10 Food-based Traditions from the American South

If you're a boiled peanut fan, you'll pull over when you see this sign.
If you're a boiled peanut fan, you'll pull over when you see this sign.
Comstock/Thinkstock

Sure, the American South gave us some great people: Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., William Faulkner, Babe Ruth, Woody Guthrie. But let us not forget the other greats it gave us: boiled peanuts, cheese grits, sweet tea, fried chicken. Click ahead for the South's other culinary greats. But first, let's dig into where all these delicious treats came from.

We can trace the roots of Southern cuisine back to two things -- available resources and African influence. It makes sense that cuisine would be born out of a locale's most prolific crops. Foods like pecans, collards, turnips, sweet potatoes and peaches were readily available to Southern settlers. And plentiful rivers and lakes, plus the ocean, provided seemingly limitless amounts of crawfish, oysters, shrimp and catfish.

The African influence on Southern cuisine rose out of the slave trade. Slaves brought their own recipes and traditions with them, introducing foods like okra and black-eyed peas, and the method of frying food -- hence, Southern fried chicken. In Louisiana, French influence resulted in Creole and Cajun cooking.

The great thing about the South -- and about food -- is that it's always evolving. But some traditions die hard, and many of us carry them on year after year, often not even knowing why we do it. Let's take a look at some Southern food traditions and their possible origins.

10

Black-eyed Peas and Greens on New Year's Day

One Southern tradition is to eat black-eyed peas and greens on New Year's Day. Supposedly, this meal will bring you luck during the coming year, but nobody's 100 percent sure how the tradition originated.

People of many cultures eat greens for New Year's. Germans eat cabbage. The Danish eat kale. And, in the South, it's collard greens. Some believe leafy greens may have become a New Year's tradition because they were thought to resemble paper money and symbolize wealth for the new year. Meanwhile, black-eyed peas were thought to symbolize coins. Southerners sometimes eat pork with their greens and peas, since pork is a symbol of moving forward -- as pigs do when they forage.

Legend has it that during the American Civil War, a Mississippi town ran out of food while under attack. During the siege, the residents discovered black-eyed peas and credited the food source with saving their lives [source: Salkeld]. In fact, some Southerners believe you should eat one pea for every day of the year. Three hundred sixty-five peas is a lot of peas!

Another explanation for the black-eyed pea tradition relates to writings in the Talmud; Jews were told to eat foods like gourds, black-eyed peas, beets and spinach to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Jews arrived in the States and settled in Georgia in the 1730s, and the tradition spread to non-Jews around the time of the Civil War [source: Bell].

9

Mardi Gras King Cake

The lucky one who finds a plastic baby in his or her cake will host next year's party.
The lucky one who finds a plastic baby in his or her cake will host next year's party.
Jupiterimages/Liquidlibrary/Thinkstock

It's simply not Mardi Gras in New Orleans without King Cake. King Cake is typically eaten on Fat Tuesday, right before the beginning of Lent.

The first stories of King Cakes date back to pre-Christian, pagan times. According to legend, each year, one man was chosen to be "sacred king." This man would enjoy a kinglike existence for one year, at the end of which he was sacrificed -- in order for the community to receive a bountiful harvest. This lucky/unlucky man became "sacred king" by winding up with a particular slice of a cake. The cake had a coin or bean baked into it, and whoever ended up with the coin was the new king. A less murderous version of this cake concept later became a part of the Christmas celebration, during Epiphany. And it made its way into the Mardi Gras celebration via French settlers in Louisiana [source: Sterling].

King Cake isn't just any old cake. It's a cake/bread hybrid, frosted on top with a baby baked inside. It also … Wait, a baby? Yep. Inside each King Cake is a tiny, plastic baby. Some say the baby represents the baby Jesus. Others say the plastic baby tradition began when a New Orleans bakery wound up with a huge shipment of tiny plastic babies from Hong Kong. Either way, if you find the baby in your slice of cake, don't despair. You won't be put to death. You'll simply be asked to host the next year's Fat Tuesday party or bring the King Cake.

8

Mint Juleps and the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is probably one of the most famous horse races in the world. Held in early May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., the Derby attracts spectators from all over the world to people-watch, eat, drink, show off their hats, and -- oh -- watch a horse race. What else is Kentucky famous for? Bourbon. Ninety-five percent of the world's bourbon comes from the state of Kentucky [source: Schreiner].

A mint julep is a traditional bourbon drink that's very popular in the South, particularly in Kentucky. Made with bourbon, sugar, mint and water, the mint julep became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby more than 70 years ago [source: Melina].

In 1987, a company called Brown-Forman signed a contract with Churchill Downs to make its whiskey, Early Times, the official liquor brand for mint juleps. And in 2006, Brown-Forman also began offering a high-end bourbon called Woodford Reserve. A premium mint julep made with this bourbon will set you back $1,000. It includes the premium bourbon, imported Irish mint, ice from the Alps and sugar from Australia -- all served in a Tiffany & Co. gold-plated cup. Proceeds go to charity [source: Melina].

7

Holiday Pecan Pie

Pecan pie often shows up at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Pecan pie often shows up at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Food traditions run deepest during the holidays. Each person has his or her favorite dish, from appetizers to desserts. One lasting traditional holiday dessert is pecan pie, which originated in the South but has spread throughout much of the United States. Pecan pie lovers tend to whip up this dessert for fall and winter holidays, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, because pecan nuts ripen for harvest between September and December.

The pecan is native to North America -- specifically Texas and Mexico, according to research on fossils found in the area. In fact, Texas adopted the pecan tree as its state tree in 1919. And Albany, Ga., is known at the pecan capital; there are more than 600,000 pecan trees in the area [source: National Pecan Shellers Association]. Some believe the French invented pecan pie after settling in New Orleans; they arrived in the Louisiana Territory in the 1700s. But a company named Karo takes credit for today's pecan pie. Karo, which makes corn syrup, claims that the wife of a Karo executive came up with the recipe for pecan pie in the 1930s, when she mixed Karo corn syrup with sugar, eggs, vanilla and pecans. In fact, in the South, some people still call pecan pie "Karo Pie."

6

Shrimp and Grits on Christmas Eve

Another popular Southern holiday dish (that's also found its way onto plates throughout the country) is shrimp and grits. You'd be hard-pressed to find a food more American than grits. Historians trace grits back to the first Virginia colonists, who dined on the cracked grains with American Indians, who called it "rockahominie," which later evolved to "hominy" [source: Dupree].

In South Carolina, shrimp season begins in May and ends in December. No one's really sure who invented the shrimp and grits dish, but a Charlestonian might tell you it was created long ago by local shrimpers, who mixed shrimp and grits with a little bit of bacon fat for breakfast, then headed out on the water [source: Dupree]. Today, shrimp and grits is a popular dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And current versions of shrimp and grits incorporate varied ingredients like butter, high quality stock, hot sauce and spices.

When a dish has such a long history and is passed down from generation to generation, it generally becomes a holiday tradition. Therefore, many Southerners eat shrimp and grits at Christmas or New Year's. During the holidays, you just want to eat comfort food. And it doesn't get more comfortable than good old-fashioned grits!

5

Charm Cakes at the Bridesmaid's Tea

And when Southerners say "tea," they mean iced and sweetened.
And when Southerners say "tea," they mean iced and sweetened.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Weddings are steeped in tradition, and each culture has its own set of wedding and pre-wedding rituals. Take, for example, the South's bridesmaid's tea. This small luncheon or tea party gives the bride the opportunity to welcome out-of-town female guests, take care of last-minute details, and, most importantly, thank all the women who've been involved in her special day. One of the sweetest parts of the bridesmaid's tea is the charm cake. (Sometimes charm cakes are served at bridal showers, as well.)

Charms -- one for each bridesmaid -- are baked into a cake, tied to a long ribbon. During tea, each bridesmaid pulls a ribbon out of her piece of cake to get her charm. Charms are typically gold or silver, and each one holds a special meaning and fortune for the receiver. Some of the charms and their meanings are:

  • ring -- for the next to get engaged
  • heart -- for love
  • clover or horseshoe -- for luck
  • wedding bells -- for an upcoming wedding
  • wishing well -- for wishes to come true
  • airplane -- for travel and adventure
  • baby carriage -- for children

Some brides also give their bridesmaids charm bracelets as gifts, so they can display their new charms.

4

Traditional Southern Appetizers

Any respectable get-together involves an appetizer spread, right? Originally, appetizers were meant to "stimulate the appetite" before a meal, but now they're likely to steal the whole show. In the South, you'll see a lot of the same traditional appetizers no matter where you go.

A few of the most popular Southern finger foods include:

  • Cheese straws: They're ridiculously easy to make and, some might say, addictive. All it takes is flour, butter and grated cheddar cheese. You can also add spice like salt, cayenne pepper or dry mustard.
  • Pimento cheese: Many of us are used to the neon orange store-bought stuff. But, like cheese straws, pimento cheese is simple to make. All you really need is mayonnaise, grated cheese, pimentos, and salt and pepper. And of course there are also many variations on this. Traditionally, pimento cheese is served on tiny white-bread sandwiches, sans crusts. Sometimes pimento cheese is even offered as a burger or hotdog topping.
  • Deviled eggs: The traditional Southern deviled eggs recipe includes pickle relish and pimentos.
3

Southern Easter Dinner

Ham is usually the centerpiece at Easter.
Ham is usually the centerpiece at Easter.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

First, let's talk about the main dish -- the Easter ham. Why is ham eaten on Easter Sunday? You might think there's some complicated religious explanation for this, but it's actually quite simple. When Americans started celebrating Easter in the early days of their country, food came from the animals raised in the communities. Because there was no refrigeration, any meat left over after slaughter was cured for storing. It takes a while for meat to cure properly, and most hams were ready to eat come springtime. So, the Easter holiday also became a feasting holiday.

What other foods might you find on the table at Easter in the South? The previously mentioned deviled eggs, of course, and perhaps a scalloped potato casserole or asparagus as a side. Other possibilities include sweet potatoes, ambrosia salad and biscuits, plus sweet tea or peach tea to drink. For dessert, a lemon or coconut cake, or maybe some leftover Easter candy.

2

Boiled Peanuts

Boiled peanuts are a true Southern tradition. In fact, many non-Southerners have never even heard of them. You'll find bags of hot boiled peanuts at picnics, fairs and, most importantly, at roadstands along country or mountain highways. They're a popular road-trip snack.

Boiled peanuts are simply raw (or "green") peanuts boiled in salty water for hours. All that water makes the shells soggy and easy to break open; meanwhile, the nuts soak in a nice flavor.

Boiled peanuts have been around since (at least) the American Civil War. There wasn't much food around during the war -- especially meat. However, peanuts were in good supply. Soldiers started boiling the peanuts over campfires, and probably added salt as a preservation technique. Peanuts also gave the soldiers a much-needed dose of protein.

1

Barbecue

Some might say you're not a proper Southerner if you haven't partaken in barbecue at some point in your life. You'll see many a sign in the South that reads "the best barbecue in town." Let's take a look at this delicious tradition.

Nobody's exactly sure where the term "barbecue" came from, but it's generally accepted that it's derived from the West Indies word "barbacoa" -- meaning to slowly cook something over hot coals. For the most part, barbecue is pork. Historically, pigs were plentiful in the South, and they were also relatively easy to raise and maintain. Also, people ate just about the entire pig. Anything that couldn't be eaten immediately was cured for later, and even things like ears and feet were turned into local delicacies. The pig slaughter became a community event of sorts, and that's why we all gather together to share barbecue today.

Southern barbecue flavors vary by region, and so does the prep method. People will argue until they're blue in the face over what constitutes "real barbecue," so we're not even going to touch that. However, here's a partial list of what to expect if you sample barbecue in what's known in the South as "the Barbecue Belt": In North Carolina, you'll find chopped or sliced meat with a vinegar sauce. In South Carolina and Georgia, you'll find a mustard-based sauce. Tennessee is known for a tomato sauce. In Arkansas, you'll find a mixture of everything, depending on which other state is nearest [source: Dove].

For more about food and tradition, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

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