At the Supper Table: Students Study Southern Culture Through Food
How do you study Southern culture? Do you start first with history, politics, religion or another part?
For students at Sandhills Community College, their first choice usually is food, which they then relate to a time or place of the American South.
Since January, 24 students have been exploring what it means to be Southern and what makes the South different from other regions of America.
Food clearly is a defining element of Southern culture, although (in addition to history, politics and religion) art, music, literature, race relations, family and social structure are important. All of these elements are part of a course on Southern culture; however, food seems to rank high with the students.
In the South, every food dish tells a story and preserves memories that each of us has about our family, neighbors and lives -- good times as well as bad.
In addition, "everyone has to eat," says Autumn Auman, a student in the class, but "in the South, food is much more than just a way to survive. Food brings together friends, laughter, romance, family and usually just an overall good time.
"Food is the foundation for Southern culture. It's hard to think of the South and not see fried chicken, collards, cornbread, fatback, pecan pies and sweet tea. Food is part of family reunions, weddings, and is even brought to the grieving families of those who die."
"Southerners celebrate everything with food -- weddings, funerals," says Angela Carroll, another student in the class. "Whether food is used to ease the pain or just to fill our stomachs, it makes us happy."
Home Cooking in Aberdeen
To learn more about the connection of food to Southern culture, the class took a "field trip" to The Chompin' Ground on N.C. 5 in Aberdeen, which features many Southern dishes on its buffet. From fried chicken and biscuits to barbecue and home-style vegetables, the menu is definitely regional.
Although some students knew about The Chompin' Ground beforehand, and a few had previously eaten there, the class experience made all passionate advocates of the superior Southern cooking on the buffet.
"I thought nobody could make country-style steak like my Grandma," says Paige Thomas, a student who graduated in 2005 from Lee Senior High in Sanford, "but I was wrong. The Chompin' Ground was awesome. I even went for seconds, and I never do that."
Old-fashioned home cooking like Grandma made is what most of us prefer rather than fast food.
"If I could have Grandma's cooking every day," says Ashley Shouse, "I would say 'yes' every time."
For many in the class, a good home-cooked meal is a family tradition, whether it is made by a parent or grandparent.
"My grandmother loves to bake sweets and also cook for others," says Rebecca Williams of Ellerbe, who plans to complete her elementary education degree by transferring to St. Andrews Presbyterian College after finishing her studies at Sandhills. "For years my family has eaten Sunday lunch at my grandparents' house."
Dave Linthicum, who owns and operates The Chompin' Ground, set up a family-style buffet for the class.
"We sat at a long table like a Southern family, while enjoying Southern food and small talk," says Mikhail Truskin, a native of Russia who has lived in the Sandhills for seven years and commutes from Raeford for his classes.
Lindsay Cameron, a 2007 graduate of Union Pines High, adds, "In the South, eating as a family is something very important. By getting everyone together, it brings a sense of unity. This time allows the family to catch up on their daily lives and share stories."
Shouse, a 2005 graduate of Union Pines High and a nursing student at Sandhills, agrees.
"Food brings you together especially in the South because it gives us a chance to sit down and be with our families," she says. "I usually think of my family reunion when I think Southern food because of all the recipes that have been passed down from generations that still hit our table."
Compared to the South, "most families up north do not have the time to sit down and enjoy the home-cooked meal or family time," says Stephanie Wegner, who recently moved to the Sandhills from New Jersey. "I'm adapting very well to the Southern culture and I love it."
Love on the Menu
Because Southern food is based around the family, love is always part of the recipe.
"Southern food always tastes different than other foods," says Williams. "The one ingredient that others do not have is love, and that is what makes it so good!"
"Family is a big deal in the South," says Marshall Conrad, who is from Harrisburg, "therefore, food is a way to bring together the family at one event and to share a meal together.
"Another big reason for the large amount of culture tied into our Southern foods is because the South was a very poor region after the Civil War; therefore, we created dishes with things that could be acquired easily and cheaply," says Conrad, a 2006 graduate of Central Cabarrus High who moved to the area to attend Sandhills' turfgrass management program and plans to transfer later to N.C. State. "Our class trip to The Chompin' Ground brought together the class in a true Southern family style meal to show how we as the South consume our foods."
The atmosphere at The Chompin' Ground is "friendly," says Bud Loomis, a 2007 graduate of Western Harnett High who plans to transfer to N.C. State after completing his studies at Sandhills. "The social experience is one that you don't get at somewhere like Red Lobster or Olive Garden."
Not only the atmosphere but the food is also special.
"When we went to The Chompin' Ground, I thought to myself, 'Dang, this grub is good,'" says Jacob Darr of Thomasville. "I looked around and saw everyone getting along great. I think good food brings out the social part in people. Food is another icebreaker for a conversation."
Darr, a 2007 graduate of East Davidson High who moved here to attend Sandhills' turfgrass management program, also plans to transfer later to N.C. State.
"Some of us made new friends and learned a lot about one another through fellowship and good food," he says.
The completeness of the menu at The Chompin' Ground was also impressive to Wegner, the New Jersey transplant.
"Some of the food selections they offered were fried chicken, meatloaf, country fried steak, chicken and dumplings, okra, squash, mashed potatoes and gravy, and collards," she says. "Since I moved down here in July, I've noticed many differences of how food is prepared as well as the different types of food that are normally eaten."
Wegner says that the Southern culture class was her first time ever eating Brunswick stew, collards or okra.
"In Southern culture class we have been studying these foods, along with where they come from and how they found their way to the South," says Courtney Wilson, a 2007 graduate of Chatham Central who plans to transfer to a UNC System school after completing her associate in arts program at Sandhills.
Okra, one of several vegetables considered Southern, "is not a native of the South," she explains. "It really came from the banks of the Nile in Africa. Egyptians were the first to grow okra."
Okra made its way to the United States in the 1700s after it had been brought to the Western Hemisphere by slave ships during the 1600s, and it has been valuable more than as a side dish.
For example, during the Civil War when supplies were blocked, Southerners "would grind the okra seeds and use them as a substitute for coffee," says Wilson.
"Country-style steak, sweet tea, fried chicken, and turnip greens are the staple foods of the South," says Jason Douglas, a 2006 graduate of Chatham Central, who plans to transfer to N.C. State after completing his associate degree at Sandhills. "When our class attended the dinner at The Chompin' Ground, we learned this lesson. The restaurant served almost every kind of Southern food, including fatback, and even let us eat our fantastic meal family-style. By sitting family-style we were able to get to know one another better because we were all in one grouping instead of being separated by many different tables."
The discussion after the meal including readings from the 1800s by Douglas "in character," he says, which made the class activity "a great learning experience."
However, sometimes Southern food is a little different.
"I work at John's BBQ," says Carroll, a 2006 Union Pines graduate who plans to transfer to UNC-W after completing her studies at Sandhills. "I can tell which customers are from the North and definitely which are from the South. Northerners politely say, 'Fried pickles? What in the world?' My response is always, 'You should try 'em!'"
"Where you eat will have a lot to do with whether you will be satisfied or not after you have finished your meal," says Shirley Frye, who grew up in Ohio before moving to the Sandhills and is now learning more about Southern culture. "The Chompin' Ground is a place where you will get satisfaction and you will be content after leaving," she says.
Even the building where The Chompin' Ground is located has a strong connection to local culture.
"The Chompin' Ground is actually a historical landmark," says Collins, a 2007 graduate of Union Pines High who plans to transfer to N.C. State after completing his studies at Sandhills. It was the center of attraction for many years as the train station for Pinehurst."
The meal was topped off with a trip to the dessert area, which includes several cakes and other sweets.
Although the class experience at The Chompin' Ground was clearly sufficient to satisfy all appetites, a few days later Collins came to class with three apple pies made by Johnsie Collins, his grandmother, who lives in West End.
As a result, the class discussed the importance of the apple and apple industry to the state and the annual celebration during Labor Day weekend at the North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville. However, three home-baked pies brought the celebration directly to the SCC classroom.
Apples definitely have a connection to Southern culture -- whether for making cider, wine or vinegar; eating fresh as wholesome fruit; or being used in pies or cobblers, both traditional Southern desserts.
"Apples are used in a variety of recipes, particularly pies, cobblers and stewed apples in the South," says Erica Ritter, a 2006 graduate of West Montgomery High, who is studying physical therapy at Sandhills.
The learning continues the next time the students eat with their families or sample more regional flavors in class.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College, where he teaches a course on Southern culture.
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