A Southern Subsistence Primer

Leola did a mental inventory of their food supplies—a small side of ham, whatever eggs the chickens might lay, p’rhaps ten jars of vegetables, some cornmeal. Seemed they would go hungry if they weren’t careful—a thought that made her stomach clench like she was starving already.



‘Tis the season to rub our bellies and moan that we’ve eaten too much.  But in the American south of a hundred years ago–the setting for my novel–being stuffed to the gills was a woefully rare sensation.

A family of immigrant Czechoslovakian cotton-pickers in east Texas.

The southern United States was an agrarian economy for much of its history, a lopsided hierarchy in which the tiny percentage of haves (landowners, crop merchants) depended on a steady supply of have-nots for cheap, unskilled labor: first enslaved peoples then, after the Civil War, their descendants, intentionally kept from other forms of employment by draconian Jim Crow laws. When Blacks began fleeing the south for slightly more amenable conditions elsewhere, immigrants, displaced Mexican and native peoples, and poor White children filled in the gaps. (Though even the most undervalued White workers earned higher wages than their Black counterparts.)

Ironic, that most of the people who tilled these rich soils rarely benefited from its bounty, instead eking slender sustenance from what few resources they did possess—a patch of dooryard garden, an overworked mule, inexpensive preservation techniques.  And it was women, the age-old arbiters of nutrition, who turned those hard-won provisions into survival.

Below, some of the building blocks of that barely-getting-by cuisine, foods my protagonist, Leola, savors as people do when they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.

For many Texans, real cornbread is always baked in a square pan, never a round one. My own family used a cast-iron mold like this one, passed down through generations.

Cornbread. Corn was a cheap source of essential carbohydrates. To enhance the flavor of cornmeal batters, cooks added pork rinds or cracklings (the fatty skin of the pig) and especially in Texas, Mexican-inspired seasonings like jalapenos and green or red peppers.

Antique corn sheller from late 1800s-early 1900s.

Once out of the oven, sorghum syrup (or ribbon-cane syrup on Sundays, if you were lucky) gave corn cakes and breads a tangy sweetness, while home-churned butter added additional richness. Or a person could just crumble a hunk of cornbread straight into a rich creamy glass of cold buttermilk and call it a day.  Many Texans argue that no real southerner would use expensive sugar in their cornbread batter, though South Carolinians might disagree.  Having known folks on both sides of this argument, I wouldn’t dare play referee.



Anything, and I Mean Everything, From a Pig

Lard was an essential ingredient in cooking. In this early 1900s illustration, women render lard during a hog-killing.

If you were vegetarian in 1919 Texas, it was probably late winter and you’d run out of meat, with the next hog-killing weeks away. Certainly, surviving without protein—that essential source of energy and brain function—was less a choice than a death sentence.

As this ad from a Waxahachie (TX) newspaper attests, hog-killing was only done when the weather was cool; otherwise the meat would spoil.

Pigs were cheaper to raise than other meats and yielded a huge return on investment, since nearly every bit of their bodies could be harvested for human consumption or use in food preparation: belly and hocks, lard, shoulders, ‘side meat’, brains, feet, even the ears (pickled)!  The aforementioned cracklings, made from the thickest part of the pig’s skin, were not only delicious in cornbread but also eaten like potato chips–and were, supposedly, just as addicting. Homemade lard was supposedly much more flavorful than the kind sold in bakery aisles today, and was often used straight out of the vat as a spread for biscuits and corncakes.

Though modern readers might cringe at the hog-slaughtering scene in my novel, for those involved it was always an occasion to celebrate.As Leola puts it, she didn’t relish the labor but liked the food that came from it—relied upon that food to survive the winter and trade for basic necessities. The four pigs they butchered each year, which Mama raised from tiny piglets, were everything.

Chitlins, or chitterlings, were the small intestine of the pig, often served fried.




Collard Greens

This highly-nutritious, leafy member of the cabbage family has often been associated with the history of African-Americans. Though it was actually native to the Mediterranean, not Africa, greens were one of the few crops enslaved people were ‘allowed’ to raise for personal consumption.

Modern slow cookers are great for tenderizing greens. Click on the photo for a recipe.


Over the centuries, Black chefs also developed effective techniques for modifying the plant’s fibrous texture and acrid flavor, namely by stewing it for hours with onions, ham hocks, or chicken fat.  After the Civil War, African-Americans shared their knowledge of cultivating and preparing collards with newly-destitute White people who would’ve starved otherwise, a bitter irony that no amount of seasoning can disguise.








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