The southern parts of the USA are a melting pot of scattered food influences. From Native American beginnings (using native ingredients such as tomatoes, corn and squash) there followed immigration and culinary influences from the UK, Ireland, France and Africa, Spain, as well as from the neighbouring Caribbean and Mexico. The passion for fried foods in the southern USA may stem from UK influences, and the penchant for beans, okra and most of the spices used (such as cayenne pepper) likely stems from Africa and the slave trade. African American culture is also interlinked with soul food, which is a general term to describe many delicious dishes of Southern USA comfort food. Honourable mentions of food that I haven’t included in the four meals of this week are catfish, and red-eye gravy, which I saw on a tv show a while ago and was fascinated by, but didn’t fit with any of my dishes. It’s a thin sauce served with country ham that’s made with meat drippings mixed with black coffee and flour, so named because you need to eat it when you wake up with red eyes. It sounds horrific, but I am also desperate to try it someday…
Deep-pit barbecuing, where meat and vegetables are buried with coals below the earth, originated with the Native Americans, and variations of this barbecue technique are popular throughout the southern USA. The classic dug-out “pit” barbecue is now often transformed into an above-ground enclosed space, where meat is cooked “low and slow” over hardwood, being infused with the taste of aromatic woodsmoke in the process. There are 14 core barbecue states, clustered in the southeast of the USA, from Texas to the Atlantic ocean, spanning up to Virginia, which collectively hold 70 of the 100 best barbecue joints in the country (contests that are taken extremely seriously by all involved). Each region favours slightly different techniques, dry rub constituents, and (sometimes optional) barbecue sauces; including mustard-based, vinegar-based, and light and heavy tomato-based with varying degrees of sweet and spicy flavours. A large variety of pork and beef cuts can be barbecued, including ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and sausages, as well as cuts of chicken and fish. For my barbecue (keeping in mind I only have a small coal grill and not an elaborate roasting pit so had to compromise to some extent), I pre-cooked my pork ribs, brisket (or “burnt ends”), pulled pork and chicken wings in a slow cooker or oven with varying combinations of dry rubs (e.g. with smoked paprika, cumin, mustard powder, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, sugar etc). Once they were decidedly tender, I charred them over a low heat on a small coal barbecue with different mopping sauces made from combinations of tomato puree, butter, apple cider vinegar, garlic and onion powder, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, cumin and sugar. Accompanying these meaty centrepieces, I served sausages and two corn-based staples in homage to the native vegetable and therefore influenced by the original Native American inhabitants: barbecued corn and skillet-cornbread comprising cornmeal, honey, baking soda, butter and buttermilk. I also made potato salad, baked beans, coleslaw (from the Dutch “koolsla” meaning cabbage salad), pickled red onions and pickled cucumbers. I also included collard greens, which are usually made with dark leafy varieties of the cabbage family (such as kale), sautéed with smoked meat (such as ham), onions, vinegar and seasoning. This side dish is eaten throughout the year, but especially on New Year’s Day alongside black-eyed peas and cornbread, supposedly to enhance your prospects for the year to come. Finally (because clearly there wasn’t enough food) I cooked mac and cheese, which has English origins but is now famously associated with the USA. It is traditionally a casserole of macaroni pasta mixed with a cheesy sauce. Macaroni, the story goes, completely enchanted USA president Thomas Jefferson during a visit to Europe, and he made detailed notes and drawings to commission a machine for its construction back home. This venture ultimately failed, and he ended up importing macaroni and Parmesan cheese, and arranging for the dish to be served at state dinners. I made my mac and cheese by slightly under-cooking the macaroni, then mixing it into a sauce of butter, milk and cream thickened with flour and breadcrumbs, and flavoured with cheddar and parmesan cheese and paprika. I piled it into a casserole dish, topped it with more cheese, then put it into the oven until it was brown and crispy on top. This meal certainly carries the special variety of “excessive” that is seemingly unique to the USA, but it’s famous for a reason: the combination is undeniably delicious!
Shrimp ‘n’ grits and devilled eggs
Grits are ground corn porridge, similar to polenta or mieliepap, that are generally served with savoury seasonings and sides. I’d never tried grits before, and, try as I might, I found them impossible to source in Brisbane. This was a big surprise for me, as I’ve always gotten along somehow with finding local ingredients. This was therefore the first time I ever ordered a grocery online. The grits only had to come from Sydney (which is a little better equipped than Brisbane), but took weeks, so the end of this cuisine was a bit stretched out. Most of what I’ve heard about grits has been very negative. My parents ordered grits in New York and found them very unpleasant; they are generally rumoured to be tasteless and with an unpleasant “gritty” texture. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I cooked them a little longer than the instructions suggested, with butter, water, cheese and salt and pepper, and actually found them delicious. My parents also tried mine and pronounced them infinitely superior to the grits they had been served in the USA. Perhaps I’m flouting tradition by cooking the grits until they’re smooth and creamy, and adding in all the fatty flavouring, but I think they tasted fantastic, so I have no regrets. For those who have never tried, they are a bit like very finely processed and thin mashed potato, but taste vaguely of corn. Shrimp and grits originated in South Carolina and Georgia as a breakfast food, but have since spread to other parts of the Southern USA and are eaten at any time of the day. Once you have the grits part cooked, the shrimp is quick and easy – just fry some raw prawns with bacon, parsley, scallions, paprika, garlic, lemon juice and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Recipes for halved and seasoned hard boiled can be traced back to ancient Rome, and are popular in many countries of the world. However, devilled eggs are particularly beloved in the USA, where the yolks of hardboiled eggs are mixed with mayonnaise and dijon mustard, then artistically piped back into their whites and finally garnished with a sprinkle of paprika. The “devilled” part of the name stems from the inclusion of spicy mustard or pepper, and has been applied to a heavily spiced version of many foods since the 1700s. This has sparked the a competing dish of “angelled” eggs, which are healthier versions include vegetables or use less full fat mayonnaise in their recipes, but give me the full sinful experience any day!
I was reticent at first to cook Tex-Mex as a representative USA dish, because it is only relatively recently that Mexican food was adopted by the Southern USA, and many elements are still so similar that it could be viewed as thievery more than an independent cuisine. However, clearly all culinary influences shared between countries and cultures have been through these periods of transition, from German meat sandwiches eventually transitioning to the iconic American burger, to the humble South American tomato gradually forming the basis of a large part of Italian cuisine. I have therefore comfortably settled into the view that Tex-Mex is just an earlier version of these sorts of influences, and, given time, will become a clear independent cuisine. The name “Tex-Mex” originated in the “Texas-to-Mexico” railroad that was colloquially abbreviated, latterly imparting its name to the Texan residents of Mexican heritage, and subsequently to the cuisine that those residents developed in their new home, integrating original Mexican themes with the techniques and ingredients of Southern USA. Tex-Mex already shows clear divergences from authentic Mexican cuisine, including key features that will help to alert you to a Tex-Mex/versus Mexican dish. For instance, if your meal involves shredded lettuce, grated cheddar cheese, deep fried burritos (chimichangas), fajitas, hard-shelled tacos or bacon bits, then it’s likely that you are consuming Tex-Mex and not true Mexican food. For my take on Tex-Mex, I cooked a few additional popular Tex-Mex dishes that don’t exist in the standard Mexican lexicon: chili con carne, chili con queso, and jalapeño poppers. Chili con carne means “chili peppers with meat” in Spanish, consisting of ground or shredded meat (usually beef) in a thick stew spiced with typical Mexican and other introduced ingredients (cumin, oregano, garlic, onion etc) as well as, of course, lots of chili peppers. The more controversial ingredients include tomatoes and beans, both of which some argue were not in the original, but which are now so common as to be considered authentic. The dish was developed by migrant Mexican workers in the 1800s, specifically “Tejanas”, meaning female Hispanic-descendant residents of Texas. These industrious women began selling their creations out of “chili joints”, and the concept quickly spread throughout Texas and into the states beyond, ultimately being decreed the official dish of Texas in the 1970s. The concept of “chili” took on further evolutions, being adopted by the Mediterranean immigrants of Ohio, who developed what is now known as “Cincinnati chile”, which is spiced with more Greek-influenced ingredients and typically served atop spaghetti. Chili con carne is now so widespread that it can be served with tortillas, tortilla chips, rice, hard shell tacos, in a casserole with a corn chip topping (frito pie), mixed through Mac ’n’ cheese (chili mac), in burgers and on top of fries (chili cheese fries) or hotdogs (chili dogs). Look at all of that fusion! The US is often called a melting-pot of cultural influences for a reason! Chili con queso is a separate dish that fell under a similar naming convention as chili con carne, consisting of a hot dip of melted cheese (commonly a mixture of velveeta or cream cheese) in a roux of of butter, flour and milk, spiced with chilis. Jalapeño poppers are made from the common Mexican jalapeño peppers, hollowed out and stuffed with a variety of fillings, typically with a basis of cream cheese. They are then crumbed and fried or baked, creating a spicy and crunchy exterior housing a delicious molten cheesy centre. Although a widely recognised Tex-Mex creation, they likely arose from novel interpretations of the traditional Mexican dish “chile relleno” (stuffed chile), with variations generating eccentric names including “armadillo eggs” (a bacon-wrapping earning the comparison with little armadillos), and “atomic buffalo turds”, the origin of which I don’t want to think too much about so soon after eating them… Tortilla chips are an old Mexican staple known as tostadas or totopos, produced by economical cooks looking to reinvent yesterday’s stale tortillas. However, they were first mass produced in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and have since become a literal and metaphorical foundation to many Tex-Mex dishes. Finally, I made guacamole, an avocado-based dip that predates written history in Mexico and remains a foundation of its cuisine, but which Tex-Mex has faithfully adopted and nurtured as if it were one of its own. The ancient classics are classics for a reason, after all.
Fried chicken ’n’ waffles, biscuits ’n’ gravy, bacon, eggs ’n’ home fries
With so many ’n’s we must be in the deep south! These foodstuffs are all examples of classic diner food, typically served at breakfast. Chicken ’n’ waffles is part of the “soul food” tradition of the south, with the waffle element coming from European colonists of the 17th century, further popularised by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who liked the waffle concept so much that he brought four waffle irons back from Amsterdam. The fried chicken, of KFC fame, is commonly prepared by first marinating chicken overnight in buttermilk and spices, then dredging it in an egg wash and flour flavoured with herbs and spices. I’m afraid that I cannot illuminate you as to the 11 secret herbs and spices that Colonel Sanders uses for his chicken, but I can tell you that I flavoured mine with smoked paprika, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and it tasted just as good as KFC and didn’t even give me food poisoning (sorry, KFC, I haven’t forgotten that single memorable incident…). Fried chicken in the USA has sometimes historically been associated with African Americans, perhaps because of a past of African slaves commonly owning their own chickens, or the use of African-influenced spices to flavour the batter. Given the slavery-related history of this stereotype, its association is particularly sensitive to the African American populace, so I will leave it to better informed writers to discuss the origins and ownership of this dish and instead simply tell you that it’s delicious and worth a try if you have the opportunity (especially when eaten with lashings of butter and maple syrup!). Indeed, the inclusion of waffles and maple syrup in this meal, usually considered dessert foods, almost earned its exclusion from my project by breaking the “no desserts” rule, but the great lump of salty fried meat perched atop was enough to rescue it. Biscuits ‘n’ gravy had always intrigued me, but I’d never tried them. This may be partly because of my confusion over the word “biscuits”, which I’d always known as “cookies” and “crackers”, but not “savoury scones”, which is what I now understand USA biscuits to be. They are made with plain flour, baking powder, butter and buttermilk, baked into soft organic shapes. The “gravy” aspect of this combination can be regular meat gravy or, more typically, a gravy made from loose pieces of breakfast sausage and milk, thickened with flour. I made the latter, and found it delicious, but a little rich, especially for breakfast, which is how the dish originated. Home fries are a common substitute for hash browns for breakfast, consisting of parboiled potatoes pan-fried with onions and spices, perhaps earning the descriptor “home” because they are quicker and easier for home cooks without access to an industrial deep fryer to prepare than French fries. Now America, I’ve struggled on and off with weight, so believe me when I say this with love: if you, as a nation, are wondering why you are among the most obese in the world, this meal is a clear figurehead of the cause. Not a coloured vegetable in sight, just iterations of meat, simple carbohydrates and dairy, drenched in fats and sugar. I think my partner put it best when I laid this meal in front of him, responding “but honey! This is cheating!”. He wasn’t referring to cheating on a diet or not making food from scratch, but rather intimating that, of course, this meal would be delicious, but how can such a decadent and exaggerated mixture of fats, carbs and sugars be anything else? I have to say, I quite agree: it takes skill, insight and nuance to make a mound of green vegetables and beans taste extraordinary, but even the most amateur of chefs can luck their way into making bacon, fried chicken, eggs and sweet pastry delicious. After all is said and done, I do have an admiration for the unabashed ode to gluttony and raw, basal deliciousness that this meal represents, and I respect its place in Southern USA’s culinary history. However, hopefully only as a “sometimes” food?