Southern Foodways – Consuming the South
By Christy Simo
Southern food. Itâ€™s a complex term, weighted down by centuries of upheaval and discord, influenced by diverse cultures and lifted up by cookouts and family meals.Â Itâ€™s fried chicken and greens, grits and barbeque. And bacon. Lots of bacon.
Over the past several years, thereâ€™s been a renewed focus on Southern food, be it from culinary critics, TV shows, or people visiting who want to experience a taste of the South. But Southern food is not a trend. Itâ€™s always been here, entwined between the pine trees and mountains, flowing through the streams and along the sandy coast of Georgia.
â€œThe South has the most storied and eloquent history of food in this country,â€ says Kevin Gillespie, executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. â€œI think itâ€™s because we have a longer lineage and a longer history than most of the other regions in this country can claim.â€
â€œI think the South, as far as food goes, is one of the more influential parts of our country,â€ says Todd Ginsberg, chef and co-owner of Bocado in Atlanta. â€œThe South has a plethora of indigenous ingredients and a back story. The South has an abundance of dishes that means something to the United States.â€
But what does it mean to be Southern? What does it mean to cook Southern? And do you have to be Southern to cook Southern?
â€œSouthern food has begun to embrace a lot of characteristics about it that lie underneath the surfaceâ€”the fact that it isnâ€™t always an incredibly heavy cuisine style, and it isnâ€™t always about deep-frying things,â€ Gillespie says. â€œFor a long time, when people said Southern, thatâ€™s what they wanted, and thatâ€™s what they were looking for. And inevitably chefs in the Southâ€”Iâ€™m sure often times to their dismayâ€”made those things because they felt like it was their only option.â€
Todayâ€™s southern food continues to evolve, recognizing new influences while rediscovering old traditions and ways of cooking.
â€œI donâ€™t think the concept has changed; the perception of southern food has changed,â€ says John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. â€œI think that a new generation of chefs have helped a new generation of consumers see value in the food of our collective forbearers.â€
â€œPeople have taken the charge and have decided that weâ€™re going to cook the things that we want to regardless,â€ Gillespie says. â€œAnd people are trying things and experiencing traditions that they didnâ€™t know about before, so itâ€™s given Southern chefs an opportunity to dig a little deeper into what our food traditions really are.â€
â€œSouthern cooking had a bad rap for a long time,â€ Edge adds. â€œSome of it was deserved, but not all of it. But I think now we as a region take pride in our food in the same way that we take pride in other cultural creations that come from the South, like architecture, like music, like all forms of art.â€
What Southern Food Is
The south is a mix of people and foods, and itâ€™s always been that way. Native American, Western European and African cultures have all played a part in the Southern food we eat today.
When people came to Georgia, they often tried to cook the foods they were used to back in their homeland, but adapted them, using the different foods available and cultivated in the south. It was a way of preserving something that reminded them of home when they found themselves in an unfamiliar environment.
As people migrated elsewhere, they took their cooking techniques with them, melding them with whatever types of food and cooking styles were in their new place to live. In that way, food migrates and melds together as well. This is what we call foodways.
Foodways encompass not just whatâ€™s served on the plate, but the ideas and behaviors related to its preparation, serving and consumption. The physical, social, cultural, economic and spiritual activities that surround a plate of food could be different from one region to the next, even if it is basically the same dish. Not only that, but how you procure the food, prep and preserve it, then present the food is central to a culture and often has heavy symbolic meaning.
Although there is not one particular food that all Georgians eat in common or that we only eat or drink, there are two pillars of Southern food that are usually incorporated in some way: pork and corn.
â€œThere are some exceptionsâ€”pork and corn are less dominant along the Gulf Atlantic coastâ€”but the bedrock of our food culture is pork and corn,â€ Edge says.
Native Americans taught European settlers how to grow and cook corn, and Spanish explores brought pigs with them in the 1500s, introducing pork to the region for the first time. West Africans brought some of their traditional foods with them as well, such as eggplant, collard greens and okra, starting in the 1600s.
Eating With the Seasons
By its definition, Southern food is seasonal. The South has an agrarian history, and people ate what was available, when it was available, whether it was fresh tomatoes and okra, black-eyed peas or peaches. When the food was in season, it was on the table.
â€œIt was certainly one where meat showed up constantly or meat products at least, like lard, ham bones or smoked pork. But it was driven by vegetables more than anything, because it was about what you had available to you, what you could take out of your own garden, and what you could best use to feed your family,â€ Gillespie says. â€œIt wasnâ€™t fancy, but it was truly driven by availability and economics.â€
That thought process dovetails into the current local foods movement, where chefs buy local produce and procure local products through nearby farmers and merchants.
â€œIf youâ€™re going to cook southern, youâ€™re going to want to use Southern goods. That mantra of buying local and eating local, it sounds like something that was handed down from on high from Berkley, California, but thatâ€™s not the case,â€ Edge says. â€œTo eat local is something that many grew up doing and something that your grandparents did.â€
â€œCooking southern is this understanding that Southern food is about truly being seasonal and truly representing your regionâ€”almost your sub-regionâ€”by embracing the ingredients that are grown around you and having that sort of utilitarian purpose to the way that you handle them,â€ Gillespie says. â€œSouthern food has always been one that is about flavor over fashion. Itâ€™s about a cuisine that is extremely satisfying before anything else.â€
â€œPeople want to bring in local produce [into their kitchens]. And what do you have in the wintertime in Georgia? Iâ€™ve had collards on the menu all winter, Iâ€™ve had chard, greens and root vegetables,â€ Ginsberg says.Â â€œSo if youâ€™re trying to stay local and youâ€™re trying to stay true to the principle of cooking locally, obviously youâ€™re going to try [to cook the local cuisine]. If youâ€™re buying the grits from a local mill, youâ€™re going to put it on your menu.â€
â€œItâ€™s all local,â€ says Jamie Cadden, head chef of Blackwater Grill, a Cajun-Coastal Southern restaurant in St. Simons. â€œI have a seafood purveyor here from St. Simons and I also have a purveyor in Jacksonville, Florida. This is a shrimping community, so we get all the Georgia White shrimp we can handle down here.â€
But Southern cuisine is more than the food and where it came from. Itâ€™s about hospitality and how the food makes you feel. Itâ€™s pleasure and solace on a plate.
â€œSouthern cooking means itâ€™s comfort food,â€ Cadden says. â€œThe collard greens, the macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, things like that. Itâ€™s a lot of bacon. Itâ€™s a comforting type of food. Everybody comes in and says â€˜Man these are just like my momâ€™s collard greens.â€ It takes you back to the family Sunday dinners.â€
A New Type of Southern
As new groups of people come to the south, the concept of Southern cooking continues to shift and expand.
â€œThe idea that you have to be Southern, to be born in this place, to be an interpreter of this place, is short sighted,â€ Edge says. â€œThere was a time when the South was a very provincial place, and you were either from here or you werenâ€™t. That timeâ€™s past.
â€œFor the longest time, even though we think of the south as influenced by West Africa and Western Europe, there have always been new ethnicities coming to the south,â€ Edge says. â€œYou get these honest fusions of food from multiple cultures. Thatâ€™s beautiful stuff. And itâ€™s not an insult to Southern food. Culture evolves â€¦ and you see changes in the south, by way of new immigration, by way of new ideas.â€
â€œLike anything, people put their own play on it, their own creative forces behind it,â€ Ginsberg adds.
â€œPeople come to the South to look for something honest, something real, to look for the unvarnished America,â€ Edge says. â€œThey think that this is the homeland of perfect barbeque and exemplary fried chicken. They think theyâ€™re going to look for honest American foods prepared with care and prepared with a kind of respect for the past. But I would argue that in doing that, theyâ€™re missing whatâ€™s going on here in terms of new ethnicity. Some of the best crawfish Iâ€™ve had in a long time was cooked by a Vietnamese family in a crawfish shack on Buford Highway.â€
â€œThe southern food culture is one that is definitely a melting pot of all the people who have passed in and out of the South,â€ Gillespie adds. â€œThe South has been incredibly accepting of peopleâ€™s food cultures and has absorbed them into their own and made them a part of something that already had so many variations.
â€œWeâ€™re creating something new while being inspired by the traditions of the past,â€ he says, adding that restaurants like his â€œembrace the new generation of people who are going to have to carry forward our traditions of the south. [Our generation is] going to be the ones to tell the story of Southern food. So I believe that hopefully this is a new chapter in the life of Southern food.â€
Will Travel For Food
Traveling to eat somewhere new is big business, and millions of Americans come to Georgia every year to try something Southern. A recent study by the Travel Industry Association in partnership with the Gourmet and the International Culinary Tourism Association says 27 million travelers in the United States engage in culinary or wine-related activities while traveling, and Georgia is listed as one of the top 15 destinations in the country.
These travelers are younger, more affluent and better educated than non-culinary travelers. And theyâ€™re not just eating out.
They take cooking classes and visit farmers markets, gourmet food shops and food festivals. They go on winery tours, drive wine trails and attend local wine festivals.
They also spend more money than the ordinary traveler. On average, food travelers spend $1,194 per trip, with more than one-third of that budget going toward food-related activities.
â€œPeople [used to] travel and they would go see museums and grand fine homes with columns along the front,â€ says John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. â€œSure they may want something pretty good to eat between those Doric columns and museum shops, but that was it.â€
Now, Edge says, â€œPeople travel to eat. Then they detour to go to the museum or look at the house with the big Doric columns.
â€œFor many people, entre to a culture comes by way of food. If you go to a museum, you are seeing a staged semi-lacquer of a region and how it should be represented,â€ he says. â€œIf you sit down in a barbeque joint in South Georgia, you are in that culture, you are of that culture, and that is the best kind of cultural tourism. It doesnâ€™t rely upon the mediators. Youâ€™re living it. Youâ€™re in it. And thatâ€™s how people want to travel.â€
Perhaps thatâ€™s why travel-food hybrid shows have leapt in popularity over the past few years and people are creating trips around visiting restaurants featured on TV. Last year, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives visited Blackwater Grill in St. Simons, showcasing the restaurantâ€™s Boudin Fritters, low-country boil and Grouper Daufuski. The show aired in June 2010, and Blackwater Grill is still seeing people come to the restaurant as a result.
â€œAs soon as that show aired, people were lining up and our sales for those three dishes skyrocketed,â€ says Jamie Cadden, head chef of Blackwater Grill. â€œEvery time it reruns again, we get another surge of people coming to the island to eat where he ate and to eat those dishes.
â€œPeople heading on their way to Florida, theyâ€™ll just detour here,â€ he adds. â€œRight now our business is really good, and we get people in here every week saying â€˜We saw you on TV, weâ€™d like to make reservations.â€™â€
â€œI find more and more, that people plan their trips around what theyâ€™re going to eat,â€ says Kevin Gillespie, executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. â€œFood tourism has become something that is really huge. Theyâ€™re not always necessarily looking for fine dining. Theyâ€™re just looking for places that are really going to have really great food.â€