Before I discuss the culinary selection of the southern United States, I’d like to point out that all of the states below the Mason-Dixon Line is considered the “South.” The line stretches all the way up to Maryland, and as far West as Texas (even though Texas is not directly under the line). This expansive area has been influenced by various cultures, from baking with European ingredients to adopting Native American cooking styles. This conglomerate cuisine is so differently influenced that there are three major sub-divisions within the category of “Southern Food”: Floribbean, Tex-Mex and Cajun/Creole.
“Floribbean” is a portmanteau of Florida and Caribbean. Its influences are self-evident, however I’ll add that there are traces of Latin America in this particular palate, from countries like Argentina and Brazil. Influential Caribbean countries include Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and the Bahamas, which are heavily populated by African and Indian descendants. In order to make the distinction between origins, “Floribbean” is broken down into Latino-Floribbean, Afro-Floribbean and Indo-Floribbean (I promise this is the last of the sub-categories.). Floribbean cooking promotes the use of fresh citrus and tropical fruit juices; there is also the abundant use of bold and subtle spices. Poultry and fish are the typical meats in this palate; they are heavily-spiced with pepper and cooked on low heat. Pechuga de pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken breast seasoned with citrus juice) is an exemplary Floribbean dish because it combines Latin, Caribbean and Floridian methods of barbecuing, known as tropical barbacoa.The chicken breast is split down the middle, allowing it to cook quickly and retain its moisture (nobody likes dry-as-bones chicken). The chicken is then doused with lime on both sides, adding that sweet taste (I would suggest trying other citrus juices like oranges or grapefruits if you’re feeling adventurous.). It’s cooked in a pan coated with olive oil until it develops a golden-brown hue. A suitable side dish is white rice and black beans.
Tex-Mex is another portmanteau, combining the words Texas and Mexican. Again, the name is self-explanatory, but let me be annoying and explain it anyway. Texas is on the border of Mexico, therefore there is an influx of the Mexican culture into the state. Tex-Mex is Southern cooking with the inclusion of commonly-used Mexican ingredients as well as ingredients foreign to Mexico such as cumin, an Indian spice. Majorly-used ingredients include shredded cheese, beef, pork, beans and tortillas (the inclusion of yellow cheese came much later.). The chimichanga is a Tex-Mex creation. A flour tortilla is stuffed with rice, cheese, carne adobada (pork in a chili sauce) or shredded chicken. The stuffed tortilla is then folded rectangularly, and submerged in a deep fryer. Side dishes for a chimichanga include salsa, guacamole, sour cream and cheese.
Cajun and Creole food are so similar to the extent that the terms are used interchangeably, which is not really accurate. Both styles have originated in Louisiana, and feature French influences, however Creole cuisine emulates the classical European style of cooking, having developed in the kitchens of the aristocracy. This is different to Cajun cooking, which is rural-based and spicier because it was peasant-produced. Both cooking styles are generally French-derived, but Creole food has Portuguese and various other European influences, which have affected its spiciness. Both cooking traditions tend to feature the “holy trinity”, which is a mix of onions, peppers and celery. Gumbo is a dish that can have either a Cajun or Creole identity. Creole gumbo tends to include shellfish like shrimp, crab or oysters; Cajun gumbo can have either shellfish or meat, such as chicken, duck, squirrel or rabbit. Gumbo is made with either shellfish or meat (tradition dictates that the two are never combined in the same pot of gumbo). The meat is browned beforehand and added last. For seafood gumbo, the shellfish is also added last. Gumbo is seasoned with the holy trinity, bay leaves, thyme and hot sauce. Okra is a common gumbo ingredient. It is cooked beforehand, and then added to the gumbo pot. Towards the end of the cooking process, parsley and onions are spread on top along with file powder. The gumbo is then served over rice.
Judging from the diversity of these dishes, it is a little bit unfair (but easy) to group all of these cooking styles into the category of “Southern Food.” There is more of an international influence in this area’s evolution of edibles (kinda reminds me of my earlier article on Peruvian cuisine).