I live just outside Birmingham, Alabama. I have deep roots here. However, I have deep roots in the north as well (Washington State). Growing up, our family would pack up and move across the United states – north to south or south to north – at a moment’s notice. During one short stretch living about an hour north of Seattle, Washington, my best friend awoke on a lazy Saturday morning after having spent a Friday night at our house. Having been fed breakfast he set out for home just up the street. He still remembers recounting the story to his unbelieving family.
“Mom, I’m serious. They make biscuits and eat them for breakfast with gravy on top.”
“No, mom, not brown gravy. It’s white.”
As hard as it is to believe now, when I was a kid in the 80’s, restaurants in the north did not serve “biscuits and gravy.” Northerners thought that to be weird and low-class. It’s now a staple at nearly every restaurant serving breakfast, anywhere in the country.
Like many other simple foods, biscuits and gravy finds its roots in the deep south. President Hoover at one time labeled Birmingham, Alabama as the “Hardest Hit City in the Country by the Great Depression.” With unemployment worse than almost anywhere in the nation, and lasting longer than anywhere else in the nation, families did not have the luxury of eating what was appetizing or appealing. When one feels as if their belly-button is close to touching their backbone, at some point the neighbor’s cat starts to look tasty.
1. Biscuits and Gravy
As mentioned above, many foods – indeed entire meals – revolved around the funds it took to put the meal on the table (or indeed, a lack of funds.) When nearly the entire list of ingredients consists of flour, lard, and milk (maybe a little bacon or sausage if one is lucky,) biscuits and gravy can send the family out with full stomachs on an extremely limited budget. Granted, as comedian Jim Gaffigan aptly pointed out in a comedy routine, one might feel as if they’ve eaten a plate of brick and mortar, but you definitely won’t leave the table unsatisfied.
This scrumptious animal has roots further south than Birmingham. However, for the people in Florida and along the gulf coast, one finds a way of enjoying foods which exist in plenty. If repulsed by the prospect of chowing down on a giant lizard reminiscent of a dinosaur, step outside the box and try some Blackened Alligator Tail next time one is below the Mason Dixon Line. A Cajun themed restaurant here in central Alabama, Jubilee Joe’s, has an amazing Blackened Alligator appetizer!
This slimy little vegetable is a southern staple indeed. It can be eaten in soups, stews, boiled, fried, or my personal favorite, grilled. The reason okra makes the list is the way it grows. Okra can be planted in early spring, reaches maturity in under two months, can be harvested almost daily, and produces continuously for the better part of 3 months. With enough plants in a garden, a family could have this strange little vegetable for the entirety of the summer, and have sufficient supply canned for the winter months. Much food. Few finances.
4. Pigs Feet
Alright, not all southerners eat the feet, but to this day it’s not uncommon. About 2 years ago my parents were in town visiting. Having spied a roadside barbecue shack, my dad and I stopped off for a snack. In complete sincerity, a sign in the window read “Whole Pig Feet, $4.00 While They Last.” As an old southern saying goes, “We eat them from the rooter to the tooter.” My father and I went out on a limb and decided to try a couple of them. While the taste of the meat was indeed a pork flavor, it was admittedly a lot of work for a small return; all knuckle, little food. However, this underlies my initial point. When one is flat broke, hungry, and possibly has a family depending on them to “bring home the bacon,” sometimes that slice of bacon comes from between the pig’s toes.
The south is renown for many scrumptious and savory dishes. However, some who have never known real hunger look down on many foods eaten in the deep south. I’m not attempting to convince my Yankee friends to try pigs feet (or many of the southerners either.) However, be careful not to look down your nose at those who enjoy them (neither my dad nor I are on that list.) Ask yourself, if you absolutely had to feed your family and had little or no funds to make it happen, what would you eat?