By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert
Soul food and the rise of Southern cuisine birthed back in 2008 in the fast food then casual dining segment– before moving up to fine dining. It ties to several trends including whole grains, dark greens, bacon, moonshine, regional dining, foraging, and others. The trend has now moved forward as a Morph. A Morph is when cousins birth off of the original trend and stand in the spotlight without harming the original cousin. The Morphs rising now off of soul food include Appalachian cuisine, Low Country, Pennsylvania Dutch, Piedmont, and Ozark cuisine.
The Birth of Southern Cuisine
Southern cuisine remained a shadow (tied into many trends but no champion to carry it forward) for a few years before birthing. Its Achilles heel was its tie to obesity. For consumers it appealed their desire in 2008 for simplicity, comfort, regionalism, sustainability and experimentation for anyone outside the region. Global cuisines popular at the time, including Cuban, Caribbean, So. American, French, and African make up the back bone of Southern foods, setting it up as an unstoppable birth. Barbecue also evolved beyond its generic form towards splintering into more sophisticated regional voices. What emerged at this time were South and North Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky barbecue. And finally, the strong tie to health and wellness that Southern cuisine bares finally was acknowledged when its basis was realized- whole grains, beans, and dark greens.
Despite popular believe that a flavor trend is born in high end restaurants and trickles down to fast food, that rarely happens. In this case, the actual birth parent was the book publishing scene which launched a number of soul food cookbooks in late 2007/early 2008. TV and news media picked up on this and from there it moved to the travel industry and consumer magazines.
How it Spread to All Restaurant Segments
It then moved to the fast food and casual dining segments. McDonald’s was the first to enter nationally with its southern chicken sandwich in January 2008. Shane Ribs, Dickey’s BBQ, and Virginia BBQ moved next with major expansions between June to September of 2008. Popeye’s reinvented itself as “Louisiana’s Kitchen” during this time as well and launched products to support this position. Krystal and TGI Fridays entered the trend with items between November 2008 to January 2009. And Bon Appetit magazine first named new Southern cuisine as the “it” cuisine for 2009, which secured its position as hottest regional cuisine going in to 2009. The magazine again named it the cuisine to watch in 2013.
The trends then moved to the bar and cocktail scene with the rise of southern regional drinks including mint juleps, hurricanes, bourbon based cocktails, muddles, slings, and sours. It eventually found its way into high end restaurants when fried chicken and shrimp and grits graced the menu pages of pricy restaurants – as if they invented this amazing everyday food.
How the Southern Trend Influenced Others
The first Morph rising off of the soul food/Southern food trend was low country cuisine which is the traditional cuisine of South Carolina and the Georgian coastal region. Brunswick stew is born of this region. Next was the Appalachian region which encompasses all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Stack cakes, chicken 'n' dumplings, fried apples, chow chow, and gritted corn bread are part of their tradition.
Pennsylvania Dutch was next up which features foods in and around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and has influences from the Pennsylvania Dutch's German heritage. Apple butter, beef and venison jerky, pork and sauerkraut, pretzels, sauerbraten, scrapple are among their savory dishes. Apple dumplings, shoofly pie, and whoopie pies round out desserts. Among the newest is the Piedmont region. It is a plateau region located in the Eastern United States between the Atlantic coastal plain and the main Appalachian Mountains, stretching from New Jersey in the North to central Alabama in the South. Think smoky collard greens, barbecued oysters, soft shell crabs, Chesapeake seafood stew, and pickled shrimp. And finally there is the Ozark region which encompasses Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Their culinary traditions utilize locally harvested heirloom produce, nuts and grains and sustainably raised livestock. Flavor profiles are marked by heritage-based recipes and Native American methods. Ingredients include poke, watercress, persimmons and pawpaw; wild berries, black cherry, dewberry; and wild nuts such as black walnut and acorns.
The South and East coast is rising in the regional cuisine scene and to miss the incoming tide would be to miss an exciting voyage.