Traditional Southern Cooking

The South, the area south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east Texas, has always had a unique cooking style that reflects the history and past economic standing of the region. Although the traditional south has been romanticized in movies as a place of large plantations and incredibly rich plantation owners, this was not always necessarily the case. The South has a rich history consisting of influences from many different cultures and countries. During the beginnings of the South in America, people cooked with whatever was available, which has led to a cuisine that has become famous for its rich flavor and unique ingredients.

Types of Southern Cooking

Some of the most well-known types of Southern cooking are soul food, Cajun, Creole, Lowcountry, and Floribbean cooking. These cooking styles get their roots from African, Native American, British, Irish, French, and Spanish influences. All of these types of foods have certain traits that are specific to that cooking style and can be recognized nearly anywhere in the United States.

Soul Food

“Soul food” became increasingly popular in the U.S. in the 1960’s, although its origins can be traced as far back as Africa. When slave trade began, many of the indigenous African crops began to show up in the Americas, which introduced many of the ingredients in “soul food” to the region. Soul food cooking got its start when slaves would use the leftovers from the plantation houses to create unique meals. The tops of turnips, beets, and dandelions were used, while people also cooked with collards, kale, cress, mustard, and pokeweed. Discarded meat, such as pigs feet, beef tongue and tail, ham hocks, chitterlings, pig ears, hog jowls, tripe and skin were used as main dishes while onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves enhanced the flavor. Wild game, such as raccoons, opossums, turtles, and rabbits were also caught and used in cooking. More recently, traditional soul foods such as country fried steak, fried chicken, fried fish, and ribs are used as main dishes. Biscuits & gravy, beans & cornbread, & grits are common side items of this food genre.


Cajun cuisine is sometimes called a rustic cuisine because it uses locally available ingredients and simple preparations to create full meals. Cajun type meals typically consist of 3 pots, a main dish, a grain dish, and a readily available vegetable. The “holy trinity” ingredients, celery, bell peppers, and onions, are used extensively. This style of cooking originated out of necessity when the Acadian refugees were forced to live off the land after the British expulsion left them destitute. The Acadian refugees mixed this with traditional Louisiana cuisine, such as rice, crawfish, and sugar cane, to create a variety of foods with a definitive kick of spiciness.There are certain cooking methods that are frequently used in Cajun cooking, such as BBQ, smoking, stewing (otherwise known as Fricassee), deep frying, and grilling. There are many types of Cajun foods available, while some are becoming wildly popular all over the United States. Jambalaya, gumbo, boudin, crawfish, potato salad, fried frog legs, Tabasco sauce, and Cajun rice are popular types of Cajun foods, regardless of geographical location.


Creole style cooking originates in Louisiana, near the greater New Orleans area. This unique cuisine blends influences from the French, Mediterranean, Caribbean, African, and American cultures. Creole cooking uses the “holy trinity” ingredients extensively, and tends to use classical European style influences. During the 1980’s, a new strain of Creole began to emerge that is characterized by a renewed emphasis on fresh ingredients and lighter preparations. Creole cooking is a dominate cuisine in the south, particularly in the Louisiana/New Orleans area. Common and well-known types of Creole foods are crabmeat, oysters, gumbo, dirty rice, red beans, french toast, pralines, and pecan pies.


Lowcountry cuisine is the cooking that is traditionally associated with Georgia and South Carolina. This cuisine uses a diversity of seafood from the coastal estuaries, and strongly resembles the cooking of Creole and Cajun styles. Grains, such as rice, are prevalent in this type of cooking, since grain is so readily available in this area. Common types of Lowcountry cuisine include sweet potato & crab soup, okra soup, catfish stew, shrimp & grits, oyster roast, macaroni & cheese, and fried cabbage.


Floribbean cooking can be found all over Florida, from homes to restaurants. This unique style of cooking is heavily influenced by visitors and immigrants, especially those from the Caribbean. Floribbean cooking has an emphasis on extremely fresh ingredients, spices, seafood & poultry, and the use of fresh fruits and juices. These dishes use less heat than the dishes that inspire them and use gentle flavorings such as mango, papaya, rum, almond, coconut, key lime, and honey.

Southern Cookware

Many southern foods are cooked in cast iron cookware. Cast iron cookware is such a popular choice and used so often because of its numerous positive cooking qualities. This type of cookware is an ideal heat conductor and will cook and heat food evenly throughout. Iron cookware allows food to slide out easily, even more so than Teflon products. Ideally, wooden or silicone utensils should be used in cast iron cookware to avoid scratches or nicks in the surface of the product. Although cast iron can be used to cook most any type of foods, certain foods, such as very acidic foods, should not be cooked in these units because they can break down the seasoning of the cast iron as well as causing other foods to have a metallic taste.

Health Concerns / Benefits of Southern Cooking

When cooking southern style food, there are certain types of cooking which are more frequently used than others. Deep frying, for example, is a staple in southern cooking. For years, foods have been deep fried in lard and seasoned with pork. When foods are repeatedly cooked and consumed with this method, certain health risks may occur. Without significant exercise or activity, fried foods can eventually lead to obesity, hypertensions, cardiac/circulatory problems, and/or type 2 diabetes.In an attempt to make southern food healthier, there are alternatives to the deep frying method. You may choose to smoke, steam, or boil foods instead. Also, there are alternatives that can allow you to continue deep-frying, yet minimize the amount of unwanted health benefits. Liquid vegetable oil or canola oils can be used in cooking, while smoked turkey can be used for seasoning instead of pork. Changes in farming techniques are also contributing to the healthy aspect of southern cooking, such as hog farming, which has begun to use methods that allow for leaner pork.In contrast to the negative aspects of southern cooking, there are certain health benefits which can be received from the foods used in these traditional types of cooking. Collard greens are used frequently, and are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, B, and C, as well as manganese, iron, calcium, folic acid, fiber and omega 3 fatty acids. These beneficial greens also contain a number of phytonutrients, which can play a role in the prevention of ovarian and breast cancer. Peas, rice, and legumes are great sources of protein as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Sweet potatoes are tasty sources of beta carotene and other minerals as well. Sweet potatoes have even been tested and proven to stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.Southern cooking tends to bring thoughts of sitting around the table with family, enjoying stories of the day and each other’s company. For many years, southern cooking has been referred to as comfort food, which creates a sense of warmth and togetherness to go along with the food. Southern food can bring you back to a simpler, more easy going way of life that is slowly slipping away in today’s fast paced society, if only for a short time.

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

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