June 22 Lunch Colloquium
From Corn to the Colonel: The Development of Southern Foodways
DAVID A. DAVIS, Associate Professor of English, Director of Fellowships and Scholarships, Mercer University
On Monday, June 22, David Davis, who graduated from Oxford College in 1995 and Emory College in 1997, completed his Ph.D. at Chapel Hill in 2006, and joined the faculty of Mercer University in 2008, where he is now an Associate Professor of English, spoke to those attending the special session of our Lunch Colloquium that we had scheduled at the Executive Park headquarters of Emory's OLLI program on a subject dear to his head, heart, and tummy, "Southern Foodways." As the title of his talk also promised, it did indeed take us all the way "From Corn" (cultivated by the Native Americans the first Europeans found here) "to the Colonel" (and the secret and supposedly "southern" recipe for fried chicken now available worldwide, including 4500 KFCs in China).
From the start of the talk, David emphasized how
Southern food combines foods indigenous to the southeast with foods that have been naturalized to the region. The patterns of exploration and trade that brought Europeans settlers and African slaves to America also transported food crops across the Atlantic in a transfer that Alfred Crosby labeled the Columbian exchange. Crops native to the Americas, including corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and tomatoes, were transported to Europe and Africa, where they became staple food items. Traders brought numerous plants and animals to the New World that radically changed the range of available ingredients. They brought rice, wheat, sugarcane, brassica greens, okra, sorghum, peaches, coffee, onions, bananas, and apples, and they brought cows, sheep, chickens, donkeys, and horses. They also brought pigs, which became the essential protein in the southern diet.
He also emphasized how exchanges of technologies of one sort or another affected the evolution of so-called "southern food"--as, for example, when Columbus found
native people on Hispaniola slowly smoking fish and other meats on wooden frames above low fires. The smoked meats were doused with vinegar, salt, and peppers, which helped to preserve them. Columbus used the technique, called barbacoa, to extend meat supplies during his voyage, and the method of smoking meats evolved both linguistically and culturally into barbecue.
As David further explained,
Many of the region's [other] totemic foods [also] illustrate this process. Cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet combines a Native American ingredient with a European cooking method. Pit-smoked pork barbecue combines an animal brought to the Americas by Europeans with a cooking method used by native tribes in the Caribbean. Creole gumbo combines file powder used by Choctaw Indians with okra brought from Africa and seasonings common to French and Spanish cuisine. Black-eyed peas are indigenous to America, and collards are indigenous to Europe, but the practice of boiled each with salt pork shows the influence of one-pot stews common in West African cooking. Most of the dishes we think of as "southern" are products of cultural borrowing among the many populations who have interacted in the region, and the dishes have developed over time as new ingredients and new technologies have emerged.
By the time the United States became a nation, the southern states were considered to have a distinctive--and distinctively varied and delicious--cuisine. David quoted from the letters of Ruth Hastings, a northern governess working for a South Carolina family, who
wrote to her father, "There are so many nice things to eat and make oneself sick with that I find it difficult sometimes to eat cold bread instead of hot cakes, every variety you can imagine, made of rice, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, everything that ever was cooked I do believe, and so very good." The noon meal, which southerners called dinner, was even more extravagant. "For dinner," she writes, "always first some kind of soup, then two or three kinds of meat, always some fresh meat. Today chicken pie, ham, new potatoes, beets, onions, peas, rice, which they eat with meat as we do potatoes, often sweet potatoes, lettuce, then for dessert today what Mrs. Williams called a Cherry Charlotte."
Of course, David was quick to note that the slaves on the plantation where Ms. Hastings was employed and slaves and poor whites throughout the south were subsisting on "small rations of rice, cornmeal, and salt pork, which they might augment with fishing and occasional vegetables." Cuisine NOT so "varied and delicious." And NOT so nutritious. Malnutrition was a serious problem for these people. And by the end of the Civil War, hunger and malnutrition were serious problems, even for plantation owners themselves. Nor did the sharecropper system that replaced slavery serve to solve these problems. Right through the time of the Great Depression so many decades later, millions of blacks and whites worked small plots of land growing commodity crops for land owners and merchants," while their
"families subsisted on rations of cornmeal, salt pork, and molasses, exactly as slaves had. Workers in textile mills shared similar circumstances in which they were forced to purchase their food through a company commissary. The diet led to an epidemic of malnutrition in the South. Between 1900 and 1940, more than a million southerners were affected by pellagra," and more than 100,000 of them (including David's great-grandmother) died of the disease. It was a long long time before scientists figured out that the ways in which Americans were using the corn upon which they were so reliant were stripping the corn of the niacin that would have prevented pellagra (as it did for the Native Americans who had handled it differently--way back when).
Of course, through this same extended period of time,
as America's industrial and commercial infrastructure developed, southerners purchased more prepared foods and ate more often outside the home, leading to a proliferation of southern food products in the marketplace. Several soft drinks still in production . . . originated in the South: Coca Cola was invented in Columbus, Georgia, in 1885; Dr. Pepper was invented in Waco, Texas, in 1885; and Pepsi was invented in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1893. Several other iconic southern food products appeared in the early twentieth century, such as Goo Goo Clusters created in Nashville in 1912, Moon Pies created in Chattanooga in 1918, and Duke's Mayonnaise created in Greenville in 1917.
Restaurants opened, serving foods that tended to be an extension of food served within a well provided southern home, with menus that were reminiscent of those found in Ruth Hastings' letters.
For lunch, many restaurants served plate lunches, offering diners a choice of one meat with two or three vegetables and corn bread or biscuit for a set price. The daily menu options might include fried chicken, fried pork chop, meatloaf, and a profusion of vegetables in season, such as butter beans, collard greens, squash casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, ripe tomatoes, and fried okra. Boarding houses, such as Mrs. Wilkes in Savannah, cafeterias, such as Morrison's in Mobile, tea houses, such as Mary Mac's in Atlanta, and family-style restaurants, such as The Smith House in Dahlonega, Georgia, offered their own versions of the groaning table for lunch, placing an enormous number of dishes before diners to suggest gracious hospitality and abundance.
(The familiar names had heads nodding and glands salivating all around the room . . .)
Unfortunately, such restaurants had plenty of competition from rivals offering decidedly less delicious and nutritious food. As David explained,
The most significant change in southern foodways after World War II was the emergence of southern fast food. As the region urbanized and industrialized, a market developed for convenience foods that served people eating quickly or while travelling, changing the large, communal noon meal into a fast, cheap, self-contained meal. Southern foods, especially fried chicken, were adapted to meet this market.
And he told us the story of
Harland Sanders, a self-styled Kentucky Colonel, [who] served fried chicken from a roadside stand beginning in the 1930s. In 1952, he helped to open the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City, Utah, [of all places.] using his southern affectation as a marketing tool. He sold the concept to a corporation in 1964, and today KFC, as it has been rebranded, is the world's second largest fast food chain operating restaurants worldwide with more than 4,500 in China [as mentioned at the start of this article].
"Other southern-based fast food companies have also expanded widely," including Hardee's, Krystal's, Chick-fil-A, and Popeye's. It would seem that the diaspora that has taken southern food around the country and around the world (a subject David addressed earlier, emphasizing how fine the food in question was) has done the same for southern fast food that is not-so-fine. But that's globalization for you . . .
On the other hand, globalization has also brought all sort of non-southern food into the south where it's made itself at home. As David said, and as we can certainly all attest,
Immigrants who have gathered in enclave communities, whether they be in urban neighborhoods or rural migrant camps, have brought their food traditions to the region, and the region's food palate has become more diverse. In most southern cities today, ethnic restaurants representing African, Asian, and Hispanic foods are common. At the same time, national chains have moved into the region, competing with locally-owned restaurants for diners. Today, it is normal to find some combination of an Olive Garden, a barbecue joint, a Chinese takeout, a KFC, a Cracker Barrel, a generic Mexican restaurant, a Waffle House, an Indian buffet, a local meat and three, and a TGIFriday's on every interstate exit ramp across the South.
"Southern food [that] originated in the synthesis of Native American, European, and African foods and cooking techniques" is synthesizing again, "expanding to incorporate influences from new cultures and diverse palates." Burgeoning interest in southern food is apparent in "television shows such as Down Home with the Neely's and Trisha's Southern Kitchen on Food Network and A Chef's Life on PBS." Master chefs have published popular cookbooks "representing every conceivable niche of southern cooking," such as White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler, The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine by Joseph Dabney, Vibration Cooking by Vertamae Grosvenor, and The Welcome Table by Jessica Harris.
But, grateful though those in attendance at David's talk were for recommendations of TV shows and cookbooks, the questions that followed revealed that most wanted recommendations for restaurants where they might enjoy the best of southern cooking-restaurants OTHER than those to be found "on every interstate exit ramp across the south." David named just a few: (1) if you're in Savannah, Mr. Wilkes Boarding House and Masada Café; (2) if you're in New Orleans, Willie Mae's Scotch House, Dooky Chase, and Cochon; and (3) right here in Atlanta, Heirloom Market BBQ, Paschal's, and Mary Mac's Tea Room. He insists they all offer what we all want most: GOOD EATS. Or, specifically, GOOD SOUTHERN EATS. And he ought to know. After all, that is exactly the subject of his primary area of academic expertise. Nice work if you can get it, right? Not least the research involved . . .