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Southern Cooking and Community

Page history last edited by miranda.neff@okstate.edu 13 years, 4 months ago


The Southern Food Community

 Southern food is described as “central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character” by writer John Egerton (Latshaw 107).  Southern foodways have been resistant to change and are shared across divisions of age, race, and class.  Food takes the center stage at meeting places as a beckoning call for all to come out and converse over home cooked culinary delights.  Where there is a feast there will be people to eat it, ideas being exchanged, and growing connections with others sharing in the feast.  The result is a sense of commonality and community.  



Research on Food Habits


     Historically, social events have been racially divided in the south and this leads to the question of whether an identity founded solely upon a food preference can overreach these divides and create a shared, larger, southern community that has a fondness for such things as beans and cornbread.  This question was answered as a resounding “yes” supported by research conducted by the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science and the Center for the Study of the American South (CSAS).  Based on ten years of research, people who live in the south are far more analogous than not in preference, attached values to food items, and actual eating habits.  It is also interesting that the more time one spends in the south the more likely one is to prescribe to these familiar southern food habits.  This would seem that the identity is innate to the region.  However, the studies offer data that suggests the group identity may be attached to the foodways, not the geographic region, and those who no longer live in the south but still prepare southern foods are more likely than not to still identify themselves as “southern” (Latshaw 107-126).







Faith is a reason to gather and rejoice. “Southern food has had a dominant presence at southern church picnics and gatherings… it tends to be linked to Protestantism more often than to other groups and religious minorities” (Latshaw 114-115).   The local church can serve as the community center and “a repository for a community’s history and people”(Willard 150-151).   The church also offers an opportunity to raise money for community projects.  Food seems to surround every aspect of church life from the traditional Sunday family dinner, Potlucks (that are very common in Baptist churches), foot washings, to religious revivals (Willard 148- 179) (Kurlansky 129)

Sunday Family Dinner

It became customary, especially amongst southern African-American congregations, to show appreciation toward the preacher by inviting him to join their family for Sunday Dinner. The expected dish to be served was fried chicken and this association became so entrenched that fried chicken came to be referred to as “the preachers bird” or “gospel chicken” (Inness 182)(Parham 105).  In his song “Church”, Lyle Lovett uses humor to exemplify the tradition of Sunday dinner following the church service.  He entices the choir to help him sing the praises of food in an attempt to manipulate the preacher into ending his sermon.  The preacher does not heed to the hunger pangs of his congregation, but instead, eats a bird to satiate himself so he can keep preaching.



 A Revival Menu

recoded by T.S. Ferree, North Carolina Office


The main dish consisted of freshly killed and cleaned chickens that were prepared by dredging the pieces in a flour mixture that had been seasoned with salt and pepper.  The chicken pieces were then fried in lard until golden brown.


The sweet potato biscuits were made from mashed sweet potatoes that had been peeled and boiled.  Flour was then added and shortening was cut in.  Buttermilk was incorporated before a final mixing and the biscuits were dropped by the spoonful onto a baking sheet and cooked until golden brown.


The desert was a coconut pie which is simply the basic pie filling of butter, sugar, corn starch, and eggs mixed with coconut and baked in a pie shell.


Relishes of all kinds were also served: Pears, beets, cucumbers, and even peach relish. (Willard 170)






The WPA files, compiled in Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, contain a narrative of a church picnic preceding a footwashing in Lonely Dale, Alabama.  In Jack Kytle's story, he describes the women unpacking foods they painstakingly prepared, and laying them out on the tables for everyone to share.  One of the oldest and most admired parishioners, Grandma Susie Higgins, withheld her revered ham biscuits from a man whom she knew had been cruel to his wife.  The preacher was dismayed by this action and requested that Grandma Higgins “ask forgiveness and wash Brother Hornbuckle’s feet at our washing tomorrow”(Kurlansky 131).  Grandma Higgins did not express regret nor did she wash the man’s feet; however, Hornbuckle did go back and apologize to his wife for his terrible behavior.  So, it would seem that the feelings of support and community were more visible at the picnic, guided by Hornbuckles want for a ham biscuit, than at the footwashing ritual the following day (Kurlansky 129-133).   





The Political Barbecue


           The political Barbecue was a male dominated arena.  Politicians in the south would hold barbecues as an event to gather the constituents for speeches, hand shaking, and political debates.  This practice was very common and was guided by its own set of traditions.  A long trench was dug into the ground and wood or charcoal was placed in the trench and set ablaze.  Before the meat could be placed on the pits, the flames had to disappear leaving only hot glowing coals.  It was common for only men to be in charge of the pit and preparing the meat. This was usually one man in charge and aided by several male assistants.  The women were usually not let near the cooking trench until the meat was ready to be served.  Barbecues could be a campaigning tool for individual politicians or done at the local fair where the community can meet several candidates at one time.  Political barbecues are so deeply rooted in Mississippi politics that “You have to make a speech at the fair, you see, if you want to get elected in Mississippi”(Willard 100).  By preparing and eating the barbecue among the constituents, politicians were able to give the impression they were just like everybody else and, therefore, more likable.  The goal was to attract voters by the smell of the cooking meat and make use of the long cooking time to present speeches and secure supporters (Willard 110-111).


Neshoba County Fair


     In 1896 confederate Governor Anself McLaurin spoke at the “Mississippi’s Giant House Party” held at the Neshoba County Fair.  Sense this time, campaigning at the Neshoba County Fair became known in the region as the only way to win the Mississippi vote.  This expectation has been enduring and even Ronald Regan began his campaign trail at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980(Although he was criticized for doing so).  Two days of the fair are set aside for barbecue and political speeches, although more strict health and safety guidelines as well as new laws have made the tradition of cooking the meat over an open dug-out trench far less common (Willard 101).  The fair first started in 1889 and within a few years families were camping out on the grounds for the entire week of festivities.  Naturally, people began to construct permanent buildings as shelter from the elements.  Ultimately, six-hundred cabins were built surrounding the fairgrounds and organized into cul-de-sacs and streets.  Most of the cabins have been updated with electricity and indoor plumbing to support modern amenities(Willard 102-103).  These cabins were only used for one week out of the year and tended to be very expensive.  Furthermore, the cabins were usually passed down through family lineage and if one did come up for sale the final verdict as to who may purchase the cabin was determined by the fair association’s board of directors.  This activity has been scrutinized as perpetuating racial division in the south as the cabins have been historically withheld from purchase by the county’s 1/3 African American population (Willard 106).  This accusation of systemic racism that surrounds the Neshoba County Fair is the reason that Ronald Regan faced political scorns for kicking off his presidential campaign at the famous fair.      







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