Southern Foodways as International Cultural Exchange

Southern veggie plate , image from Southern Living Magazine, 2012

With Thanksgiving around the corner, food is on the brain. If you’re like me, while turkey and gravy are plenty exciting (particularly when the turkey is deep fried), I’m really a sides person. Along those same lines, I am always drawn to the veggie plate when I eat at southern diners or “country cookin'” restaurants. The more sides the better.

Various scholars have argued that many of the standard dishes and cooking styles of traditionally southern foods reflect West African influences — from vegetables such as okra and black eyed peas, to batter frying poultry, seafood, and vegetables, to using hot spices for seasoning. In southern contexts like the Carolina Lowcountry, these West and Central African ingredients and cooking styles then mixed with American Indian and European foodways. For example, ingredients such as squash, tomatoes, and corn, as well as the practice of deep pit barbecuing, were inherited from American Indian tribes such as the Caddo, Choctaw, and Seminole. Foods associated with sugar, flour, milk, and eggs, such as baked goods and cheeses, are more associated with Europe.

In the context of colonial and antebellum slavery, these foodways continuations and exchanges would have occurred in a hierarchical social context. For example, culinary scholar Michael Twitty argues that the eating habits of white elite southerners in the colonial and antebellum periods still mimicked elite European cuisines, and often did not consist of the foods we now consider “southern.” But their cooks would have most likely been enslaved people of African descent, who would have still adapted these European dishes to some extent through African cooking styles as well as local Lowcountry ingredients. Over time, elite white southerners may have found their palates drawn more and more to these diverse foodways. In the context of the cabins and fields, enslaved people in the Lowcountry could often supplement their rations with vegetables and herbs they grew in subsistence gardens, as well as with meat they acquired through hunting and fishing. In this context, African and African American enslaved people could particularly continue traditional African cooking practices. But particularly in the colonial period, enslaved American Indians and European indentured servants would have also worked and lived in close proximity to enslaved African Americans. In this context international foodways exchange could abound, inside and outside of the main plantation house kitchen.

Cultural continuations and exchanges are not mutually exclusive, particularly when it comes to food. Tastes can both adapt to and enjoy new flavors, while still seeking comfort and sustenance from the familiar foods and cooking styles of home. Today we can experience the delicious results of this historic, multicultural, and distinctly American foodways exchange in a variety of southern dishes, including the classic veggie plate. And at my family Thanksgiving at least, many of these southern sides happily show up alongside the Thanksgiving standards.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


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