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Gettin' Stuffed, Southern Style

Neda and I prepared for our mission at the famous 'Cafe du Monde' in New Orleans
The word came down from on high: "You will go to the southern region of the United States. You will uncover the secrets of southern cooking. You will eat as much southern food as you possibly can."

What!?!? Were my ears deceiving me? Was my boss actually sending me on assignment to EAT my way around the South? I can only paraphrase my response to this extremely important job, this mission that would require the utmost in research and diligence that I had to offer. I told my boss I'd try. I told him I'd do my best. I think I said, "Yippee!"


Note to self: Working for The Odyssey is a great way to see live jazz music... for free!

I approached my assignment with an eager but wary stomach. From what I had researched on antebellum (before the civil war) southern cooking, I was in for a treat: fried chicken and corn bread, gumbo and jambalaya, bread pudding and sweet tea. I was ambivalent about the greens that are so popular down here, but downright repulsed by the traditional fare of hog maw (stomach) salad and brains and eggs.

Becky's first taste of Jambalaya
What's a northern girl from Chicago to do but just jump right in and try it all! Mention the phrase "southern food" down here and you may be encouraged to try hundreds of different things. While I didn't get a chance to taste it all, I do have some juicy tidbits to share with you.

My research began on the southern plantations of Louisiana, where I dined at some of the most highly recommended soul food restaurants in the South. The foods I found were sometimes familiar to me, although more often than not, they were totally new but always steeped in the history of the plantation system where they all were created.

Typical southern fare turned out from a typical slave cabin fireplace
Black slaves lived in small cabins on plantations throughout the South. They worked in rice, sugar and cotton fields, or in the big house for the plantation owners. While the slaves were often given gruel for breakfast or lunch in the field, they usually made their own dinners over the fire at night. Ex-slave Benny Dillard assured historians that "there never was no better tasting something to eat than that cooked in them old cook-things in open fireplaces." This experience truly created the basis for "soul food," which we consider as a big part of typical southern fare today.

One of New Orlean's best soul food establishments
The tastes of the South make use of the resources available to the people who live here. Along the Gulf Coast, crawfish and shrimp are included in many an entree or "po' boy" (almost any food on French bread). Other foods originally brought from Africa have become local staples. Rice is one such transplant, okra is another. Its thin, green stalk resembles large, hard green beans. Today, it's just as common to catch southerners eating fried okra as it is to see Yankees gobbling French fries up North. Okra is also a main ingredient in gumbo, the famous free-for-all stew served in the South. This fabulous soup-based mixture can contain almost anything, from shrimp and oysters to sausage and chicken. It is served over rice. Neda and I dined on gumbo and stewed okra at Dooky Chase's in New Orleans, but they didn't have selections of the greens (the leafy parts of plants) that are a huge part of southern fare. Because I couldn't try them for you, I managed to find a tantalizing recipe from a cookbook entitled Plantation Row: Slave Cabin Cooking, to share with you:

Hog Jowl and Turnip Greens
"This is an old Virginia dish, and much used in the spring of the year. The jowl [pig's jaw], which must have been well smoked, must be washed clean, and boiled for three hours. Put in the turnip greens, and boil half an hour; if you boil too long, it will turn yellow. It is also good broiled for breakfast with pepper and butter over it.
The jaw bone should be removed before sending to the table; this is easily done by running a knife around the lip and under the tongue. The jowl and greens should always be served with fresh poached egg."

preparing a pig for plantation cooking
As you can tell, "soul food" cooking uses all parts of a plant and animal to stretch the available food as far as possible. Nothing was thrown out! The slaves who had to cook on the plantations adapted available materials to the culinary styles of their home continent. Cooking in large iron pots over the fire or in the ashes of the hearth, black cooks prepared stews, soups, pork chops, and cornbread for the plantation owners in the "Big House," as well as for their own families. Of course, the choicest foodstuffs did not remain in the slaves' quarters, but they learned to make do with what they had. Wild game, hickory nuts, black-eyed peas, baked potatoes, and greens added variety and nutrients to their diet. As ex-slave Aaron Carter reminisced to a government oral historian in the 1930s, "Dere wuz greens, bacon, peas, rice, milk, butter, loads of fish, possum, rabbits, birds -- jes' eberythin'."

rice and beans... tasty, and nutritious!
In New Orleans, the combination of French, African, and Spanish cultures can be tasted in the food. Red beans and rice, often with a piece of sausage, traditionally appear in restaurants each Monday. Jambalaya mixes rice with shrimp, peppers, sausage, and any other number of vegetables and hot spices. It is another example (like gumbo) of a one-pot course that helped to stretch the slaves' food rations. All of the week's leftovers could be thrown into the pot to cook together for a tasty and sustaining weekend dish. I tried the Jambalya in Baton Rouge, and was full from the spicy mixture before I had half-finished my portion.

A side dish of sweet-potato biscuits could be found on almost any dining table in the South, from the Civil War to the present day. Since white flour was a luxury during the War, sweet potatoes were added to biscuit dough so that the flour would go further. To make these biscuits, follow this traditional recipe:

1 lb. sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. sugar
Dash of salt
2 tbsp. milk
3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon

While the sweet potatoes are still hot, add the butter, sugar, salt, and milk. In a separate container mix the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Stir the dry ingredients into the potato mixture, then knead it gently. Chill the dough 2-3 hours. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/- inch thickness, and cut out the biscuits. Bake on a lightly greased cookie sheet at 400 degrees F. for about 15 minutes, or until done.

After the civil war ended, many poor white share-cropping farmers turned to their black neighbors for advice on how to grow crops in the bad soil, and how to make satisfying dishes out of random, plentiful food parts. By following the black cook's examples, slave-cabin cooking became mainstream meals for most southerners, white and black alike.

Dunbar's fries the best chicken in town
Fried chicken and corn bread are trademark southern soul foods that have been shared with the northern states through franchises such as Popeye's and Church's. Although I've eaten my share of fried chicken before, it was nothing like at Dunbar's in New Orleans. There, I was served an all-you-can-eat plate of amazing fried chicken alongside red beans and rice, corn bread, and salad. With a glass of sweet tea to wash it all down, and a slice of banana-nut cake for dessert, I left Dunbar's happily stuffed and ready to move to New Orleans as soon as possible (or at least go back for a visit sometime soon).

New Orleans Jazz adds spice to the recipes at many local eateries
My immersion into southern cooking taught me that there are as many varieties in the old standbys as there are traditional recipes. No one could give me an exact recipe for gumbo or jambalaya, because everyone throws a little something different into theirs, depending on their own family's tradition. Dunbar's chicken batter recipe is kept under lock and key, so that its special flavor can never be replicated in anyone else's kitchen. It seems that no matter how southern food gets stereotyped, you'll always taste a little something different around the corner.

I could have stayed in New Orleans for weeks and not tried every dish that was offered to me as an example of southern food. I could explore variations on the southern theme throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas for years to come, without ever truly fulfilling the duty that the Odyssey so trustingly handed to me. But one thing's for sure. I came, I saw, and I stuffed myself silly throughout my southern trek.

Would you pass the gumbo please?


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Visiting the houses that cotton - and slave labor - built
Stephanie - Huckleberry Finn makes waves along the Mississippi
Making A Difference - Let's add some cyanide in this cigarette
Teddy - The amazing Booker T. Washington, former slave turned college founder