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Sent Home, We’re Still Studying the South: Researching Southern Foodways

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | April 8, 2020 | No Comment |

In the surreal season of COVID-19, students are continuing to study the South from their computer screens and kitchens. When C of C sent everyone home in March, Honors Southern Studies students completed a short paper on Southern foodways. Instead of eating at a restaurant, most of them ate a take-out meal from a restaurant they considered Southern, or cooked their own Southern meal, using recipes from Charleston Receipts, a regional/local cookbook, or another demonstrably “Southern” source. It was up to them to demonstrate the “Southernness” of their meal, using articles we’d already studied in Southern Cultures.[1]

One student, Megan, actually made it into a Cracker Barrel before they closed, while another, Kathleen, described picking up her take-out from The Collonade in Atlanta “just before they closed their doors for the next few weeks. After walking into the restaurant, driving home, and setting up my meal, I felt like the smell of the fried chicken, mac and cheese, and green beans stuck to my clothes.” Kathleen and Megan both noticed Native American food traditions reflected in menus for their restaurants.

Megan and Kathleen, March 2019

Eating take-out BBQ in Charlotte gave another student a chance to reflect on Southern food in a region and country he’s only lived in for a few years. Alex wrote, “A characteristic about southern food that I have come to understand in my short time here, is the idea of family/ community and the concept of big group dinners. This was very apparent while I was looking through Bobbee O’s BBQ menu and realized that the options included large portions, mostly for sharing.” To fully experience this tradition, Alex had a meal with four meats (pulled pork, ribs, fried chicken, beef brisket), and four sides (fried pickles, macaroni and cheese, hushpuppies, and a cornbread muffin).

Alex contemplates his BBQ

Some of the chicken sandwich

Another student ordered a fried chicken sandwich from Boxcar Betty’s. Jacob made a case for this dish being traditionally Southern by describing in mouthwatering detail the “classic Southern flavors going on—some signature Southern heat in the mayo and pimento cheese, tempered by the sweetness of the peach slaw–amplified by the variety of textures: crispy chicken breading, creamy pimento cheese, crispy coleslaw. The sandwich is a good example of the holistic palette of Southern cuisine. While the South is often known for . . .  spiciness, sweetness, and unashamed butter usage. .  .a meal often contains a multitude of these different flavors at once.” This was “a new spin on Southern food” that “still retains the familiarity of quintessential Southern cuisine.”


Students like Margaret who cooked their meal drew upon family memories; she even had some help in the kitchen from both her parents. Her dad’s participation helped her explain a concept from one of our assigned readings: “The article defines locavorism as the belief that food from local producers is better than food from large corporations, and . . . what makes foods taste the way they do is the stories behind them.  When I was grocery shopping with my dad . . . he was visibly upset that we had to buy collard greens and black eyed peas from Harris Teeter instead of any of the nearby farmers markets, all of which were closed due to COVID-19.  Fortunately, we were able to find the grits we normally use . . . . which are produced at a family-owned mill in Edisto Island, and, as my dad says ‘are the only kind of grits worth cooking’ . . .The pot I used for the collard greens belonged to my great-grandmother, and the recipe I followed for the pecan pie was shared with my mother–along with dozens of other family recipes–by her mother on the day she graduated from college.”

Margaret stirs grits and shares a recipe from her mother’s collection.

Holden wrote that cooking his meal took him back to his childhood.  “I still have memories of sitting on the spiral staircase in my great-grandparents’ house, listening to my great-grandmothers in the kitchen cooking. Eventually I would hear my great-grandfather call ‘Rooster (that was my nickname), go help Mona and Mawmaw in the kitchen. Go on now, boy.’ I would run to the kitchen and was given the job of stirring the peas or the potatoes. The smells of the meal and the hustle and bustle from one thing to another in the kitchen brought back vivid memories, and I found myself smiling often.” Holden noted the dishes he prepared tasted “pretty good” but “nothing compared to how my great-grandmothers used to make it.”

Holden prepares cornbread.

Catherine explained that she chose to make peach cobbler because of “living in a suburb of Atlanta called Peachtree City and listening to my dad’s stories of highschool summers spent working in Edgefield’s peach packing sheds.” She often ate the dessert “at my Grandma’s house after long days spent playing with my cousins in the yard” and now was cooking it for herself. “I was nervous putting it in the oven because the recipe seemed to be calling for wildly too much butter, but it certainly turned out delicious because of it.” Catherine also made a batch of biscuits, “because my Great Grandmama Sanders’ biscuit recipe, taught to me by my Grandma, is extremely special to my family. . . .  I have never been to a Sunday dinner, Thanksgiving, lunch or breakfast at my grandma’s house that we didn’t have a side of biscuits.”

Catherine’s grandmother’s biscuits

Catherine’s meal

These Honors students really came through with their cooking and eating and writing skills, and they compelled me to get some takeout fried okra from Gillie’s Seafood on James’ Island. (Can’t recommend that highly enough.)

Please wash your hands now, then put a pot of beans and rice on the back burner. Maybe add a can of Ro-Tel or a chopped onion, and throw in something greasy–chef’s choice. Sure, those dried beans are going to take hours to cook, but right now, we’ve got that kind of time.


[1] If you’re interested, you can go online to read foodways articles on the Southern Cultures website. They’re all great reads, but I especially enjoyed Bruce Baker’s article on blackberries; Bruce used to work as our office admin in the English Department before he went off and became a famous historian, and I used to pick blackberries as a child the same way he did, and this is just a cool article, showcasing our region’s complex social history. My students were especially interested in Mother Corn and the Dixie Pig by Rayna Green and Theodore Peed’s Turtle Party by Bernard Herman.


under: C of C Program in Southern Studies, Courses, Foodways, Students

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