The novel I’m currently working on (tentatively titled Lavinia) takes place in south Georgia. The story alternates chapter by chapter (so far) between the 19th century and the 21st century. Writing about the modern day period has certainly been easier than writing about the historic period. I’ve had to do a lot of research for the 19th century on many topics, one of which is the types of foods people in the South ate during the antebellum period. I love doing research and gathering information. That’s the fun part.
One of the things the South is known for is its food. While food doesn’t play a huge role in my story, I still wanted to know what my 19th century characters grew, what they ate, how they cooked it, and how they preserved it. I might not mention all of these things in the novel, but I felt like I should have some sort of background knowledge.
I learned that pork was a staple during the antebellum period, particularly smoked pork and salt pork. Another way to preserve pork was pickling or sugar curing. Southerners also relied on chickens and eggs for food. Folks in the rural South supplemented their diet by fishing as well as hunting game such as rabbits, deer, squirrels, geese, wild turkeys, and pheasants. Because of the heat and humidity in the South, dairy products were rare.
Southerners grew a variety of vegetables in their kitchen gardens, including squash, potatoes, beans, cabbage, and carrots. Fruits were apples, pears, peaches, figs, quince, and plums, among others. Some of the herbs grown included basil, rosemary, sage, fennel, chives, and thyme. Sounds like what we grow in the 21st century, doesn’t it?
In the contents list of Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (published in 1824) are dishes made with pork, beef, fish, poultry, mutton, veal, asparagus, peas, onions, mushrooms, celery, artichokes, tomatoes, broccoli, turnips, and okra, just to name a few. One particular note of interest is the influence enslaved Africans and African Americans had on Southern food and cooking that carries through to today, like pork barbeque (cooked over long periods of time); flavoring meat with a red pepper and vinegar sauce; many ways to use corn (like making corn meal for cornbread, hoe cakes, and spoon bread); leafy greens such as kale, collards, and turnips; sweet potatoes; and okra.
All this talk about Southern food is making my mouth water!
James R. Cothron, Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South. 2003, University of South Carolina Press.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook. Stereotype edition, with amendments and additions (Baltimore: Plaskett & Cugle, 1838). Originally published 1824. Online source: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4378.
Christina Regelski, The Soul of Food: Slavery’s Influence on Southern Cuisine. U.S. History Scene, 2016. Online source: http://ushistoryscene.com/article/slavery-southern-cuisine/.
James M. Volo and Dorothy Denneen Volo, The Antebellum Period. Greenwood Press, Westport CT, 2004.