The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods explores well-known Alabama food traditions to reveal salient histories of the state in a new way. In this book that is part history, part travelogue, and part cookbook, Emily Blejwas pays homage to fourteen emblematic foods, dishes, and beverages, one per chapter, as a lens for exploring the diverse cultures and traditions of the state.
Throughout Alabama’s history, food traditions have been fundamental to its customs, cultures, regions, social and political movements, and events. Each featured food is deeply rooted in Alabama identity and has a story with both local and national resonance. Blejwas focuses on lesser-known food stories from around the state, illuminating the lives of a diverse populace: Poarch Creeks, Creoles of color, wild turkey hunters, civil rights activists, Alabama club women, frontier squatters, Mardi Gras revelers, sharecroppers, and Vietnamese American shrimpers, among others. A number of Alabama figures noted for their special contributions to the state’s foodways, such as George Washington Carver and Georgia Gilmore, are profiled as well. Alabama’s rich food history also unfolds through accounts of community events and a food-based economy. Highlights include Sumter County barbecue clubs, Mobile’s banana docks, Appalachian Decoration Days, cane syrup making, peanut boils, and eggnog parties.
Drawing on historical research and interviews with home cooks, chefs, and community members cooking at local gatherings and for holidays, Blejwas details the myths, legends, and truths underlying Alabama’s beloved foodways. With nearly fifty color illustrations and fifteen recipes, The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods will allow all Alabamians to more fully understand their shared cultural heritage.
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The Creek Nation in Alabama
On Thanksgiving Day, the Poarch Creek Thanksgiving Pow Wow opens under blue skies and a mild sun, with tribal members and non-Natives alike ambling onto the reservation. Held on the only remaining Creek land in Alabama, the ceremonial mound is flanked by an eclectic mix of living history exhibits, food booths, and vendors selling Native American wares. One stand offers Indian face painting, and a woman from Florida has lugged along her corn mill, which hums loudly as it separates corn into three troughs: cornmeal, grits, and chicken feed. Just inside the entrance gate, local historian Larry Tupperville is smoking out a canoe. No one taught him how, he says; he just decided one day to try it.
Roasted corn is the Pow Wow's signature dish, prepared by members of the McGhee family who use only the freshest corn, which in late November requires importing thousands of ears from California. On arrival, the corn is soaked in cold water for a few hours so it retains moisture and stays tender when roasted in the husk over an oak wood fire. The husk is then removed, the bright yellow ear dipped in butter, and the corn served hot, with salt shakers provided. The McGhee family has perfected their methods over the years through trial and error, eventually building a pit on the reservation expressly for the purpose of roasting corn.
Shortly after the inaugural Pow Wow in 1971, Poarch Creek leaders recruited tribal member John Arthur McGhee to roast corn annually at the event. McGhee knew nothing about roasting corn when he began, but agreed to do it because he recognized corn as the most emblematic food of Creek culture, one that was part of every traditional Creek dish, and it was hard to imagine an authentic Pow Wow without it. In fact, roasted corn at the Poarch Creek Pow Wow reflects the titanic connection between Native Americans and corn, one that made corn the most significant food in the South for over a thousand years.
When corn cultivation began in earnest in the Southeast, it revolutionized Native American life. In the Mississippian Era (800–1500 CE), the sharp increase in corn production (coupled with an increase in bow and arrow warfare) created a food surplus that yielded a population surge, prompting Native Americans to abandon nomadic lifestyles and establish permanent agrarian societies. A complex social and political structure emerged that relied on centralized authority and economic redistribution. Settlements became large and fortified, and adjoining settlements grouped into political territories with permanent offices of leadership. These societies maintained trade networks, engaged in war, established shared symbols and rituals, and practiced elaborate ceremonies.
The second largest of these prehistoric Mississippian communities was located in present-day Moundville, Alabama, along the Black Warrior River. At its height, the Moundville settlement was a bustling city of three thousand inhabitants encompassing three hundred acres. As described by John Blitz in Moundville, it was massively productive and traded at great distances. At its heart lay a central plaza with more than twenty earthen ceremonial mounds, surrounded by small wood and thatch homes in clusters of five to twenty. Then came the encircling fortifications and beyond those: fields of corn.
Though Native Americans hunted, fished, gathered, and planted a variety of fruits and vegetables, corn remained the linchpin of diet, society, and economy during the Mississippian Era. As the core food staple, corn was raised in an abundance of varieties and colors and consumed in various ways, including raw, boiled, fried, and roasted. Corn was ground into meal, flour, and grits and mixed with vegetables to make stew. Sofkee, a thick corn porridge, was a common dish, and a pot of it was kept on hand in most households. Dried corn was stored in elevated cribs to last throughout the winter.
All of this work, the planting, harvesting, and cooking of corn, was done primarily by women. They owned the fields and controlled the harvest, while men acted as hunters, warriors, and diplomats. The women raised corn alongside streams, where the soil was naturally renewed each year by annual spring floods. They interspersed beans and squash among the corn plants, and together, these "three sisters" of the Native American diet provided Mississippians with essential nutrients.
Corn cultivation not only radically reconfigured Native American lives, however. It would dramatically shape the lives of all Southerners. When Europeans began settling in the Southeast in the early 1600s, corn spared them from starvation when their crops of wheat and barley failed, and Native Americans taught them how to plant, harvest, process, prepare, and store it. Through several winters of famine, white settlers relied almost entirely on corn for their survival.
A symbol of life and death in colonial America, corn remained the mainstay of the Southern diet throughout frontier years. Every pioneer's first step was to clear enough land to plant a crop of corn. Sometimes, frontier men would venture ahead to plant the first crop, then return for their wives and children. Pioneers even marked the seasons by corn. In 1808, a woman in present-day Limestone County, Alabama, described the time of year as "when the first crop of corn was in good roasting ear state and every stalk was cut and burned."
Corn was the primary crop in every colony and every state, prompting historian Nicholas Hardeman to dub it "the great common denominator of agriculture." Every southern farm devoted more than half its acreage to corn, most of which provided basic sustenance for families and livestock and never reached the marketplace. Though settlers did hunt, fish, and grow vegetables, they traded meat and produce for corn in times of need. In fact, the American economy revolved around corn, which passed as currency anywhere in the hemisphere and was frequently used to pay taxes, rents, and marriage licenses. As Hardeman notes, "corn was coin" in America, whether it appeared as ears, meal, or whiskey.
Appearing "on the southern table in some form at practically every meal," corn was eaten raw, pickled, and boiled. It was ground into flour for bread (known as pone, ashcake, johnnycake, hoecake, and dodgers), fritters, dumplings, and tortillas. Corn was consumed as hominy, grits, roasting ears, popcorn, soup, mush, succotash, pudding, and porridge. It provided a foundation for beer and whiskey, a batter to fry fish, a starch, and a sweetener.
Corn's utility also extended beyond the table. Corn silks served a medicinal purpose. Husks were turned into chair seats, horse collars, baskets, dolls, and paper. Corncobs met a range of household needs as scrubbing brushes, handles for small tools, bowls for tobacco pipes, jug stoppers, firewood, fertilizer, and livestock feed. Fermented corn became lamp fluid and antifreeze. Houses were built from cornstalks.
By 1849, the South had eighteen million acres planted in corn compared with five million in cotton. During the 1850s, the combined value of cotton, tobacco, wheat, and rice claimed only two-thirds the value of corn. During the lean years of the Civil War and Reconstruction, corn again shielded southerners against starvation. In fact, corn remained the most significant component of the southern diet until World War II. Corn, truly, was king, inspiring anthropologist David Hurst Thomas to call the emergence of corn cultivation in the Southeast "a watershed event in American history." Yet, what had become of the Native Americans who gave starving Europeans the gift of corn that spared their lives and shaped their diet, economy, and culture for the next three hundred years?
In the early seventeenth century, prompted in part by the influx of Europeans, confederations began to emerge out of hundreds of Native American societies in the Southeast. In what is now Alabama, Creeks were by far the largest and most significant tribe, with no sizable groups of Cherokee, Chickasaw, or Choctaw in the region until the early nineteenth century. In fact, Creeks were one of the most powerful tribes in all of North America. The Creek Nation occupied nearly all of what is present-day Alabama and Georgia and parts of the Florida Panhandle, controlling millions of acres of land.
Creeks referred to themselves as Muskogee but were dubbed Creeks by early British settlers who noted their habit of establishing settlements along fertile creek banks. The Creek Nation operated as a loose confederation of independent tribes united by Muskogee language, culture, and common interest. Always in flux, the confederation sometimes also included non-Muskogee tribes. In what is now Alabama, Creeks controlled a vast frontier defended by sixty or so scattered towns. In 1775, after devastating losses caused by European disease followed by a steady regrowth, the Creek population there numbered around twelve thousand.
Though the Creek Nation flourished at the end of the 1700s, change came with the dawn of the new century. The First Treaty of Washington, signed in 1805, allowed the US government to construct a horse path through Creek lands to connect Washington, DC, to Mobile and New Orleans. Running through the heart of Creek territory, the new postal road gave thousands of white settlers an easy route into what is now Alabama. In 1810, when the road became a military road (the Federal Road), the number of white settlers traversing the Creek Nation, living along its borders, and encroaching on Creek land soared.
Reactions to the road were mixed among Creeks. A minority of Creeks benefited from the increased white presence, which provided access to the European economy. These Creeks were predominantly métis (mixed white and Creek) who had settled in the Tensaw region in the late 1700s and begun a vigorous trade with the Spanish. Tensaw was the Creek name for the fertile valleys along the lower reaches of the Alabama River, in present-day Baldwin County.
In the Tensaw, Creeks continued to grow corn in communal fields and adhere to Creek constructs of kinship, gender roles, and religion but also adopted aspects of white culture and became immersed in the European economy. They grew and shipped indigo and cotton, raised cattle and hogs in pens, traded deerskins for tools, cloth, and guns, owned slaves, bred horses, intermarried with white settlers, traveled by flatboat, and wore European clothing. Some worked as guides, interpreters, river pilots, and postal riders, and some owned stores, inns, and taverns. One operated a horse track. As historian Karl Davis writes, Tensaw Creeks existed in a "curious mix of tradition and innovation" in which they resembled white people culturally in some ways but "remained distinctly Creek."
Tensaw Creeks recognized that their prosperity depended on the white economy, and though most rejected assimilation into white culture, they saw nothing to gain from conflict with white people. Most Creeks (including many within the Tensaw region), however, viewed white settlers flooding into Creek territory as a direct threat to their homeland and way of life. Divisions between the two Creek factions intensified as the settlers continued to pour into Creek lands, Tensaw Creeks became more prosperous, and the US government stepped up its "plan of civilization."
The plan of civilization called for Native Americans to assimilate into white society, abandon hunting, raise cattle, and grow cotton. It purported to benefit Native Americans by training them to become successful small farmers but was truly purposed to enable the US government to acquire vast Native lands no longer needed for hunting and redistribute them to white settlers. As archaeologist Gregory Waselkov notes, the plan "called for a radical reorientation of native society" that encouraged Creeks to forfeit traditional constructs and subscribe to "American notions of education, justice, religion, and private property."
In the plan, most Creeks saw a thinly veiled effort "to steal their ancestral land and destroy their culture." Dubbing themselves Red Sticks after the traditional color of the Creek war club, this faction demanded a return to tradition, calling on fellow Creeks to reject American values, fight white expansion, and revitalize Creek culture. They began attacking white travelers throughout Creek Territory and destroying goods and cattle owned by Tensaw Creeks, who had gained wealth in the white economy and were suspected of colluding with the US government. By the summer of 1813, civil war appeared inevitable.
The Creek War of 1813–14 played out on what is now Alabama soil and impacted the fate of all southeastern tribes as well as the development, economy, and culture of Alabama. In August 1813, in the Battle at Fort Mims (in present-day Baldwin County), 700 Red Sticks killed 250 Tensaw defenders and civilians in a grisly surprise attack. Though the battle was truly between Creek factions (and even between Creek family members), the media portrayed it as an unprovoked massacre of white people. A wave of anti-Indian sentiment ensued, despite the fact that several hundred white settlers and Creeks had peacefully coexisted for years in the Tensaw. As Waselkov notes, "that dream ended in blood and fire at Fort Mims."
Panic now raged in the Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama and Mississippi). Many white people, especially those who lacked prior contact with Creeks, sought revenge for the Fort Mims atrocity. Within weeks, thousands had volunteered to fight the Red Sticks, now cast in their minds as savages. In fact, observes Waselkov, the "imagery generated by the myth of Fort Mims — of hundreds of helpless white settlers slaughtered by inhuman savages — fueled passions for American conquest of all native peoples for the rest of the century." Fort Mims provided a tool to incite white citizens to fight, divide, and destroy the Creek confederacy and ultimately to drive all Creeks from their lands. And no one understood this better than Andrew Jackson.
As commander of the Tennessee militia, Jackson used the brutality at Fort Mims to justify equally brutal tactics. Under his command, the Creek civil war quickly became a war of Indian extermination. By March 1814, following several battles, Jackson had gathered a force of American militia and allied Creeks and Cherokees strong enough to challenge the Red Sticks at the village of Tohopeka (located in a turn of the Tallapoosa River known as Horseshoe Bend, in present-day Tallapoosa County). The battle swiftly became a slaughter, as Jackson and his allies killed nearly all of the nine hundred Red Stick warriors, "the highest number of Native American fatalities of any battle in North American history." Jackson then headed to the heart of Creek territory, the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, where he established Fort Jackson and dispatched troops to attack every Creek they encountered and burn every town in the Upper Creek nation.
The Red Sticks' defeat at Horseshoe Bend permanently destroyed Creek power in Alabama. On August 9, 1814, despite objections from Creek chiefs in attendance, the Treaty of Fort Jackson gave over twenty-two million acres of land (more than half of the entire Creek nation) to the US government. Over nine million acres (including all of the Tensaw) came from allied Creeks. It was the largest seizure of Native lands in American history to date. Further, over the next decade, Jackson would spearhead eight more treaties to remove Native Americans from their homelands in order to clear the Southeast for white settlement, giving the United States control over three-quarters of what is now Alabama.
Thousands of white settlers from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas poured into former Creek lands. In 1810, the non-Native population in what is now Alabama numbered 9,000. By 1820, it had increased more than 1,000 percent to reach 150,000 (with two-thirds of the growth coming after 1815). By 1830, the state population had doubled, reaching 310,000. Yet, as Alabama historians note, this was "more than just a population explosion." By opening vast, fertile lands for white settlement, the Creek War paved the way for an economy based on the cotton trade and slave labor that would shape Alabama politics, economics, and culture for years to come.
The Creek War also made Jackson a national hero to many, propelling him to win the presidency in 1828. In 1830, one year after taking office, Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act through both houses of Congress despite considerable opposition. As Waselkov keenly notes, "we tend to think of American history as a series of inevitabilities, but many white Americans in the 1820s and 1830s opposed Indian Removal, and Congress only narrowly passed the legislation which enabled that national shame to occur. Indian Removal derived largely from Andrew Jackson's political popularity and his unshakeable will."
The Indian Removal Act gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with tribes living east of the Mississippi River. Most Creeks, however, refused to emigrate. In 1832, a number of prominent Creek chiefs negotiated the Treaty of Washington, in which Creeks ceded all five million acres of their land to the United States but retained legal title to two million acres reserved for Creek plantations and farms. In the treaty, the US government pledged to protect Creek lives and property.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
List of Recipes
Chapter 1. Roasted Corn: The Creek Nation in Alabama
Chapter 2. Gumbo: Africans and Creoles on the Gulf Coast
Chapter 3. Chicken Stew: Frontier Life in the Tennessee Valley
Chapter 4. Fried Green Tomatoes: Emblem of the Alabama Rural Table
Chapter 5. Lane Cake: Alabama Women in the Progressive Era
Chapter 6. Banana Pudding: The Banana Docks at the Port of Mobile
Chapter 7. Fried Chicken: Decoration Day on Sand Mountain
Chapter 8. Boiled Peanuts: George Washington Carver, the Wiregrass, and Macon County Farmers
Chapter 9. Wild Turkey: Hunting and Wildlife Conservation in Alabama
Chapter 10. Sweet Tea: Birmingham in the Great Depression and the Second World War
Chapter 11. Sweet Potato Pie: Civil Rights and Soul Food in Montgomery
Chapter 12. Barbecue: Black History in the Black Belt
Chapter 13. MoonPies: Mardi Gras in Mobile
Chapter 14. Shrimp: Seafood in Bayou La Batre
Suggestions for Further Reading