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Christmas down south: Time to put on the feedbag


People who’ve lived or traveled in the American south know that one of its most endearing treasures is its food. Influenced by English, French, Mexican, African and Native American cuisines, southern food is truly American and among the most varied in the country – and, this takes into account the introduction of Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Indian and other foods throughout the country. Food is a way of life in the south – holidays, funerals, births, you name it … are all celebrated with elaborate displays of food.

For those who grew up in the south, the holidays – especially Christmas – are probably the most memorable times of their lives, and one of the things that surely contributes to those memories is the incredible food that is part of the south.

Turkey with all the trimmings is, of course, traditional, but there is so, so very much more. Many southerners will remember having roast goose for that Christmas dinner, with fresh cranberry sauce, dressing spiced with pepper and maybe a hint of cumin or other seasonings – an old English dish with Latin spicing. And, of course, after the main course is done, there’ll be a steaming sweet potato pie with pecans or melted marshmallows on top. A variation of turkey, mainly in the Gulf Coast area, is to fry the bird. A turkey, deep fried in boiling oil, while a dangerous undertaking, is a treat that is hard to describe or forget if you ever taste it.

Less common nowadays, but frequently part of Christmas up until the mid-1960s, was serving local game for the main meal. Here is just a sample of Christmas fare as provided by nature:

Venison with roast chestnuts, collard greens, and cornbread

Roast Opossum with sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, and biscuits

Roast wild duck with onions, black-eye peas, and dinner rolls

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a traditional southern fruitcake. Made with sorghum, cherries, apple and pecans, this sticky treat, washed down with hot chocolate (for the kids) or mulled wine, is one of the best ways to end that late Christmas dinner sitting around a warm fire and humming carols out of tune.

But, fruitcake is not the only dessert. A Christmas dinner without at least three different pies sitting on the sideboard is probably in a different region of the country. Along with the sweet potato pie, there will be the southern signature pecan pie, at least one apple pie, and maybe even a banana cream pie piled high with meringue. Almost any fruit, in fact, is apt to find its way into a crust for the holiday. Thanks to the mild weather in many parts of the south, sometimes the fruit will be fresh, but in times past, it was a southern tradition to ‘can’ or preserve fruits in season. They are then brought out during the non-growing season, as condiments or ingredients in other dishes. A blackberry pie, for instance, is just as good made from preserved berries as from the fresh kind – the taste is a bit different perhaps, but usually by the time you get to the dessert in a southern meal, your taste buds aren’t all that discriminating anyway.

The proliferation of processed foods, fast food outlets and shopping malls all over the country has destroyed many of these venerable culinary traditions. There are still a few pockets of resistance here and there in the south where the old foods are trotted out during the Yuletide season, and some expatriate southerners have taken their traditional foods with them – not the venison or opossum, but a former mayor of San Francisco, for instance, was famous for his deep fried turkey dinners during the holidays.