Good Southern writers know how to easily evoke a Southern atmosphere in their novels. Just use food. Not just any food, though—authentic Southern food. At the mere mention of grits, cornbread and collard greens, you know what you’re reading is set in the South—or you have a character longing to be there.
Certain foods are synonymous with the area below the Mason-Dixon Line. But why? Well, much is geographic fertility. For example, Georgia and South Carolina peaches are the sweetest available because of the soil. Our former president, Jimmy Carter, made Georgia peanuts famous because of his farm (and if you’re in the South, you’ve got to boil them there peanuts). To taste a region of the South, gather your pecans in Mississippi, grind up some sugar cane from Louisiana, bake up some sweet potatoes from Alabama, or shuck a few ears of sweet, Southern corn from North Carolina.
Many of our foods have an African-American influence because of the plantations that dotted the Southern landscape. It is where we get okra, and thank goodness for okra soup and fried okra and okra pilau! Black-eyed peas and rice were staples on large plantations and on Southern tables today. Benne seeds and sorghum were used in many dishes, and melons were a perfect treat in the relentless Southern heat. All have roots in African heritage and soil.
But by far the most influential component to Southern foods is family. Families passed down their recipes like they were passing down the crown jewels. Try to get your hands on some families’ prized fruitcake recipes or their barbecue recipes, and you’ll get your hand chopped off! Many Southern families identify themselves with their unique recipes for the foods all Southerners enjoy. For some, their recipes make their families special—and they don’t give away their “specialness” easily.
In my family, my grandmother made a mean red velvet cake, and my mom cooks some awesome fried chicken—amongst many other amazing things—especially her red rice and chicken and dumpling soup (which I have desecrated—according to Mother—by deboning and shredding the chicken). The list of my family favorites goes on forever, and I am proud that we are a family who shares recipes.
I know a family who keeps their shrimp and grits recipe under lock and key, an in-law that will NOT share her cookie recipe with me, even though I hinted and asked for years, until I gave up hope. I also have a favorite uncle who will not give up his barbecue sauce recipe—except to family, and we are sworn to secrecy on that one! Whether Southerners share or not, it’s all good, because even if they don’t share their recipes, they always share their food. Bon appetit, and happy Thanksgiving, y’all!