Some foods are undeniably Southern in origin, such as gumbo, grits, or fried okra. These and many other classic Southern foods trace their roots to ingredients and cooking techniques used by a variety of people in the South, as well as to cuisines hailing from the Caribbean, Africa, European nations, and other parts of the planet. Granted, in a nation as new as America, pretty much every dish got its start somewhere else. But, if the American advent of a food was in the South, we can call it Southern. These foods featured here may be thought of as Southern today, but they entered the American food pantheon from well outside the region and are not technically from the South, though they may have strong Southern roots.
Plus, don't miss 35 Classic Southern Dishes Your Grandmother Used to Make.
Chicken and Waffles
Not only is chicken and waffles not a traditional Southern dish, but it's one that many Southerners vehemently disavow, according to NPR. The association with Southern cooking is understandable, though, as Chicken and Waffles, which usually features bone-in meat served with sweet syrup atop thick waffles, was popularized by Southerners who had migrated out of more rural communities into urban areas in the north and west of the United States. Some origins stories point to a restaurant in Harlem, while others say it was a Pennsylvania Dutch dish as far back as the 1700s.
A mainstay of Texas BBQ in particular and popular with slow cooking enthusiasts across the South (and beyond, of course), brisket hardly comes from the American South. In fact, it's hardly American at all, really. According to Food & Wine, brisket is a traditional Jewish dish brought to America by emigres from Germany, the Czech Republic, and other Central and Eastern European nations during the 19th Century. Arriving on the East Coast, but making their way to new Jewish communities in Texas in large numbers, these newly minted Americans brought their Old World favorite beef dish with them.
Sweet, rich, buttery pound cake is a staple Southern dessert today, but it's a Northern treat in origin, says Southern Living. This moist and comforting cake first shows up in American cooking in America's first known cookbook published in 1796, a work called American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. She hailed from Hartford, Connecticut, which is about as not Southern as it gets.
Look over the menu in just about any eatery in the South, from a diner to a BBQ joint to a casual family restaurant, and you'll find baked beans on the menu. But according to the New England Historical Society, if you look over the history of baked beans, you'll trace their roots to the northern and eastern states. And while there the stories grow murky—did natives teach puritan settlers how to bake beans? Did they originate with Spanish Jews who emigrated to America?—but this popular Southern side definitely didn't get its start down south.
Mac and Cheese
If there is any side seen as more quintessentially Southern than macaroni and cheese, then it's fried collard greens. Or corn pudding. Or grits. OK, there are a lot of Southern sides, but as it happens, this one has its origins elsewhere. In fact, American Mac and Cheese can be traced to a presidential visit to France, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Enjoyed in Northern Europe since the late 1760s, this college staple food found its way to America with Thomas Jefferson who visited France before in office and, enamored of the cheese pasta, served it at a state dinner in 1802 while he was POTUS. It spread from there, making deep inroads in the South.
Often even called Southern Chow Chow, according Julia's Simply Southern, this dish of pickled veggies is not Southern in origin. The sweet, tart, salty, and pleasantly acidic stuff either migrated to the South from Nova Scotia, care of Acadian natives, or it came from Chinese rail workers out in the American West, via Southern Living. Either way, not Southern.
Cornbread is such a delightful food that it could have come from anywhere on earth or beyond and we'd just be glad it's here. As it happens, though, it came from Mesoamerican natives who had been making cornbread for thousands of years before the South was even a recognized region, according to Delishably.
Why did pimento cheese gain popularity in the south? According to the Charlotte Observer: "It may have become popular in the South because it didn't spoil easily at room temperature, making it easy to pack in lunchboxes, particularly for textile workers. But it was also fashionable as a sandwich in tea rooms." OK, but what is it, anyway? It's a spread made with cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and sweet pimento peppers. But where is the so-called "pâté of the South" (AKA "Carolina caviar") from originally? Upstate New York, via Southern Living.
A previous version of this article was originally published on Apr 11, 2022.