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."
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.
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.
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