Southern cuisine is the result of a splendid cultural convergence, deriving from the intersection of three foodways: British, Native American, and West African. The West African influence was particularly strong in the cuisine of the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where, long before the rise of cotton farming, a rice economy dependent upon enslaved labor ensured that West Africans were present in large numbers from the early days of the colony.
But what if, for some reason, West Africans had not been brought forcibly to the Lowcountry, and their cultural influence had not been felt in the region? To be sure, the entire history of the colony would have taken a dramatically different course. Lacking its rice cash crop, Charleston almost certainly would not have become one of colonial America's wealthiest cities. And, the food its residents ate would have been very, very different.
The ingredients wouldn't be the same, for starters, since so many of the grains and vegetables that define Lowcountry cooking would be missing from the kitchen. Cowpeas and black-eyed peas, okra, greens, watermelon, yams — these were all staples of the West African diet, as were sorghum and sesame (or benne), too.
Carolinians would have missed out on many African cooking techniques, too: one-pot cooking, stews, gumbos, thickening with okra or nuts. West African cooks prepared greens by laying meat on top, and without that influence the Southern tradition of using smoked meats as seasoning may never have begun.
Peanuts, which are indigenous to South America, probably would have made it into the diet eventually, but Carolinians would likely have eaten them roasted, since boiling peanuts was a preparation popularized by African Americans.
In this what-if world, the Southern diet would have been largely defined by the intersection of just two foodways, the English and Native American, and that makes it tempting to conclude that Southern cooking would have been pretty much like that in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
But the question is a little more complex than that, for the British settlers who populated the American colonies actually came from different parts of England and, therefore, brought different preferences and techniques. New Englanders, who tended to come from East Anglia, brought a tradition of boiling and baking and a preference for plain flavors typified by cold baked beans.
Southwestern England, the region from which most of the original settlers of Virginia and the Carolinas came, had a culture of roasting and frying, and they relished large feasts and more strongly seasoned food. Cross that food tradition with the ingredients and techniques of the Native Americans, and you would have a kitchen where corn, not rice, would be the staple grain. Corn puddings or hominy grits would be at the center of most meals. Roasted meats and game and pan-simmered fricassees would be found in wealthier homes.
Would there be shrimp and grits? Most likely, but the seasoning might be different. The standard English spices found in colonial recipes — cloves, mace, marjoram, and thyme — may well have remained more common in Southern cooking had the British plate remained unaccustomed to West African flavors.
And what might the buffet line at a Lowcountry barbecue look like in this alternate world? There would be plenty of barbecue pork, no doubt, for barbecue was created when European colonists brought pigs to the New World and cooked them following the Native American technique of placing them whole over coals on a framework of green sticks.
But the rest of the buffet would look quite different. There would probably be cornbread and corn muffins, but collard greens and black-eyed peas would most likely be missing, as would fried okra.
And what about fried chicken? That question is open for debate. In The Welcome Table, food historian Jessica Harris makes the case that fried chicken harkens back to the West African art of frying.
But frying was very much a part of the foodways of southwestern England, too, so it's possible that fried chicken would have become a Southern staple even without West African traditions to shape it. But would it be the same crisp-battered, deep-fried delight we know today?
It's an interesting point to ponder what might have been, but no matter what we hypothesize, one thing is certain: without the West African influence, Southern food in general, and Lowcountry food in particular, would be far less rich and remarkable.