S01E36 Southern Food

Episode 36: Southern Food, Aunt Jemima, & Innovation

Join Emily, Meredith, & Frank as they explore the real story of southern food. They discuss:

  • how a recent episode of the PBS series Mercy Street both illuminated and perpetuated the idea that white supervisors could claim credit for their slaves’ innovations.the native, slave, and immigrant roots of iconic southern foods,
  • why early English settlements in the South were catastrophic failures at agriculture
  • the real story of former slave, Nancy Green – the woman who created the Aunt Jemima persona to sell pancake mix
  • how Emancipation and Southern Reconstruction obscured the real origins of southern food
  • the difference between Creole and Cajun foods
  • the real origins of fried chicken and other fried southern foods (Lewis & Clark make an appearance!)

Links & Additional Resources:

Collard greens, ready to cook.
Collard greens, ready to cook.

“The Belle Alliance” Episode 4 of Mercy Street As discussed in our show, this episode features a conflict between a white quartermaster and a white southern gentlewoman – and the work of their black servants.

A Brief History of Southern Food via SouthernFood.com.  This page discusses how different native, slave, and immigrant groups contributed to southern cuisine over time. It also features the Hammond-Harwood House menu we discuss in the episode:

During the first half of the nineteenth century many of the richest citizens of the United States lived in the South. Based on slave labor and ever expanding land to the west king cotton reigned. When Southerners feasted they made a good job of it. The following menu for an 1857 supper is from the Hammond-Harwood House’s cookbook, Maryland’s Way.

Crab Flakes Maryland
Veal and Ham Pie, Jellied
Dressed Cucumbers
Augustine’s Chicken Croquettes
Goose in Aspic
Chilled Sliced Tomatoes
Hot Rolls
A Trifle with Syllabub
Peach Ice
Lemon Iced Cream
Little Sponge Cakes
Maids of Honor
Queen’s Punch
Claret Cup
Cherry Bounce

Now this was only supper, not a full-blown dinner and luckily for all those 19 inch waists, there was no dancing afterwards.

Fried chicken. Mmmmmm.....
Fried chicken. Mmmmmm…..

The Real Roots of Southern Cuisine Interview with Chef Todd Richards, via DeepSouthMag.com. Todd Richards is an Atlanta-based chef who specializes in the history of southern food — especially its roots in slave food.  YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS READING THIS INTERVIEW. Almost every sentence is packed with new information that completely challenges stereotype about southern food and culture. Don’t miss his explanations of why greens tell the story of southern food, how native peoples taught Lewis & Clark frying as a preservation technique, and why it’s so important to understand how slaves shaped southern food — and the entire South.  More from the interview:

Southern food is really not that simple. It is an essential American storyteller along with our government and music. It has a long history. Southern food encompasses many regions, people and economics. It’s good, healing food born from strife and survival. The slaves weren’t creating Southern cuisine in order to make history, they were cooking to stay alive.

BM: How did the slaves influence Southern cooking? What were the typical ingredients they were working with at the time?
TR: You have to look at two things: what came with the slaves on the boat and what they had to work with when they got to America. There was a strong Native American influence in the early beginnings of Southern food when slaves began arriving: crops like corn and techniques like frying. Then, you have crops and techniques that came over from West Africa with the slaves, like the peanut (or goober peas), okra (or gumbo) and stewing techniques. There’s also daily survival ingredients like watermelons, which served as canteens in the fields. It’s 95 percent water. The slaves also used the rind as soles for their shoes. So ingredients like this that are now part of Americana and the Native American influence really started shaping Southern food very early on. But you can’t discount other influences like that of the Spanish and Portuguese through Louisiana or the Latin influence through parts of Texas. The slaves worked with what was available to them and adapted their daily diets accordingly…

…TR: What people don’t really understand about Southern food is that it is all based off of preservation methods. How can we keep the food for the longest period of time and make sure it’s safe to eat? Africans never ate beef until it was introduced to them in America. Fish, vegetables, fruits were the diets of most African people. Salting and frying meats and vegetables were simply preservation methods they learned from the Native Americans. They adapted to survive, while in the process, unknowingly transforming the Southern diet with the ingredients they brought with them from Africa. They found that they could grow these crops quite well here in the South…

…TR: To me, greens tell the unique story of Southern food. There was no refrigeration, so slaves used meat, mostly pork, and salt to preserve the greens by laying the meat on top. Not only did the pork preserve what was underneath, but it flavored it as well. They didn’t necessarily eat the meat after the greens were finished. They might repurpose it. Frying was another technique. Many people are shocked to learn that fried chicken is not Southern-born but actually Scandinavian and Native American. Animals in West Africa were not fatty. It was hot; they didn’t require fat to stay warm. Frying was a preservation method the slaves adopted.

Boiled crawfish in New Orleans. It's ok to drool.
Boiled crawfish in New Orleans. It’s ok to drool.

How Slaves Shaped American Cooking via National Geographic’s The Plate. If you aren’t already following The Plate series – GET TO IT, FRIEND! Every new post is full of the twisty history of food, unexpected connections, and new research.


Rustic corn bread with butter. Emily and I are dying right now, folks. DYING.
Rustic corn bread with butter. Emily and I are dying right now, folks. DYING.

The Tragic History of Southern Food This article includes an overview of Marcie Cohen Ferris’s new book, The Edible South.  It includes the story of Nancy Green, who created the Aunt Jemina persona:

… As the poet Robert Pinsky writes in his collection, Gulf Music: “The past is not decent or orderly, it is made up and devious.”

…Taking a hard but nuanced look at the evolution of farming, cooking, eating, and restaurants in a region with an unresolved struggle of identity, Ferris delivers a textured, illuminating, and often powerful narrative about how image trumped reality in the popularization of Southern food.

Ferris treats celebrity machinery as a means of whitewashing the past. In 1893, for example, an ex-slave named Nancy Green who had become a domestic worker in Chicago landed a job at the World’s Columbian Exposition, promoting Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour. “Dressed in traditional mammy garb, Green stood in a giant flour barrel,” writes Ferris, “where she greeted guests, sang songs, and told stories of the Old South. Green reportedly served more than a million pancakes and took 50,000 orders for the pancake mix. Her mammy impersonation was inspired by a white minstrelsy figure who dressed in black face and sang Billy Kersand’s hit tune of 1875, ‘Old Aunt Jemima.’ This caricature of an enslaved black woman was soon registered as a trademark and became the most recognizable, longest-lived mammy stereotype.”

As Nancy Green evaporated from history, 1920s copywriters at the J. Walter Thompson agency created a story line for radio ads about a fictional female slave owned by a kindly Confederate colonel. In this fabrication, Aunt Jemima’s “superior culinary skills saved both starving Confederate soldiers andcontemporary housewives struggling to please their busy husbands at breakfast time,” notes the author.

Meanwhile real Southern mammies subsisted on tenant farms and in sharecropper communities where they were forced “to buy the cheapest and most filling food they could find for their families at the plantation commissary or a store in town, a monotonous diet dependent on cornmeal, salt pork, field peas or beans, and molasses,” writes Ferris.