The Edible South

The south is often identified by its food. Comfort food, soul food and many other kinds of food make the southern region of the United States famous. There is a reason southerners put so much effort into food and take such pride in it. Different areas of the south are known for different foods. For examples Louisiana has crawfish, Mississippi has catfish, Tennessee has Bar-be-que and the list goes on. The question is how and when this food became so popular in the southern region of the United States. The answer goes back to clash of cultures in early American civilization.

In the earlier 17th century European explorers landed in what is now Virginia and the Carolinas.  They were given the task of sending word back to Europe of everything they discovered in the New World and even then food was the most compelling description of all (Ferris 7).  The first interactions between the European settlers and the Natives in the new world was over food. They often shared meals of unfamiliar foods and this is how they communicated with one another. The Natives taught the settlers at Jamestown what foods grew well and prospered in the, now Virginia, environment. Food was essential to the survival of the early settlers and a lack of it caused them much hardship. When the settlers began to bring over Africans for forced labor this added to the melding of southern food with cultures. The Africans introduced different foods to the Natives and the early settlers. The melting of these three cultures food ways were the beginnings of modern day southern food ways (Ferris 8). Three foods in particular have early origins in the United States, corn, okra, and rice.

Corn first came from the Native Americans sharing it with the first settlers in the New World. The Native Americans had been growing corn successfully for nearly 5000 years before the Europeans arrived in the new world and it had been a staple for the Native Americans. After the Natives showed the earlier settlers how to successfully grow the corn they showed them different uses for the corn. One of the first uses was how to bake the corn into bread now known today as cornbread. Another use the Natives shared with the early settlers was they would dry out the corn and grind it down to a powder known as corn mill. As time has gone by southerners have added to these foods, for example shrimp and grits in coastal portions of the South (Fuselier 4).

The next crop is okra. Okra has many uses in the South but where did it come from? Many argue over the exact origins of okra but all paths seem to point to the region of West Africa and Southern Asia. Legend has that African women who were captured and sold into slavery carried the seeds in their hair and called them hope seeds (Fuselier 3). Over time Okra joined the ranks of southern dishes in many different varieties.

The final crop is rice. Rice is included in many different meals in the south. Rice can be used as a side dish that you cover in stew or gumbo or it can be a seasoned side dish such as red rice or rice pilaf. Like okra, rice has its origins in African slave trade, but unlike okra the origins of rice are well documented. Slaves from West Africa were sold at very high prices to planters in South Carolina because they were knowledgeable in how to grow rice. The Africans were also known to add okra and some sort of pork meat to the rice, which is believed to the predecessor to jambalaya. After the civil war over 200 years after the introduction of rice to the New World rice planters began to move west in hopes of better fortunes in the devastated south. This is when rice became a major crop in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas (Fuselier 2).

On this trip I have taken across the South I have eaten many dishes that were outstanding. I had catfish in Mississippi, BBQ in Tennessee, A “Hot Brown” in Kentucky, Shrimp and grits in Virginia and varieties of rice, greens, and fried foods galore with a side of corn bread many nights. Despite all these wonderful dishes I consumed it's thought provoking to wonder exactly how and where our food came from here in the southern portion of the United States.

David M. Granger

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