Ultimate Guide to Southern Food

Fried chicken, coleslaw, biscuits and sweet tea are common Southern fare.­
Fried chicken, coleslaw, biscuits and sweet tea are common Southern fare.­

­Fried chicken. Barbeque. Biscui­ts and gravy. Collard greens. Black-eyed peas. Grits. Fried green tomatoes. Sweet te­a. Peach cobbler. Pecan pie. How many of these southern dishes have tempted your taste buds? How many have you tried?

The food of the South has a distinctness all its own, with an identity usually reserved for the cuisine of France, China, Italy or Mexico. Essentially, the cuisine of the American South is as varied, as interesting and as diverse as its history.


Traditional Southern fare, which is sometimes referred to as country cooking, home cooking or soul food, has a reputation of being high in fat, calories and sugar. Typically, it relies heavily on fresh vegetables, corn or rice, pork, chicken, local game and fresh seafood [source:Brant].

­Each region of the South has its own unique flavor, dictated by geographical history. There's Cajun, Creole, Carolina Low Country, Floribbean, Cuban-American and Tex-Mex. The region dictates the ingredients, cooking­ methods and seasonings. For example, the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, relies on crabs, shrimp, flounder and grouper for restaurant offerings. The city even has its own cake, the Savannah Cream Cake, a variation on an English trifle that includes nutmeg, sherry and whipped cream [source: Ciampa].

If you don't think you have eaten some variation of Southern fare, think again. The South has given us orange juice, iced tea, Vidalia onions, chicory coffee, sweet potato pie, peanut brittle, pralines and bananas Foster. Chances are you've consumed something of Southern origin in your lifetime.

Dig in and read on to learn about the difference between soul food and Southern food.

Difference Between Soul Food and Southern Food

Trying to differentiate soul food from Southe­rn food is a bit complicated. While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is definitely Southern. Topping the list of soul food and Southern food are fried chicken, barbeque ribs, macaroni and cheese, chitterlings (hog intestines, also known as chitlins), pickled pigs feet, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie, hushpuppies and cornbread, (also known as johnnycake) [source: San Jose State University].

Some people describe soul food as basic, down-home cooking that originated in the rural South and has been passed down through generations. Others define it as being directly derived from West African cooking, by way of the triangular slave trade. Enslaved people had to make do with what they had, which often consisted of weekly rations and the leftover, less-than-desirable animal parts that were cast off by their masters. For example, dishes were whipped up using pigs' feet, ham hocks, chitterlings, pig ears, hog jowl, tripe and crackling. Nothing was wasted. To make the meat more palatable, cooks would either fry the meat in fat or boil it over a long period of time, adding a lot of seasoning and fat for flavor.


Still others consider soul food to include parts that are "lower on the hog" than those used in Southern food. Some say that soul food is spicier, but it depends on the dish as well as the cook [source: Chowhound].

Soul food got its moniker in the 1960s, as part of the Civil Rights era's Black Pride movement. Soul food took on a particular meaning to many African Americans because it evoked a painful history of enslavement and prejudice but also celebrated the ingenuity, perseverance and pride involved in overcoming adversity [source: Latshaw].

To learn more about the history of Southern food, read on.

Southern Food History

A medley of cultural influences from around the world has helped make Southern food what it is today. At its core, Southern food is rooted in local and imported ingredients, necessity and frugality.

It all began in Africa and Scotland, Southern fried chicken that is. The Scots had a tradition of deep-frying chicken in fat. Scottish immigrants came to the South where African slaves had already introduced a tradition of frying food. Over time, deep-frying became a common way of cooking chicken and other food.


African ingredients like okra and black-eyed peas became a staple of the Southern diet, in addition to the homegrown green staples of collards, mustard, turnips and kale. Other highly used crops include pecans and peanuts, sweet potatoes and peaches.

The region's lakes, rivers, tidal pools and oceans served up oysters, shrimp, crawfish, crab and Mississippi catfish. Local game included opossum, rabbit and squirrel, the main ingredient of Brunswick Stew, which historians say was popular in Virginia and Georgia.

Before the Civil War, most Southerners were subsistence farmers who lived off the land. Pork and chicken, not cattle, were typically raised. Farmers working outside needed a lot of calories to get through the day, therefore they indulged in big breakfasts and suppers.

Louisiana is where French and Spanish cuisines married local ingredients to create completely unique cuisines. Native Americans had long used filé powder (powdered sassafras leaves) as a thickening ingredient, and it is a regular mainstay of Creole and Cajun cooking. Spanish rice-based paella evolved into jambalaya, a rice dish with shrimp, oysters, chicken or ham. France's bouillabaisse was transformed into Cajun gumbo, with the help of a roux base (flour and pork fat) and okra [source: Hanson].

Changing demographics continue to add to Southern food's diversity. Miami's large Cuban population has contributed a completely new Cuban element to the area's culinary traditions.

If you think you know everything about Southern food, read on to test your genius.

Southern Food Facts

Whether you fancy Southern food, soul food or both, be prepared for a hearty meal that will no­t only tantalize your taste buds but also is a testament to a region's rich and diverse cultural history. While you're dining, why not ponder the following interesting facts about Southern food:

  • Sweet tea is a long-time staple of the South. It is made with black tea and is always served cold. Sugar is added while the tea is still hot, creating a sugar syrup that is diffused throughout the tea.
  • Redeye gravy is made with pan drippings (usually from frying country ham) and leftover coffee.
  • "Barbeque" varies across the South. It can consist of pulled pork shoulder (typical of the Carolinas) or ribs, either pork or beef. Texans might favor a mesquite-smoked brisket. Sauces are also influenced by location. In North Carolina, vinegar is a key sauce ingredient. In South Carolina, expect a mustard-based sauce [source: Hanson].
  • Southern fried chicken breast typically has more than 400 calories in one 5.6-ounce piece. Twenty-seven percent of those calories come from fat [source: Diet Facts].
  • Black-eyed peas are small beige beans that have a round black "eye" at the pea's inner curve. These can be bought fresh or dried.
  • Peanuts, which are legumes, are grown from Virginia to Texas. Half the annual crop is used to make peanut butter [source; Hanson].
  • Key lime pie dates back to the mid-1800s, when sweetened condensed milk was introduced. Milk was not readily available in the Florida Keys, but sweetened condensed milk could be combined with key limes to make a delicious pie.
  • Pot likker is the liquid from cooked greens. This was drunk or made into a type of gravy.
  • Bourbon is the key alcoholic ingredient in mint julep. It was created by a Kentucky Baptist minister [source: Hanson].

To learn more about a variety of food-related topics, visit the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related Links


  • Brant, Kelly. "Southern Comfort." Allrecipes.com (Accessed 1/23/09)http://www.allrecipes.com/HowTo/Southern-Comfort--Southern-Food/Detail.aspx
  • Buy Southern. "Food Facts." Buysouthern.org. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://www.buysouthern.org/food_facts.htm
  • CBS News. "Down Home, Southern Dishes, On a Budget." CBSNews.com. August 23, 2008. (Accessed 01/23/2009)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/08/23/earlyshow/Saturday/chef/printable4376726.shtml
  • Chowhound. "Soul Food Versus Southern Food." Chowhound.com. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/135006
  • Ciampa, Linda. "A Taste of Savannah." CNN. July 15, 1996. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://www.cnn.com/FOOD/resources/food.for.thought/southern/savannah/index.html
  • Diet Facts. "Nutrition Facts. Chicken Breast, Southern Fried." Dietfacts.com. (Accessed 01/23/09)http://www.dietfacts.com/html/nutrition-facts/generic-chicken-breast-southern-fried-31308.htm
  • Ewey-Johnson, Melissa. "The New Soul Food." Real Health Magazine. Winter 2004. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://www.realhealthmagazine.com/article/372_109.shtml
  • Hanson, Carl. "Cuisine of the American South." Allrecipes.com. (Accessed 12/23/09)http://allrecipes.com/HowTo/Cuisine-of-the-American-South/Detail.aspx
  • Latshaw, Beth. "Gather' Round the Table: Race, Region, Identity and Food Preference in the American South." University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Sociology. Presented 8/11/2006, American Sociological Association Annual Meeting. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa-research_citation/1/0/0/9/4/pages100942/p100942-9.php
  • Moskin, Julia. "A Southern-Fried Picnic, to Go." The New York Times. May 21, 2003. (Accessed 1/23/09)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9805EFD7103EF932A15756C0A9659C8B63
  • San Jose State University. "Soul Food and African Food." Course Reader, Chapter 20. (Accessed 1/23/09) http://www.sjsu.edu/upload/course/course_1270/Soul_Food_and_African_Food.doc