Traditionally defined by the Mason-Dixon Line, the South these days is as much a state of mind as it is a geographic region, according to Rick McDaniel, a longtime working journalist and food writer.
The same goes for Southern food.
“You come up to 10 people anywhere in the world and say name a Southern food, most likely the first thing that’s going to come out of their mouths is fried chicken,” said McDaniel, who was born and raised in Kings Mountain. “There’s probably not a place on the planet that doesn’t have fried chicken of some kind. Admittedly it’s going to be different but it’s still going to be chicken fried in oil.”
So why is it that foods like fried chicken, grits and cornbread are considered Southern?
That’s what McDaniel, a former columnist for The Gazette and The Star, delves into in his new book, “An Irresistible History of Southern Food.” In addition to featuring more than 150 classic and modern recipes for Southern dishes, McDaniel’s book examines how the histories of those foods helped shape the region.
There’s no specific time or event you can point to that explains when collard greens, fried okra and sweet tea became nearly synonymous with Southern cuisine, McDaniel said.
It was just a given that people in the South ate differently than Northerners, especially in the mid-1800s, considered the classic period for Southern cooking.
Things started to congeal before then, as Thomas Jefferson grew hundreds of vegetable varieties in the garden of his Monticello home in Virginia and sent one of his African-American slaves to France to study with French chefs in the early 1800s. “The Virginia House-wife,” written by Mary Randolph, a cousin of Jefferson’s, was published in 1824 and became an influential cookbook that helped define the cuisine of the antebellum South.
And while that cookbook was one of the earliest to demonstrate that Southern cooking is gracious conglomeration of Native American, European and African-American traditions, the foods’ history tells us that we’re a lot more alike than we are different, McDaniel said.
With the foods now commonly accepted as Southern, “everybody brought their contribution to the table,” he said. Corn, beans and squash were the first Native American foods embraced by Southerners. Coleslaw came to the South by way of the Dutch and Germans, while black-eyed peas are a distinct African-American influence.
“It’s sort of a tribute to the way people in the South have worked together and the hospitality we’ve always tried to show people,” he said.
Today, Southern food is being rediscovered in a sense thanks young chefs embracing classic recipes, as well as the farm-to-table movement that encourages folks to use meats and vegetables from nearby farms similar to the old-time cooks that made Southern cooking the glorious cuisines it is, McDaniel said.
“Everybody up North has discovered pimento cheese and is putting their own spin on it,” he said. “It’s one of the hottest food trends out there. We went through a period when Jimmy Carter was president where everybody had to have grits. Fried chicken’s had its day in the sun.
“The reason people get hold of these foods and try to take them into other regions is that they’re so tasty.”
A History Lesson That Will Make Your Mouth Water
Food historian Rick McDaniel will give a talk on the history and culture of Southern food at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at the Gaston County Museum of Art & History, 131 W. Main St., Dallas.
McDaniel, a Kings Mountain native and former cooking columnist for The Gazette, is the author of “An Irresistible History of Southern Food.” A nationally recognized authority on traditional Southern foods and culinary culture, McDaniel has served as a consultant to the producers of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network and Anthony Bordain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel.
The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, call 704-922-7681 ext. 105.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
1 2/3 cups flour
1 Tbs. brown sugar
2½ tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. salt
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¾ cup cooked and pureed sweet potato
¼ cup half and half
Vegetable oil cooking spray
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut butter into flour mixture until mix resembles coarse crumbs.
Add sweet potato and half and half; using a wooden spoon or dough whisk, mix until dough comes together.
Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and knead gently until dough holds together, about five or six times. Roll out dough to a thickness of ½ inch. Using a biscuit cutter dipped in flour between each cut, cut out biscuits and place on a sheet pan sprayed with vegetable oil cooking spray.
Bake until golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Yields about one dozen biscuits.