The Southern Table: A Look at the History and Significance of Southern Food

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Every year at Tucson Meet Yourself, people clamor for the sweet potato pies. They’ll be at the Festival again this year thanks to the hard work of the ladies of the Gethsemane Church of God in Christ. Mama Carey will also be there with Soul Food–fried catfish, fried chicken, and macaroni salad. And there will be plenty of BBQ, too.

Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet potato pie; photo by Ernesto Andrade.

The deliciousness of Southern food. But there’s more to it than just what pleases the palate. To understand more about the history and symbolism of Southern food, we spoke to Jerome Dotson, a professor in the Africana Studies Program at the University of Arizona.

Dotson’s current project is a book, Consuming Bodies, Producing Race: Race, Eating and Body Politics, 1830-1990, about the cultural, social, and political significance of food consumption among African Americans, and the ways African Americans have used dietary concerns to craft political identities.

Jerome Dotson
Jerome Dotson, professor in the Africana Studies Program at the University of Arizona

“Legally, slavery ended in 1865,” Dotson says. “But we continue to wrestle with its legacies. And this is evident in the ‘body politics,’ the way the body configures in history.”

Dotson’s research on Southern foodways looks at the symbolic meanings people attach to food and ways of consumption. He shared some key terms, symbols, and stories about Southern food and foodways:

The Southern Table is a concept that includes everything from the food that appears there, the ritual surrounding the preparation and eating of that food, and the production of that food.

Food of the Southern Table depends on who was eating it, as well as when and where. “In the antebellum South, that table for a slave would be more meager than for a slave holder because eating practices reflected differences in race and class status. Even for a share cropper, in the postbellum South, that table might look meager due to sharecroppers limited economic means,” Dotson says.

Today Southern food varies from state to state and community to community, but several items might be considered staples, particularly during holidays or special occasions. “You’ll see sweet tea, maybe fried chicken, some kind of smothered meat (steak or pork chops), mac and cheese, a whole litany of vegetables, collards, and black eyed peas. For dessert, you’ll have cobbler, and probably pie, pecan or sweet potato pie, and cakes,” Dotson says.

Sweetness was one of the few outlets of pleasure for enslaved people. In his research, Dotson discovered planters’ ledgers from Alabama that included molasses in addition to rations of pork and corn for workers. “That sweetness, I imagine, became a release and an outlet for enslaved workers, since their lives were so rigorous and heavily managed,” he says.

Ritual of the Southern Table includes everything from how tables are set to who gets to eat first. Dotson remembers stories his grandmother would tell him about growing up in rural eastern Georgia. When the preacher came to dinner, she’d have to wait for him to eat first. It was custom for persons “of note” to be served before others, especially children. Also, limited space often required people to eat in shifts. “My grandmother would still complain about it, telling me how the preacher would tell all these stories. ‘He was so boring!’ she’d say. But that was the hierarchy,” Dotson says.

Planting sweet potatoes
James Hopkinson’s Plantation. Planting sweet potatoes. African American men and women hoe and plow the earth while others cut piles of sweet potatoes for planting. One man sits in a horse-drawn cart. circa 1862/63. Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society, [Digital ID, e.g., nhnycw/ad ad04004] New York Historical Society. Photo: Henry P. Moore.
Food production is often the hidden part of the story, Dotson says. “You sit down at that table but you don’t always think about the industrial work of production. How those crops were grown and by whom.” Thinking about that small but critical piece can reorient the way we interact with each other and appreciate the Southern table, he says.

Clay: In Dotson’s studies of the symbolic meanings people attach to food and ways of consumption, one research thread led him to a practice known as geophagy, or clay eating. The practice was documented as early as the 1500s by explorers in West Africa, and later appears in the 1700s in the Caribbean, and the 1800s in the American South.

Limited information exists about why, exactly, enslaved people ate clay, but clues come from anthropologists who’ve studied the phenomenon in the 20th century. The main theories suggest that people eat clay because 1) clay tastes good and 2) it has medicinal properties.

Clay eaters became a source of frustration for planters, who realized they could not master their slaves’ bodies, Dotson said. They feared the practice and treated it as a disease, which brought severe consequences for slaves. “Because they thought it could become an epidemic, you began to seeing masks on slaves’ mouths to prevent them from eating dirt,” he said.

Pork: One of the items of food found on planters’ ledgers of rations for slaves was pork. Planters believed pork would improve their performance in the fields, says Dotson, whose current research looks at the symbolic meanings of pork consumption among African American communities.

The 20th century, however, brought a push-back against that belief. This resistance is revealed, in part, by black rap and hip-hop artists. Two examples are Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” which begins: “Mama fixed a breakfast with no hog” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Ham and Eggs,” which addresses concerns about pork consumption to promote better health.

Watermelon emerged in minstrel imagery as a symbol of both African American greed and naiveté within a racist culture, Dotson says, but it carries a deeper significance. Enslaved people likely carried watermelon seeds across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa. After emancipation, free black people grew and sold the melon, after emancipation, so it came to be a symbol of freedom, Dotson says.

Fried Catfish: “Catfish hasn’t always been the vogue fish that it’s become in recent years,” Dotson says. In the Mississippi Delta and other parts of Louisiana, for example, enslaved people fished for catfish to augment their rations and feed their families, particularly if the pork they were given was spoiled. Also, only those who worked got food. “It’s one of the tragic ironies: If you wanted to keep your children out of the fields, you didn’t get rations for them,” Dotson says, which is why some turned to fishing.

In the 20th century, catfish gained more attention as part of the Soul Food Movement as a way to reclaim or celebrate a food from the past.

Soul Food
Soul Food at Powell’s Place; photo by Jennifer Woodard Madera.

Soul Food: If food has been used as a way to resist dominance, it has also been a form of liberation. The Soul Food Movement in the 1960s was a way of re-embracing food traditions in the African American community. “It was a way to recuperate foods like collard greens and salt pork, which were once eaten out of necessity and scarcity, but which also reflect a longer history of African agriculture,” Dotson says.









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