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 began immigration and culinary influences from the UK, Ireland, France and Africa. There are also influences from Spain, as well as 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) probably originates from Africa and the slave trade. African American culture is also interlinked with soul food, which is a general term to describe a lot of Southern USA comfort food. Honourable mentions of food that I haven’t included in the four meals of this week are catfish, which I couldn’t source in Brisbane, and okra, which, honestly, I avoided because I’ve always disliked it. It’s so slimy! There’s also 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… A whole separate food culture of the USA that I probably won’t cover here, but which is very popular in many regions is “Tex-Mex”. I think the addition of Mexican fusion to the melting pot has been so recent that it is still quite similar in name and form to classic Mexican foods (although horribly bastardised, depending on who you ask). Nevertheless, I will cover Mexico itself at some point, and Tex-Mex can evolve for another couple of decades to distinguish itself sufficiently for my liking.
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. Texas, Tennessee, North and South Carolina and Kansas are especially famous for their barbecue. There are four recognised barbecue sauces, each favoured by different regions; mustard based, vinegar-based, and light and heavy tomato based with varying degrees of sweet and spicy. The meat is often coated in a dry rub with spices and seasonings, and can either be periodically basted with a sauce during cooking, or can be cooked without sauce and served with sauce on the side. A large variety of pork and beef cuts are barbecued, including ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork and sausages, as well as cuts of chicken. For my barbecue (keeping in mind I don’t have a garden pit), I coated my raw pork ribs in a dry rub of chilli powder, ground mustard, cumin paprika, salt and sugar, then pre-cooked them low and slow covered in the oven until they were very tender. I next put them on my gas barbecue, basting with a barbecue sauce made from tomato puree, butter, apple cider vinegar, garlic and onion powder, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, cumin and sugar. This method of cooking makes sure the ribs are juicy and tender, but also have that smoky caramelised taste. I also made barbecued chicken wings, which I marinated in a similar barbecue sauce, except I made it a little spicier and less sweet. I also barbecued corn and made cornbread in the oven using cornmeal, baking soda, butter and buttermilk. I made three traditional side dishes: potato salad, baked beans and coleslaw, as well as both ranch and barbecue sauce on the side. I cooked this feast for my ongoing birthday celebrations, partly to treat my friends, but also because I really love barbecue, and especially ribs. I don’t like to brag (here we go…), but I’ve tried a lot of pork ribs, and mine were truly excellent. I think most restaurants cut corners and don’t cook low and slow enough, resulting in gelatinous textures and also bland-tasting meat coated in a too-sweet sauce. I recommend making them yourself; it’s not too difficult and very rewarding.
Fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, and collard greens
Fried chicken is one of the most famous exports from the southern USA. It is thought to have Scottish origins, and consists of chicken pieces (such as legs, wings or thighs) battered and then fried or deep-fried. A typical batter is made with buttermilk, baking powder and flour, flavoured with mustard, cayenne pepper and garlic and onion powder. The end result is a lovely crunchy exterior, leaving the chicken succulent on the inside. KFC has internationally popularised fried chicken, but I always find it a bit greasy and not sufficiently crunchy for my taste. The next player in this comfort-food plate is 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. Biscuits and 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. Collard greens 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.
Shrimp and grits
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 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, garlic, lemon juice and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
Jambalaya originated in the French quarter of New Orleans, and from the Provençal word “jambalaia” which means “a mix”. However, there is an alternative old wives’ tale that the name originated from a cook named “Jean” in New Orleans being instructed to sweep something together, which translates to “Jean, balayez!” in French dialect, which was then shortened to Jambalaya. Perhaps the true origin has been lost to time? This dish also has similarities to Spanish paella, which has led to suspicions that Spain may also be an influence. However, folks from the southern USA are a little more relaxed about the ingredients of their dish than the Spanish, including different kinds of meat, vegetables and local seafood (such as crawfish, shrimp or alligator). The traditional base vegetable mixture in Creole and Cajun cooking is finely-chopped onion, celery and green capsicum, often termed “the holy trinity”. In my Jambalaya I also added garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika and bay leaves, as well as chicken, spicy sausage and prawns, all cooked together with rice and crushed tomatoes and garnished with plenty of parsley. It was like a wet and spicy paella, which I found very delicious, as the kick of cayenne pepper combated the common problem of blandness when flavours merge together and are diluted with lots of rice. Indeed, jambalaya is cooked with very infrequent stirring to try to prevent the merging of flavours, although this dramatically increases the risk of burnt pot bottoms…