Native American Impact

Southern Native American culture (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek) is the cornerstone of the American south’s cuisine. From their cultures came one of the main staples of the Southern diet: corn (maize) — either ground into meal, or, limed with an alkaline salt to make hominy (a.k.a., masa), in a Native American technology known as nixtamalization.  Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes, from the familiar cornbread and grits, to liquors such as whiskey and moonshine (which were important trade items).

Many fruits are available in this region. Muscadines, blackberries, raspberries, and many other wild berries were part of Southern Native Americans’ diets, as well.

To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the most important food dishes that the Native Americans of the southeastern U.S. live on today is the “soul food” eaten by both Black and White Southerners. Hominy, for example, is still eaten: Sofkee live on as grits; cornbread [is] used by Southern cooks; Indian fritters — variously known as “hoe cake” or “Johnny cake”; Indian boiled cornbread is present in Southern cuisine as “corn meal dumplings” and “hush puppies”; Southerners cook their beans and field peas by boiling them, as did the Native tribes; and, like the Native Americans, Southerners cured their meats and smoked it over hickory coals… – Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians

Native Americans of the U.S. south also supplemented their diets with meats derived from the hunting of native game. Venison was an important meat staple due to the abundance of white-tailed deer in the area. They also hunted rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons. Livestock, adopted from Europeans, in the form of hogs and cattle, were kept. When game or livestock was killed, the entire animal was used. Aside from the meat, it was not uncommon for them to eat organ meats such as liver, brains and intestines. This tradition remains today in hallmark dishes like chitterlings (commonly called chit’lins) which are fried small intestines of hogs, livermush (a common dish in the Carolinas made from hog liver), and pork brains and eggs. The fat of the animals, particularly hogs, was rendered and used for cooking and frying. Many of the early European settlers in the South learned Native American cooking methods, and so cultural diffusion was set in motion for the Southern dish.

Impoverished Whites and Blacks in the South prepared many of the same dishes stemming from the soul tradition, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. Certain techniques popular in soul and southern cuisines (e.g., frying meat, using all parts of the animal for consumption), are shared with ancient cultures all over the world, including Rome, Egypt, and China. Whichever way it was introduced to the American South, fried meat became a common staple.

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