A Final Thought: Southern Origins


By Mitch Allen

When I first moved to Northeast Ohio from Georgia/Alabama, I had to learn a new language. I was utterly unfamiliar with weather terms like squall, whiteout, black ice, and sun glare, let alone “polar vortex.” Now I am all too familiar with them, along with the sage advice to always keep a blanket in the trunk of your car in case of engine failure.

I kept a blanket in my car down South, but it was for spontaneous romantic picnics with my girlfriend—not for survival.

I’d also never heard of the “devil strip,” which is apparently an Akron expression referring to the land between the sidewalk and the street. Down South we called it “the right of way,” which most folks pronounced “right away.” (Speaking of pronunciations, my parents lived near both Weems and Williams roads. This was directionally challenging because they pronounced both names exactly the same.)

There were also a number of Cleveland-area food names completely new to me, including pierogi, gnocchi, and hummus—or humus, hommus, hommos, humous. I find it hummo-rous that no one really knows how to spell it.

And now it goes without saying that it is inappropriate in Northeast Ohio to tickle a baby in the belly button and say, “That’s where the Yankee shot you!” but my wife and I had to learn this the hard way.

The immigration patterns of Northeast Ohio are relatively recent compared to the South. Most people arrived here in the 1870s or later, often from eastern Europe, so cultural origins are still relatively well known. Most of us know pierogi came from Poland, gnocchi from Italy, paprikash from Hungary, and hummus from the Middle East.

That’s not the case in Georgia and Alabama. People started arriving in the 1600s and the origins of many foods and customs have been lost to time. Everyone knows cornbread and black-eyed peas are “Southern,” but no one recalls where they came from. A proper Southerner will simply give her great-grandmother credit for all of it.

The fact is Southern food is rooted largely in a blending of Native American, western European, and African cultures. Everyone brought their own covered dish to the centuries-long, pot luck, Sunday-go-to-meeting, dinner-on-the-grounds shindig. Of course, after how we treated American Indians and people from Africa, we couldn’t very well give them credit for anything.

So great-grandma gets the nod.

Some language and traditions that survive a few hundred years can be easily traced if you stop to think about. My father called me “lad” until the day he died when I was 50 years old. It was an endearing term that warmed my heart every time he said it, but I never questioned where it came from. Recently, after some genealogical research, I realized he called me that because his ancestors were Scottish, and the word survived within him since our last ancestor came over in the mid-1700s. I try calling my own grandsons “lad,” but they look at me funny. Still, to honor my father and Scottish heritage, I’m going to keep doing it.

Here is a poem I wrote after researching the origins of Southern foods. I could never publish it in the South; they would tar and feather me and run me out of town on a rail for disrespecting great-grandma.

Please forgive me.


Peaches hail from China,
kudzu from Japan.
Archeologists found cotton
in Neolithic Pakistan.

The native Muscogee people
developed muscadine wine,
hoe cakes, grits, cornbread,
hushpuppies, moonshine.

From Africa came the watermelon
(back when it had seeds),
okra, sorghum, sugar cane,
black-eyed peas.

Central and South America
gave us the humble sweet potato,
peanuts, squash and probably
the fried green tomato.

The “coca” in Coca-Cola
came from the Andes’ coca leaf,
the source of cocaine powder
(and a whole lotta grief).

The “cola” from West Africa
way up the kola tree
whose nut has more caffeine than coffee
but less than China’s sweet tea.

If you enjoy boiled collard greens
at your favorite local diner,
you can thank the ancient kingdoms
of Asia Minor.


Categories: Smart Living