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What is Southern Food?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Southern food is food which comes from the culinary tradition of the American South. While people often use the blanket term “Southern food,” food from this region is actually very diverse, and there are a number of different cuisines within the South. Barbecue, especially pit barbecue, is probably the signature food of the South, although some other well-known examples include things like sweet tea, fried green tomatoes, ham, fried chicken, catfish, potato salad, buttermilk biscuits, and pecan pie.

The food of the American South reflects a unique blend of cultures and culinary traditions. The Native Americans, Spanish, French, and British all contributed to the development of Southern food, bringing recipes and foods from their own cultures. Transplanted Africans brought to the South through slavery also brought things to Southern cuisine.

There are a few rough categories of Southern food. So-called “Soul Food” is heavily influenced by African cooking traditions, tending to feature a lot of greens and vegetables, rice, and nuts such as peanuts. Okra and collard greens often crop up in Soul Food, along with thick stews. Creole food has a French flair, and is often found around New Orleans, while Cajun cuisine reflects the culinary traditions of immigrants from the region of Canada known as Acadia.

Lowcountry cuisine features a lot of seafood and rice, while the food of the Appalachians relies heavily on preserved meats and vegetables. Southern food tends to be heavy on the corn, thanks to the Native American influence, with dishes like grits, cornbread, and corn on the cob being very popular. Nuts such as pecans and peanuts are also popular, as are fruits like peaches and berries. Common vegetables in the South include things like peppers, peas, okra, carrots, and sweet potatoes, while pork, chicken, and seafood remain enduringly popular.

The South also houses a lot of bakers, famously producing very light, rich baked goods like red velvet cake, buttermilk biscuits, and fluffy white breads. Southern bakers love making sweet treats like pies, cobblers, and cookies. White bread rolls, cinnamon rolls, and other bready treats are also popular in the South.

Many people associate Southern food with simple, hearty meals like those served in American diners. While some Southern foods certainly do meet these criteria, other Southern dishes are actually quite complex, with delicate flavors and ingredients which are sometimes hard to find outside the South. Visitors to the region are often astounded by the variety and complexity of Southern cuisine.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By meandcoffee — On May 07, 2011

@scifreak- I agree with you when you say the South has great food. The only thing that concerns me is that a lot of their food is high in fat and calories. I like to make some southern food at home, and I make it healthier.

Healthy southern food uses the same great spices as the original, just lighter versions of the fatty ingredients. For instance, in my healthy potato salad, I use half light mayonnaise and half yogurt for the dressing. I also bake catfish instead of frying it.

With a few simple changes, southern food can be a lot healthier but taste great. I only wish they had healthy versions available while traveling in the South.

By scifreak — On May 05, 2011

I think southern style food is delicious. We went on a trip through Georgia and Louisiana. I ate the best fried catfish I have ever eaten in my life in Georgia. The pecan pie was also delicious.

The weather in the South makes it perfect for frying, and I think that is why they have perfected frying catfish and chicken. Since catfish and chicken need side dishes, that is where potato salad, okra, etc. comes in. I cannot wait to go back down South again to experience the great food.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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