black-eyed peas and fried stuff
February 13, 2011 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Traditional Southern food (southeastern U.S.): why has it remained so popular within the region? Is it just history, or 'comfort food'?

I've tried searching AskMe, but to no avail. I love Southern food - black-eyed-peas, sweet potatoes, fried green tomatoes, etc. I know many traditional foods in the South were imported from Africa long ago, and have done well agriculturally in the warm, humid climate. But, why has the food remained within a common vein here, as far as how many Southerners eat? I know of many restaurants that serve such foods, especially deep-fried things, and am wondering what adds to the lasting appeal and present ubiquity of traditional staples.
posted by cp311 to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It tastes good?
posted by mr_roboto at 8:36 PM on February 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

It tastes good.
posted by ish__ at 8:41 PM on February 13, 2011

I think it's the deliciousness. Also people enjoy regional foods.
posted by Neofelis at 8:44 PM on February 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

High fat, high carb, high salt, high sugar. Exactly what our bodies often crave.
posted by sourwookie at 8:49 PM on February 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Inexpensive, tasty, filling, and deeply nostalgic if you grew up with it.
posted by killdevil at 8:49 PM on February 13, 2011

Best answer: Tradition. Comfort. Soul. Deliciousness.

Tony Bourdain says (paraphrasing) that the real chefs, real cuisines emerge out of peasant food. Out of kitchen chefs figuring out how to make whatever it is they have to eat taste good. Southern Food is not just a discrete list of various food items, but a cuisine emerging largely out of the poverty of poor whites and African-Americans eating what they could afford and what was available. The South even in its myth of antebellum glory was (and still is to an extent) mostly poor.

Not only did Southerners figure out how to make this stuff taste good, it's part of the culture, part of family traditions. When it moved North with African-American migrants to the industrial cities of the North it becomes Soul Food, connecting African-Americans to their roots-- literally and figuratively feeding their Souls.

There was a soul food restaurant by the hospital where we held vigil for a few days waiting for my Grandfather to die. Having that food nearby during a time of stress and personal tragedy was the best pastoral care, counseling and soul nourishment I could have received.

In short, it's part of the personal and collective journey of Southerners through history (and it tastes good).
posted by MasonDixon at 8:52 PM on February 13, 2011 [13 favorites]

Why would it go away? Have the traditional cuisines of other parts of the country gone away? They're still eating Mexican-influenced food in the Southwest, for example.
posted by Askr at 8:53 PM on February 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing nummy.
posted by cashman at 9:00 PM on February 13, 2011

I don't have any decent knowledge about American history, but if you were to investigate why so many other things in American culture are so regionalized (language/accents, religion, political ideology, etc etc etc) you might find an answer.

Funny enough, the wikipedia page cuisine of the southern US has some decent trivia.

Also, it just tastes good!
posted by GEB's fun world at 9:01 PM on February 13, 2011

Because it's what your grandma(s) made you when you were growing up, and it's fucking DELICIOUS. Plus the staple foods that have been listed thus far in this thread are really easy to grow. You can practically just throw the seeds/slips at a patch of dirt, give them some water, and boom!

Now that I don't live in the South, I find it laughable what kind of crap passes for "real southern food" at various restaurants around the country. One that stands out is The Screen Door in Portland, OR. What a mess. I have had very little success finding true Southern Food anywhere outside of the south. The funny thing is, it's not that hard to get it right, but people think they can fuck with it and make it "better" or something.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:16 PM on February 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: buckaroo_benzai, just FYI, this southerner was reasonably impressed with the quality of the southern-style offerings at Pine State Biscuits.

I think another large part of the strength of southern food as a cohesive cultural... thing... is the degree to which Southerners cling to their shared heritage. They're often fiercely proud of the area and its history, and that includes its food. Diluting (or "improving") it is seen by some as an attack on what makes a Southerner southern. There are myriad extensions of this, as well... *mumble mumble southern insularism mumble*
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:23 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could ask the same question about any cuisine in any other part of the world. Why do New Yorkers love pizza and bagels? Why do Indians love daal? Why do Scandinavians love pickled herring so much?
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 PM on February 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ditto the "tasty" chorus. There's nothing I love more about living in Georgia than the food, and Southern cuisine in all it's variations is an amazing part of our national cultural heritage. Now if you'll pardon me, now I have to figure out where I can get fried okra (IMHO, the perfect vehicle for the consumption of Tabasco sauce) at 1AM.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:38 PM on February 13, 2011

Some suggestions for an understanding of southern food and southern culture:

Foodways, Volume 7 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edit by John T. Edge. (In fact, seek out anything by John T. Edge.)

Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, by John Egerton with Ann Bleidt Egerton.

Many more resources available via the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Also: tastes good.
posted by trip and a half at 9:39 PM on February 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

a) Yummy.
b) The immigrant groups who came to the South tended to outwardly assimilate, picking up the language and accent and foodways of the locals -- as opposed to some other parts of the country, where the immigrant groups stayed more outwardly separate. For example, my Sicilian grandmother learned to cook American food from the maids that worked in her home -- so my Sicilian culinary heritage now includes spaghetti and braciole, but also American meatloaf, black eyed peas, chicken fried steak, and so forth.
c) School lunches in the South tend to include southern foods, which means they're familiar and comfortable even to those who don't grow up with those foods being cooked at home.
posted by katemonster at 9:42 PM on February 13, 2011

Best answer: The funny thing is, it's not that hard to get it right, but people think they can fuck with it and make it "better" or something.

It's not so much that, as much as it's the reaction of any chef when looking upon the ingredients/recipes of a traditional southern meal:

"Wait. The recipe calls for that much butter per serving? Isn't it bad for business to kill our patrons?"

But, yeah. It really is difficult to recreate regional food outside of said region, unless the restaurant is owned (and the entire kitchen is staffed) by people from that region. People's tastes are largely influenced by their upbringing. Even then, ingredient availability becomes a huge issue. Even the mass-produced manufactured foodservice crap tends to vary from state to state (and the range of what you can economically purchase as a restaurant tends to be even narrower than what you can find in the store unless you pay through the nose).

Having done a brief stint in the foodservice supply chain, I'd wager that regional variations in food and restaurants have a lot more to do with the supply chain than the individual restaurants/chefs themselves. To this day, I remain staggered by how much pre-prepared food I delivered, and especially which restaurants ordered it. The deli without a name just off of the freeway prepared all of its catering orders from scratch, while we delivered frozen lasagna and fake fish (yes, fake fish) to the "fancy" place 2 miles away. Obviously, the standout restaurants are going to be the ones with chefs that give a damn, and prepare everything from scratch. Sadly, you don't see that too often today, and preparing an uncommmon dish with somewhat obscure ingredients is going to be a much bigger challenge to the chef and the cook.

Also, because the supply chain is big and complicated, the demand for new ingredients (and new prepared crap for the 90% of restaurants who use it) must be pretty large before it reverberates all the way through, and new products start to appear in food stores and restaurants. It's a very conservative industry. Some things (ie. what crops are grown where) cannot be changed, no matter what. Local produce is cheaper, fresher, more plentiful, and always going to be more popular. (There are a few noteable exceptions: For some reason, we're very good and efficient at shipping bananas and oranges around the globe to banana and orange-deprived regions)

You also need to make sure that this regional cuisine actually has an audience in the city where your restaurant is operating. What you sarcastically see as "making better" is probably seen by the chef as "adjusting to regional tastes so that people here will actually eat it." This is why the curry is a bit less spicy in the countryside than it is in the city.

It also probably has something to do with why the quality of pizza drops off exponentially as you move further and further away from New York City, although I've never really been able to quite crack that nut...
posted by schmod at 9:49 PM on February 13, 2011

They're often fiercely proud of the area and its history, and that includes its food. Diluting (or "improving") it is seen by some as an attack on what makes a Southerner southern.

No, often the "improvements" are usually crap made by people who aren't actually all that familiar with the food. Cornbread made with too much flour and too much sugar. I've seen greens made with pancetta and fried chicken coated with what seems to be corn dog batter. Dressing made with pine nuts. These are all bad, very bad. Cornbread should be mostly corn meal; greens need ham hocks although salt pork or slab bacon are acceptable; there are a lot of acceptable variations on fried chicken but a thick dipping batter is not one of them.

Too many folks (outside the South) try to innovate without having first mastered the basics, the nuances of southern cooking.
posted by shoesietart at 9:52 PM on February 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

A fairly stable non-migratory population probably helps. While a lot of southerners may have moved out (blacks moving north for factory jobs) but no one was moving in, so the local customs where not influenced by outsiders much.
A strong conservative tradition also lends itself to preservation of old customs rather than embracing new ones. Contrast that to the north where new immigrants bring waves of new customs and migration in and out of the cities is fairly constant.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:11 PM on February 13, 2011

Funny, but the more I learn about regional cuisine, the more I realize it's just poor-people food. In the South, poor people food means soul food. It grows here, it's cheap, and you can make a huge mess of it at a time. If you work out the price per portion of sweet potato, for example, I think you're spending about 20 cents per. Greens are probably even cheaper. Proteins can include whatever's cheap (spare ribs, chicken legs). Add a little rice or potatoes, and you've got a meal. Also, it's yummy.
I'm also not a fan of the 'improved' Southern cuisine, as it tends to miss the point.
(on preview) no sugar in cornbread. If you disagree, I will fight you.
posted by Gilbert at 10:13 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

They're often fiercely proud of the area and its history, and that includes its food.

Having spent the vast majority of my time in the US in the South, my outsider's perspective is that food is something that "them" [eyes northwards] can't do, and they definitely can't take it away. Unless it's in a box after they've stuffed themselves.

Another point is that Southern food spans the divide between home and restaurant cooking pretty well: biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits are short order fare, while "family" or "home-style" restaurants that offer a limited choice of meats and a wider array of sides can do their cooking in bulk. So even if there's a generational erosion of the skills or the desire to cook like your granny at home, apart from special occasions when it's time to deep-fry that turkey, it's easily perpetuated by eating out, and that's particularly obvious on Sundays when the church congregations decamp for lunch and the family restaurants are full to bursting.
posted by holgate at 10:21 PM on February 13, 2011

I think what you're missing is that a lot of the people in the South have been here for a long, long time, doing things the same way. And they're out in the country, where they just don't haven't had a lot of other types of food. My family's been living in the same part of North Georgia for almost 200 years (and living around the same people for the last 200 years or so, it seems - don't even ask about the family tree, because it's complicated), and I can tell you that it's only within the last decade or so that they've gotten an Asian place and a Mexican place near my mom's family. I don't think there's anything like that near my dad's family. That's pretty representative of most of the South, from what I've seen. Not a lot of people move into the country, bringing other types of food, so the people who stay there keep on eating the same thing. Not that there's a lot wrong with that - it's tasty. Deadly, but tasty.
posted by Madame Psychosis at 10:41 PM on February 13, 2011

A subtle point not yet mentioned is that traditional Southern food, with its fat and salt content, is pretty good to have in your belly, if you're gonna be drinkin' White Lightin'. And when you're dead drunk, it's the kind of food that just might help sober you up a bit, so you can drive home. And the next day, starchy biscuits smothered in sorghum molasses might just be all you can keep down.

Whisky culture and Southern food are inextricably linked across much of Appalachia, and even down into the bayous of Louisiana. Show me a great Southern rib shack, and more than likely, I'll be able take you for a walk "'round back" (or at least to some location within a 5 minute stroll) for a taste of something that'll likely cut the grease and sauce memorably...
posted by paulsc at 4:59 AM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I crave traditional southern cooking because I miss my mom. And my grandmother. And my great-grandmother. For me, their old recipes are better than pictures. Oh, and the food happens to be delicious, though I'll pass on the souse and c-loaf.

I imagine many of my fellow southerners would say the same thing. It's delicious, and it reminds of us of "home."

I don't think there's anything unique about southern food with regards to this question. You could direct this same question to anyone from any area with a unique food heritage.
posted by foggy out there now at 6:57 AM on February 14, 2011

I looooove Southern food and agree with all of the above. If I may take a slightly different tack in addition to all that...I think Southerners have an especially strong sense of history and heritage compared to many other regional US groupings (with the exception of more recent immigrant communities). For example, except for Mormons, I've never met anyone more obsessed with family trees and genealogy than Southerners. However Southern history is a complex thing with a lot of dark times, and I think a lot of us, particularly those of us with a progressive bent, feel at least a little bit of shame about the sins of our fathers, as it were. For those of us not interested in running around with Confederate flags on our cars and Robert E. Lee portraits in our houses, Southern food (maybe along with Southern music, literature, and that sort of thing) is something we can enjoy and appreciate about our roots guilt-free (minus the calories, heh). (And for individuals without any such complicated feelings about the past...well, then food is just part of the complete "I love my heritage" package).

Just a theory - I may be totally off-base, and it may be as simple as "because grits are delicious!" (n.b. My mama's cheese grits are better than your mama's).
posted by naoko at 8:12 AM on February 14, 2011

While everybody here is romanticising the south, a big part of the durability of "Southern food" is that the south has always been, relative to many other parts of the US (and in utter, total, shockingly overwhelming contrast with Canada), insulated from international immigration. Yes, there are multicultural pockets of Atlanta now, but if you look at the foreign-born percentages in cities like Montgomery, it's minuscule and used to be virtually nonexistent. Every local cuisine in the new world has been defined by the contributions of the immigrants, and for centuries in the south, those "immigrants" were the Scots, who gave us their fried chicken (look it up) and African slaves who added their accents to the food as well as being forced to make do with scraps (greens, offal) that their slaveowners allowed them. And then- that was it.

You have a stable population consisting of people (black and white) who'd been in the region for 300 years and you don't have a lot of change in the cuisine.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2011

Response by poster: So, a few reasons.

It was all that was available to rural farmers back in the day, and was cheap/tasty/easy to grow. The cooking methods made use of everything that was on hand - bacon grease used to make cornbread, etc.

So, regional pride/culture/history (as well as tastiness) led these foods to be predominant in the South today.

Thanks for all the input!
posted by cp311 at 9:34 AM on February 14, 2011

Whisky culture and Southern food are inextricably linked across much of Appalachia, and even down into the bayous of Louisiana. Show me a great Southern rib shack, and more than likely, I'll be able take you for a walk "'round back" (or at least to some location within a 5 minute stroll) for a taste of something that'll likely cut the grease and sauce memorably...

With all due respect, as a southerner this does not resonate with me at all.

I grew up in Acadiana, where we have a much more liberal attitude towards drinking than the rest of the south. Our food is most certainly not a cushion for "white lightning" (in fact my part of the country isn't known for moonshining or whiskey drinking at all, so nice way to stereotype an entire region of the US). A lot of the spices in Cajun food are best accented with a cold beer, but no, that's not the reason it tastes like that.

And the rest of the south? Ha. My mom has a great story of stopping at a crowded BBQ joint in Mississippi on a Sunday afternoon and getting hateful glares after suggesting to the hostess that she and my stepdad just sit at the bar rather than wait for a table. My association with the south beyond southern Louisiana is more teetotalers and dry counties, less whiskey binges.
posted by Sara C. at 9:57 AM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

My association with the south beyond southern Louisiana is more teetotalers and dry counties, less whiskey binges.

I had a friend who was doing something very nerve-wracking, decided she'd be better off finding a little liquid courage. Being a good Southern Baptist in a predominantly Southern Baptist area, she certainly couldn't be *seen* buying wine. She had to get a cousin to slip her some moonshine instead.

Dry counties and predominantly nominal teetotalers just mean the drinking is hidden, not that it's not allowed (although I do certainly *know* teetotalers; you just can't reasonably impose that on a whole county).
posted by galadriel at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2011

Galadriel, I'm extremely well aware of that.

However, this particular southern cultural wrinkle probably implies that southern food wasn't designed with drunken benders in mind.
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2011

"With all due respect, as a southerner this does not resonate with me at all. ..."
posted by Sara C. at 12:57 PM on February 14

Sara C., I can forgive your indignation on grounds of youth and inexperience, while I remember, with fondness, parts of a few nights in the early fall of 1984, when I personally came to appreciate the long expertise of the late Mr. Edwin Coe DuPuis...
posted by paulsc at 1:35 PM on February 14, 2011

There isn't much tastier than sweet tea made properly--meaning, the sugar is added while the water is hot rather than after it's been iced. I guess I would wonder why anyone *wouldn't* drink sweet tea if they were going to drink anything with that much caffeine and sugar. I'm not from the south, but I spent many years there, and am always delighted to arrive someplace where sweet tea is featured on the menu.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:20 PM on February 14, 2011

I guess I would wonder why anyone *wouldn't* drink sweet tea if they were going to drink anything with that much caffeine and sugar.

A few weeks ago, I was at a party and mentioned that I was originally from North Carolina. Someone asked if I considered myself a southerner (of course I do, this isn't even a question for anyone actually from NC), and my wife said "well, he does like his sweet tea." At that point a Japanese girl, who came to the US like 5 years ago screamed "SWEET TEA IS THE GREATEST." Since my Yankee wife refuses to drink the stuff, it was nice to be reassured that sweet tea is OBJECTIVELY awesome and everyone should like it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:34 PM on February 14, 2011

This Yankee most certainly loves sweet tea. Bulgaroktonos, has your wife ever tried it? Because I will admit I wasted too stubborn to try it myself til I was in North Carolina about three or so years. And then I only did because of a very handsome young man.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:19 PM on February 14, 2011

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