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You Are What You Eat: Three Southern Staples and the History Behind Them


In the South, there are distinct dishes that make up the flavor palette. These are dishes that you are likely to see at your Grandma’s dinner table on Sunday night. Society has recognized that these dishes are “southern”, but what does that mean? Let’s take a look at three Southern dishes and the history behind how they integrated into the recipe books. 


Background 


In the 15th century, Spanish conquistadors landed in the Americas to seek gold, conversion, and glory. When Europeans first came into contact with Native Americans and participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade, it caused a biological explosion. This was eventually coined as the Columbian Exchange after Christopher Columbus, who arrived in the Americas in the early 1400s. Europeans and West Africans introduced food such as grain, coffee beans, and bananas to the Americas. Food such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, tobacco, and squash were derived from the Americas and were taken back to Europe and West Africa. The plethora of cultures and ingredients that emerged from the Columbian Exchange led to the assimilation of food that would eventually develop into common dishes in the Americas. 


#1: Biscuits


The warm and fluffy golden biscuits Southerners know well evolved from scones, which originated in Scotland and later spread to England. According to Esme Addison from the Due South, scones were first cooked with oats on stone. The methods of cooking were adapted, and scones eventually were made with wheat flour and baked in an oven. It’s hard to imagine scones ever being griddle-cooked! In Scotland, scones were increasingly popular and considered a staple. They were made with available ingredients, which would later evolve in America. 

In the 1700s, Scots looking for industry, middle-class jobs, and fertile soil migrated to find opportunities. Additionally, the Scottish found themselves in political unrest and involved in the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell exiled soldiers to America to work as indentured servants. The Act of Union in 1707 granted the Scottish more rights, including the ability to migrate to the Americas. The John Gray Center published in A Brief History of Emigration and Immigration in Scotland, that additional political situations including the Jacobite Rebellion and French and Indian War also increased Scottish immigration. 

The Scottish immigrants brought with them their beloved scones. However, people adapted the recipe to utilize available and local resources. Scones were made bigger and fluffier to prove more substantial. The simple ingredients of flour, baking powder, salt, butter, and milk, were affordable. This made the dish very common in the households of colonists. Over time, scones evolved into biscuits. Scones were made with a dense dough that is cut into wedges, which leads to a smaller and more compact treat. Biscuits, on the other hand, were made with soft dough and cut into big circles. A key difference between scones and biscuits is how they are served. Scones are paired with sweet jams and cream. Southern-style biscuits are paired with savory foods like gravy or bacon. By 1824, the “Biscuits for Breakfast” recipe appeared in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife. This revealed the popularity of the simple dish throughout America. 


#2: Shrimp and Grits


Corn was introduced to the Mississippi River Valley in the 9th century. The Choctaw tribe discovered nixtamalization, which according to the Modern Farmer, is a way to add lye from the fire ashes to the corn to make it more edible and nutritious. It is believed to have been an accident, but a rewarding one no doubt. The soft mashed maize provided sustenance and nutrients to the Native’s diet, and was introduced to the European colonists. Sir Walter Raleigh and his men were introduced to grits during a dinner with Natives in North Carolina during the mid-1500s. The dish spread throughout the colonies, as the Native Americans taught them how to make the dish. This early concept of grits was referred to as “rockahomine” by the natives, but was shortened to “hominy”. 

In the next few centuries, grits became common in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Coastal fishermen commonly ate grits for breakfast and added shrimp. This was an unexpensive but effective meal. Traces of shellfish and grits can be traced back to African cuisine. It is highly possible that the dish originated from Africa and was brought to American ports on slave ships. The dish has evolved over the centuries to the shrimp and grits seen on Southern menus today, but its origins trace back to the simple dish of Native Americans. 

 




#3: Fried Okra 


Okra originated from Africa in modern-day Ethiopia. Kayla Stewart writes in Fried Okra, Beyond the Batter, that the word “okra” comes from the Igbo language in Nigeria. It is believed that West African tribes are accredited to initially deep frying okra, along with other vegetables. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Columbian Exchange, okra was introduced to the Americas. African American slaves brought the process of deep frying to American shores from parts of the Congo and West Africa. The warm climates in the South made for a great growing environment for okra. According to the Tasting Table, okra was solidified as a household dish in the mid-1700s, when it was referenced in botanical journals (even in Thomas Jefferson’s accounts at Monticello). Okra has solidified its place on dinner tables in the South. 


 Conclusion 


America is commonly referred to as the “melting pot”, and when it comes to food, this is certainly true. It has taken a mixture of cultures including Native American, African, and European influences to create the “Southern diet” existing today. The next time you lather butter on a fluffy warm biscuit, dip your spoon into a bowl of shrimp or grits, or bite down on a crisp piece of okra, think about how that food evolved. After all, you are what you eat. 




References


“A Brief History of Emigration & Immigration in Scotland: Research Guide 2.” n.d. John Gray Centre. https://www.johngraycentre.org/about/archives/brief-history-emigration-immigration-scotland-research-guide-2/.

“Biscuits: A History of English & Scottish Immigration to the South.” 2023. Duesouth.media. February 14, 2023. https://duesouth.media/biscuits-a-delicious-culinary-history-of-english-scottish-immigration-to-the-south/.

“Cuisine of the Southern United States.” 2024. Wikipedia. February 9, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_the_Southern_United_States#References.

Schneider-Green, Emmy. 2023. “Okra’s Deeply Rooted History in Southern Cuisine.” Tasting Table. October 17, 2023. https://www.tastingtable.com/1419374/okra-deep-history-southern-cuisine/.


Stewart, Kayla. 2022. “Fried Okra, beyond the Batter.” The New York Times, July 11, 2022, sec. Food. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/11/dining/fried-okra.html.

Sullivan, Laura. 2014. “The Native American Roots of Southern Cuisine.” Modern Farmer. April 1, 2014. https://modernfarmer.com/2014/04/southern-food-journey-native-america/.

Wulff, Alexia. 2016. “A Brief History of Grits.” Culture Trip. November 7, 2016. https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/a-brief-history-of-grits.

Zontek, Angela. 2019. “A History of Southern Food.” Due South. March 11, 2019. https://duesouth.media/a-history-of-southern-food/.

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