gain a uniquely honest perspective of our region’s history. At the foundation of many favorite southern dishes are foodways innovated during some of the South’s most challenging times. Too often, celebrations of southern food have erased the names, stories, and struggles of nonwhite southerners. To appreciate southern food today is to appreciate the culinary legacies that these peoples created.
“You cannot have southern food without Native American foodways—corn, beans, squash, but more importantly, the knowledge for how to grow, prepare, and serve each. You also cannot have southern food without African foodways—again, both ingredients, like okra, and practices developed by highly skilled farmers and cooks,” said Engelhardt.
While southern food may seem to have resurged in popularity in recent years, the cuisine most certainly has a permanent seat within our country’s popular culture. Rebecca Darwin, IAH Advisory Board Member and CEO of Garden & Gun magazine, says that the publication focuses in large part on southern food because it’s the richest source of stories with universal appeal.
The magazine Darwin cofounded and created celebrates all aspects of southern culture, which she says must include the music, culture, sporting life, and of course, the food. Garden & Gun showcases southern cuisine because that is what their readership demands. In 2018, the magazine collected its first digital slideshow of “Forgotten Southern Recipes,” which presented 50 history- and context-rich foods like South Carolina Chicken Bog and Kentucky Beer Cheese in one place. The slideshow has become the magazine’s most engaging piece of content with more than 2.7 million unique page views. Garden & Gun also published The Southerner’s Cookbook, which became a New York Times bestseller in 2015.
“It’s not just journalists, but also readers, who want to go much deeper on the history and context of their food. We know we love okra; now, we want to know more about why and where it comes from,” said Darwin.
Like Engelhardt, Darwin thinks that understanding the food we eat gives context to our identity as southerners, an identity which, today, is undergoing rapid evolution.
“There’s more room at the table than ever for people who weren’t always welcome or well-represented before,” said Darwin, pointing to the multicultural roster of recipients of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, which has become more recognizant of African-American influences on cooking. Darwin and the writers at Garden & Gun have documented the growing impact of other cultures on southern food, seeing dishes like New Orleans’ Vietnamese-crawfish, Korean-southern fried chicken, or the rise of French-southern fusions, welcoming a multicultural era of southern cuisine.
Engelhardt believes that our fascination with southern food histories is in part because of the ever-changing nature of the cuisine, a reflection of the diversity of human experiences involved in its creation over time.
“Southern food has always contained regional flavors and practices that change over time, even as we persist in the belief that a thing called ‘southern food’ exists,” said Engelhardt. “That shouldn’t make us nervous; instead, the spaces make us talk more and care more and create our own southern food over and over.”