The Cuisine of the Southern United States: Origins and History (Part II)



European Influence

European influences are profusely evident across the United States, impacting aspects like architecture, religion, language, politics, and of course, cuisine. France, Great Britain, and Spain spent about 200 years jostling for control over lands, often clashing with each other and indigenous peoples.

In 1776, the United States entered the fray, emerging as another formidable contender. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the U.S. acquired its vast territorial expanse we know today, with Alaska and Hawaii joining the union in 1959.

The Spanish Colonizers

Spaniards were the earliest European colonizers in the United States (disregarding the Vikings, who didn't establish permanent settlements). During the colonial period (1492-1832), nearly two million Spaniards settled in the U.S. Following this era (1850-1950), another 3.5 million immigrated, laying roots across the New World.

At its zenith in the late 18th century, Spain's empire stretched from the southernmost parts of Chile and Argentina, along the west coast of South America, encompassing much of Central America, about 70% of North America's landmass, and a narrow strip of western Canada. This explains why the mother tongues in South and Central America are primarily Spanish variants.
St. Augustine, on Florida's west coast, holds the title of the oldest city in the continental U.S., founded by early Spanish settlers. Many earlier colonies were established south of the current U.S. border in present-day Mexico, the Canary Islands, Peru, and other warm locales of South and Central America.

From there, many ventured north in search of thriving civilizations, fertile lands, and freedom from religious persecution.
Spanish culture remains ingrained in Southern cuisine. Just look at the similarities between paella and jambalaya. Interestingly, it's how American culture influenced Spanish cuisine that intrigues me more. Items like tomatoes, certain peppers, potatoes, corn, and cocoa (ingredients virtually unknown in Spain until the Columbian exchange) have been thoroughly integrated into Spanish culture and are now staples of their cuisine.

Mexican Influence

While Mexican influence predominantly shaped the cuisine of the southwestern states (Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico), Texas is decidedly a deep Southern state and a significant one. Tex-Mex is a wildly popular culinary genre in the South, melding elements like chili and hot dogs, an American breakfast taco twist, and of course, the delectable margarita.






Native American Influence

Though it might not be immediately apparent, Native American culture has exerted one of the most profound influences on American life, continuing to this day. When Europeans sought to settle new lands, their livestock perished from diseases, and their wheat crops failed due to illnesses or unsuitable climate. Thus, settlements couldn't rely on grazing and hunting; agriculture was the only viable option.

Many Native Americans and Europeans initially coexisted peacefully. Some tribes were more prone to violence, like the Comanche, Apache, Sioux, and Cheyenne, but largely, the early days were harmonious. So much so that the natives taught the Europeans how to cultivate corn (which they had been growing, eating, and selectively breeding for thousands of years). If you know anything about U.S. history, you’ll realize that the entire country was essentially built on corn, which remains one of the most valuable commodities in the United States to this day.

Corn is what helped transform the country into the economic powerhouse it is today, in less than three hundred years. Forget food for a moment; corn finds its way into chewing gum, cosmetics, soap, diapers, shoes, rubber, fireworks, textiles, to name just a few. Perhaps the most significant contribution of corn in the South is bourbon, America's native spirit.

The French

While the Spanish arrived in the New World via the bay of Pensacola, the first of three voyages made by Jacques Cartier, tasked with exploring the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River, led to the founding of the first settlement. After numerous failed attempts, it was called in 1634 La Baye des Puants (today's Green Bay in Wisconsin).
In 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne founded a small settlement named La Nouvelle Orléans or, as you might guess, New Orleans, which today stands as one of the most popular culinary hubs in the continental United States.
The French brought some of the world's most refined and elegant cooking methods. They use techniques like braising, sautéing, shallow frying, and confit. French influence is mirrored throughout Southern cuisine through the extensive use of things like roux, mirepoix, and butter, as well as in some of the more sophisticated dishes in Cajun and Creole cooking, compared to the more rustic culinary scene of soul food or barbecue.

The Acadians

The Acadians were a colony of New France in northeastern America, including parts of what are now the Maritime provinces, the Gaspé Peninsula, and Maine up to the Kennebec River. By the mid-18th century, when Nova Scotia was overrun by the British, thousands of Acadians were forced to flee south, and many ended up in such Southern states as Louisiana, where their culture is most evident. There they formed an ethnic group known as Louisiana Creoles: descendants mainly of Africans, French, Spanish, and Native Americans.
Not surprisingly, Acadian cuisine was centered primarily around seafood, like cod and Atlantic herring. Lobster, crab, salmon, mussels, trout, clams, sole, flounder, and scallops are also very popular dishes, mostly consumed fresh, though some are boiled, pickled, or salted.


It's well worth a trip to the Southern United States just to taste the local specialties, from the famous fried chicken to less known but equally tempting dishes.

Happy travels through the cuisine and history of the Southern United States!













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