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04/16/2013 05:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2013

Mark Twain's Taste Buds: The Roots of Southern Food and Delicacies

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Mark Twain was as insightful an observer of American culture as ever lived. He wrote about Southern cooking with a partisan's love. Still, he never recognized the African origins of his favorite Southern dishes -- few, if any, Americans of his era ever did.

In 1879, when Twain wrote a hundred-item fantasy menu of beloved American foods, he included dishes from Illinois, New York, Connecticut, and California, as well as "oysters, roasted in the shell, Northern style." He returned most often, though, to Southern-style cooking, applying the label to everything from "early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes," to bacon with greens to hot egg-bread, hoe-bread, and light-bread.

In his autobiography, he would later recall the "splendor" of the way such things were cooked on his Uncle John Quarles's Missouri prairie farm, especially corn bread, hot biscuits, wheat bread, and fried chicken. "Perhaps no bread in the world is so good as Southern corn bread," he declared, "and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it." What's more, Twain continued, the "art" of frying chicken "cannot be learned north of the line of Mason and Dixon, nor anywhere in Europe."

Nevertheless, there's no question that those enslaved women were the ones who gave the meals their glory. -- Andrews Beahrs

But Twain didn't reflect at any length on who, exactly, deserved the credit for the splendid food south of the Mason-Dixon line. He did describe the main house at the Quarles' place, and the "big, broad, open, but roofed passage" that connected it to a separate log kitchen -- an arrangement typical of slaveholding plantations of the era, but didn't name the women who cooked in that kitchen, preparing the hot wheat-bread, biscuits, and fried chicken he remembered so many years later. Nevertheless, there's no question that those enslaved women were the ones who gave the meals their glory.

Though the cooks were by then several generations removed from Africa, much of the food they cooked expressed an African culinary grammar that had by then come to define much Southern cooking. Much as the cadences of languages like Igbo and Fon can be detected in later African-American speech, techniques like ash-roasting and slow stewing helped to define African-American -- and, eventually, Southern -- cooking. Bacon and greens, for example, were a reasonably direct modification of slowly-cooked West African vegetables seasoned with salty dried shrimp. Terrapin soup, on the other hand, took a more circuitous route to Baltimore, where it was prepared by cooks brought north by French slave owners fleeing from the Haitian revolution.

African influence extended to Southern classics unnamed by Twain. Like terrapin soup, Hoppin' John may have migrated from the French West Indies, where its signature pigeon peas were known as pois pigeon; gombo, meanwhile, was the Bantu word for okra. Even the rice essential to gumbo and Hoppin' John owed a great deal to African farmers, some of whom had been enslaved and brought to Louisiana to cultivate a crop that European whites had little to no experience growing (the vast system of dikes built around South Carolinian fields mirrored those of the Western African "Rice Coast"). Like the banjo and shotgun houses -- the name for which derived from the Yoruba to-gun, or place of assembly -- the African origins of these and other dishes were eventually forgotten by white Southerners. Eventually, all were often seen as vital parts of a shared Southern culture.

But food could also divide. Whites sometimes used foods associated with African-American cooks as the basis of racial slurs; raccoon, fried chicken, and watermelon are all infamous examples (archaeologists in Virginia have speculated that the disappearance of raccoon from the kitchen middens of poor whites may reflect a rejection of what they were coming to see as "black" food). Terrapin was unusual, being an elite dish with acknowledged black origins -- but even this seems to have doubled as a means of praising the wealth and status of slaveholders who could afford the expense of having someone else go to the enormous labor involved in preparing it.

For Twain, Southern food could both divide and unite people in unexpected, and often touching, ways. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck quickly tires of the wealthy widow Douglass's way of cooking all her things separately, and longs for a "barrel of odds and ends," in which "the things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better" -- a cooking style common to blacks and poor whites. Later, when Huck and Jim reunite after escaping from a murderous family feud, they share a meal of corn dodgers, pork and cabbage, and greens. "There ain't nothing in the world so good when it's cooked right," Huck says, "and whilst I eat my supper we talked and laughed and had a good time." For Huck and Jim, these things -- rooted deeply in Africa, but cooked for centuries in the South -- were simply food. Good food.

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