Ultimate Guide to Southern Food

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.