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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Real Southern Cooking

Saturday, I watched a TV program called “Take on the South” on SCETV. It is hosted by Dr. Walter Edgar, a professor at the University of South Carolina. In this episode John T. Edge, Author and Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, University of Mississippi, and Matt and Ted Lee, award winning cookbook authors debated "What is Real Southern Cooking?"

What do you think is real southern cooking? Many things come to mind... BBQ, grits, collard greens, corn bread and Ice Tea... but what about the actual methods of cooking? Just by simple inventions, (the refrigerator, freezer, ovens and microwaves) the way we cook southern foods has changed.

Before the revolution in cooking technology that occurred in the latter years of the nineteenth century, the Southern kitchen wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to be. From the founding of Jamestown until the middle of the nineteenth centuries, cooking for plantations and backcountry cabins was done on the open hearth. Site-made brick was the material of choice for fireplaces, hearths and chimneys, but it was extremely labor intensive to make and expensive, so its use was mostly restricted to the wealthy. In most Southern homes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fireplaces and chimneys were fashioned from locally procured stone. If stone was scarce, the chimney above the roof line of the cabin was often made of wattle and daub, which was essentially sticks held together with clay. While the stone hearths could withstand the high cooking temperatures, a layer of thick plaster usually protected the brick hearths.

The goal of all homeowners was to have the kitchen separate from the main house to cut down on noise, odors, smoke and the ever-present danger of the main house burning down if a kitchen fire got out of hand.The hearths in these cookhouses were huge, sometimes ten feet wide and four feet deep. Andirons set six feet apart held the large supply of oak and hickory logs needed to stoke the fire. The fires were kept going all day and the coals were banked at night to make starting the next day’s fire easier. The heat from these fireplaces was horrendous, especially in the stifling summers of the Carolinas and Georgia. An oven for baking was usually built into the side of the fireplace on larger farms and plantations, while in the backcountry, ashcakes and hoecakes were baked in the coals.

These brick ovens were the height of luxury for those on the receiving end of the goodies they produced, but made the cook’s life even more difficult. Patricia Brady Schmit, in her introduction to Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book (1982) wrote: “The oven involved a great deal of labor to use and generated terrific heat in the kitchen, even beyond that of the usual roasting fire in the hearth. Therefore the oven was heated only once a week, and all major baking was done at that time. A strong fire was built on the floor of the oven very early in the morning and stoked so that it burned fiercely: the oven door was left ajar to provide oxygen for the fire.”

After the fire had burned down to coals, they were raked out and discarded; the oven, having retained the heat from the roaring fire, was now ready to use. Pans of bread dough, cakes, cookies and other items to be baked were placed in the oven in descending order by the amount of time they needed to bake; items that needed a short amount of time at high heat went in first. As the oven gradually lost its heat, items such as cakes that required longer baking times at lower temperatures took their place in the oven until all the baking for the week was done.

The fireplaces of plantations were often state of the art, as Joe Gray Taylor pointed out in Eating, Drinking and Visiting in the South (1982): “On a built-in ledge lay the back bar, sometimes as much as six feet from the fireplace floor. Hooks of various lengths hung from the back bar, designed so that pots and kettles could hang at various distances from the fire. Trivets of various heights sat on the floor so that food could be placed at exactly the desired distance from the coals.”

Plantation kitchens often boasted several sizes of iron or brass pots, iron spits turned by wall mounted clockwork mechanisms for roasting meats, and long handled skillets (called spiders) equipped with legs and lids for placing coals under and over them.

Now, the methods we use to cook our southern food differ greatly. Southern Cooking has changed, but we remember where it came from and try to hold dear those recipes that call for that now "evil" ingredient lard! I still love to watch my Daddy grill a whole pig. I love remembering the men of the family gathering to cook the pig for the 4th of July picnic. The big barrel with wood burning in it. They had angle iron running through it about a foot from the bottom to create a grate for the coals to fall through. They shoveled up these coals and sprinkled them carefully underneath the pig that lay on the pit.  My best memory of those nights and early morning gatherings was the inevitable stories. These men took turns telling stories, sharing boyhood memories. They told stories of growing up and antics they pulled off and some times didn't. I remember being shuffled off to bed as the evening grew long, and waking up the next morning trotting off to the kitchen to help Mama with the rest of the feast!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Whereas I live in the upstate now, I'm a California girl..born and this history was interesting to me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Valerie! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I love the history of it all.

  3. Hey! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!
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  4. Lovely post!! Thanks for letting me know about it, Lynn!

  5. You are welcome! Thanks for reading it!