Southern cooking, in American parlance, is generally seen as any food in the US prepared south of the District of Columbia.
It’s far from a homogenous body of cooking. There are many regional, sub-regional and class differences.
The main cities for Haute Southern Food in the 1800s were Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans.
In many places, the food is the result of varied cooking methods brought by different immigrant bases — Spanish, English, French, African, etc.
For legumes, Louisiana is more likely to use red beans, South Carolina field peas, Florida black beans. Crabs are steamed in Virginia and Maryland, and along the Gulf Coast, boiled. While barbeque is loved throughout the south, in eastern North Carolina the barbeque sauces are often white, with no tomato in them. In Appalachia, you have red-eye gravy, and in Louisiana, you even have two different cuisines, Cajun and Creole.
The American south drew on fresh and saltwater fish, and plentiful game such as squirrel, possum, alligator, etc. Lima beans, sweet potatoes, and peppers came up from Latin America. The Spanish brought pork. From Africa came collard greens, okra, peas, sesame, watermelon, and yam. From native Americans they got beans, squash, corn, and pecans.
In the early 1800s, the American south was home to many of the richest people in America, but from the 1860s to the 1930s, it was very poor, and everyone learned to make do. When prosperity did return, it didn’t necessarily come to African Americans, who kept on using all the old ingredients that had got everyone through these years, now know as “Soul Food.”
Sales of cornmeal and shortening are (as of 2000) twice as high in the American south as they are elsewhere in the US.
In the American south, all soda pop is called coke. Mountain dew is drunk like water. “Tea” means SWEET cold tea, often in an urn, except in Texas, where it is unsweetened cold tea.
Some consider “Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook”, published in Savannah, Georgia, the “go to” book for many basic Southern Recipes.
Classic southern foods include Southern Fried Chicken, pork barbeque ribs, Black eyed peas, cornbread, battered fried catfish, hoppin’john, grits, creamed corn, hamburger steak, buttermilk gravy, fried okra, shrimp gumbo, sweet potato pie, pot liquor, and Sweet Tea.
Just about every house in the American south used to have an apple tree in its yard. On farms, there’d be about six apple trees per person. The apples were used for eating and for (hard) cider.
Apple tree cultivars were selected for their ability to produce despite the heat of the southern summers.
Because apples in the south were ready half a season before apples in the north, the south used to be a major exporter of apples to the north, shipped up by rail, but that declined in the mid 1900s, and many of the orchards have been ploughed under for other uses.
The south is still considered a treasure chest for apple tree varieties, especially because they had the habit of planting an apple seed to see what would come up (apple trees don’t go true to seed.)
Literature & Lore
“Southern Cooking, both the way to a man’s heart, and the way to make sure he goes before you…”
Burnham, Linda. The Genius of Apples. Indyweek Magazine. 4 October 2000.