Chroniclers of Southern Food Traditions

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William Snyder


First, a point of clarification on the origin of the word "jambalaya," Liz Williams says. "There are a lot of apocryphal stories around it." In the mixing pot of New Orleans eating, this rice and sausage standard is meant to blend the three largest influences on Creole cooking: French, Spanish, and African. "The 'jamb' was seen as a nod to the French 'jambon' and 'a la' was clearly Spanish while the 'ya' was thought to be African word meaning rice."

Except that's all wrong. "Jambalaya was just a made up slang word to describe a jumble," she says.

This is the perfect example of why Williams's mission is necessary. That mission is embodied by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB), which she started in late 2008 after working as CEO for the University of New Orleans Foundation. The museum includes a growing collection of 6,000 cookbooks, antebellum kitchen supplies, and countless menus meant to trace and document recipe evolution not only in the geographic South but also in restaurants around the world purporting to whip up Southern standards. And if ever a cuisine needed record keeping and clarification of origin, it's the delights from Dixie.

"Creole and Cajun weren't their own categories until the turn of last century," Liz Williams says. And the down-home greasy plates owe as much to the Depression as to culinary legacy of slaves.

Her collection is an unbelievable resource for food enthusiasts, and it's not a singular phenomenon. L.S.U. has a special collection archive dedicated to New Orleans restaurant items. The Newcomb Library, part of the Tulane system, is spearheading an oral history of cuisine for the city, while Leon Miller heads another culinary special collections archive at Tulane.

Williams's own museum has teamed up with the public library system in New Orleans to build a reading room dedicated to antique cookbooks. "We consider gravy stains on a page to be empirical evidence that it was a good recipe," she says.

And the vast collection of family cookbooks, published mainstays and scribbled-on index cards has attracted researchers from Harvard, Duke and Boston University. Spurred by the interest in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, even the city's oldest eateries, places like Antoine's and Tujagues, are making detailed records of their kitchens available.

Organizations like SOFAB are the gatekeepers at the intersection of food and history in the South, compiling menus, family recipes, dinners from Krewe balls, food diaries, and recipe cards. (One of Leon Miller's prized items in the Tulane collection is a menu from 1786.) They've turned New Orleans into the modern (and culinary) equivalent of ancient Alexandria, with grand libraries archiving the world of antiquity.

Aside from the academic novelty, though, the collections are becoming part of a living history, as archivists like Miller encourage chefs to find the origins of dishes and then modernize them (or, if not modernize and personalize a recipe, use the originals to re-introduce diners to historical eating). "There are some great foods that have fallen out of favor as tastes change," Miller says. "I'd like to see them return to the plate." He's hoping these various archives will facilitate that, promoting interactive culinary archaeology.

Second point of clarification about Southern food: "What we think of as Southern cuisine is actually quite new," Liz Williams says.

The relative youth was the biggest surprise when she started accumulating items for SOFAB. "Creole and Cajun weren't their own categories until the turn of last century," she says. And the down-home greasy plates owe as much to the Depression as to culinary legacy of slaves (which is the more romanticized tale of how items like fried chicken came to be icons of the Southern kitchen).

In fact, for the first two hundred years, from early colonial times to the end of the 1800s, chefs up and down the East Coast saw French cooking as the pinnacle of cuisine. A menu at a white-tablecloth restaurant in New Orleans in the 19th century would have been nearly indistinguishable from one in New York.

And the third point of clarification: Southern doesn't mean only deep-fried.

With the exception of barbecue, the Low Country, and the city of New Orleans, state-by-state differences in Southern cooking were thought to be subtle at most. Fried everything from vegetables to candy bars were the public face of the region. Sure, some of the South's great eateries use enough peanut oil in a day to rival BP's oil slick in the Gulf, but a closer study revealed plenty of overlooked immigrant influences that would vary greatly from city to city.

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William Snyder

"As we searched through the collection more and more we realized there was a lot of politicking by various ethnic groups throughout history to have dish names reflect their impact," Williams says.

The big divide is between the English-settled states like Virginia and North Carolina versus areas that had a Spanish or French presence. "The English colonists in Virginia wanted to replicate what they ate in the home country, which didn't include many of the native plants," she says.

Conversely, French traders on the Mississippi used whatever was available and blended it into traditional recipes. (This was the origin of Cajun cooking.)

But one group has been continually overlooked despite influencing the French, Spanish, and English settlers. "The Native Americans impact on Southern cooking is the most ignored, by far," Williams says. Many of the ingredients that are icons of the cuisine—grits, peanuts, tomatoes, sassafras, crawfish—were indigenous items Native Americans had to teach colonists to eat and cultivate.

Part of what Williams wants visitors to understand is that Southern eating is more like the Constitution than the Ten Commandments. In other words, evolution and interpretation are encouraged. She's illustrating this with the Menu Project, which is a call to arms to collect menus from any restaurant located in the South.

"We'll take anything from Chinese delivery places to the most popular Low Country restaurants," she says. All of them reflect the regional taste at a given period in history. "No one has collected menus on this scale before," she says. And when they're pieced together, what a visitor discovers is that the perceived old, stodgy, set-in-its-ways Southern cooking is actually changing quickly.

A large influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the '70s and '80s, for one, made a noticeable impact on New Orleans cooking, re-interpreting standard ingredients and bringing in new spices. Even stalwarts like Cajun and Creole are adjusting to the evolving demographics of the city, Williams says. "With the influx of Latin workers rebuilding the city since Katrina, it's become a lot easier to find crawfish tacos."

Recipes:

Part of the mission of these culinary archivists in New Orleans is to preserve recipes that could be lost to time and changing tastes. Here are two perfect examples. First is a drink recipe from Mary Land's classic cookbook, Louisiana Cookery, published in 1954. It's considered one of the most comprehensive Louisiana cookbooks. Second, is a pudding standard from Appalachia.

Tomato Wine

Peel one gallon of ripe tomatoes after holding each over gas flame on a fork. Mash the tomatoes. Place in a crock with two pounds of sugar. Cover the crock and let contents ferment. Skim every day. When it has ceased fermenting strain and place in large jugs with loose corks. Let stand without moving for two months. Then bottle in small bottles and seal tight.

Persimmon Pudding

Combine one cup strained persimmon pulp with a cup of flour, a cup of sugar, 1/2 cup milk, a cup of raisins, a cup of walnut meats, two teaspoons of baking soda, and a pinch of salt. Mix, add to a glass baking dish, and place in a 350 F oven for about an hour.

More Southern recipes, from Regina Charboneau:
Spicy Boiled Shrimp With Artichokes, Corn, and Potatoes
Southern Fried Chicken
Winter Greens With Andouille Vinaigrette

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William Snyder lives in an old house in Richmond, but spends plenty of time on a horse farm. He’s a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and created the Specialist column for its magazine. He also writes for Outdoor Life.

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