Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

Gulf Coast Foodways

Written by Emily Blejwas

Classic Southern Foods Reflect Rich Cultural History

Ever since Hernando De Soto brought thirteen pigs to the Florida shore in 1539, European, African, and Native Americans have blended and shaped each other’s food traditions to create a food identity that is uniquely Southern. To fully understand Southern food, then, requires us to examine the culture and environment surrounding the food, with all of its nuances and complexities.

The term “foodways” signifies all the cultural and historic meanings attached to food itself. The term recognizes that each food tradition is a singular mix of converging factors, including geography, economy, social structure, trade, religion, and politics, and that food traditions can act as gateways for exploring local culture and history.

A study of Alabama foodways quickly reveals the diversity within the state’s borders. Layer cakes are Wiregrass specialties, while stack cakes reign in the Appalachian foothills. North Alabama features slugburgers, while Mardi Gras MoonPies sail along the coast. Syrup making, once common throughout the state, uses sorghum in the north and cane in the south. And Alabama boasts at least six distinct regional variations of barbecue sauce. These differences reflect the broad spectrum of history, culture, and environment within Alabama.

Along the Gulf Coast, where Alabama’s oldest settlements lie, foodways tell a particularly dynamic story. The three examples below–gumbo, banana pudding, and MoonPies–allow readers a glimpse of the Gulf Coast’s continuous evolution of rich cultural landscape reflected in its food traditions.

Gumbo

gumbo3The stamp of African tradition on Alabama cooking is hard to understate. The first Africans arrived in America in 1619, just over a decade after the first European settlers. African slaves, who did the cooking in many Southern households, were largely responsible for fusing African, European, and Native American traditions to birth a distinct Southern food identity.

Perhaps no dish better showcases the African backbone and cultural blend of Southern cooking than gumbo, a seafood stew that unites ingredients across continents. Gumbo’s soup base is of African or Native American origin. Okra was brought from Africa, hot peppers from the Caribbean, black pepper from Madagascar, and salt from the French and Native Americans. The Spanish introduced tomatoes and red peppers, obtained from the Canary Islands. Native contributions include filé (ground sassafras leaves) made by Choctaw Indians, and shrimp, crab, and oysters indigenous to coastal waters.

On Alabama’s Gulf Coast, gumbo emerged as a practical and economical food for the poor. It relied on common ingredients, stretched expensive ingredients like meat, and allowed for the use of tougher cuts of meat softened by the long cooking process. “Gumbo was poverty driven,” states Mobile native and chef Vince Henderson. “It was for people living off the land, the rivers, and the sea. Gumbo is scraps of food put together. You use what you have. Anything leftover, inexpensive. You use what is seasonal.”

From its inception, gumbo was known as a Creole dish. Like gumbo, Creole culture emerged from a unique relationship between European settlers and West African slaves on the Gulf Coast. Beginning in 1719, thousands of West African slaves were brought to Mobile and other Gulf Coast settlements to work on newly developing indigo, sugarcane, tobacco, and rice plantations. When these attempts at plantation agriculture failed, however, it dramatically impacted social relations in the region.

With their owners unable to furnish basic necessities, Gulf Coast slaves pushed for maximum autonomy and self-reliance, and “within certain parameters, managed to exercise some control over their daily lives,” writes Southern historian Virginia Gould. Gulf Coast slaves cultivated their own land; provided food, clothing, and housing for themselves and their families; rested on Sundays; and often lived apart from their owners.

These freedoms generated a looser, more nuanced social order than existed in the broader South. Gulf Coast settlements like Mobile and Pensacola lacked strict boundaries between race and class, which promoted mutual cultural influence. A Creole culture emerged that was a blend of white European, West African, and Native American traditions. On the Gulf Coast, Creole originally indicated any inhabitant, regardless of ethnic origin, who was not full-blooded Native American. Creoles could be white Creoles or Creoles of Color.

gumbo14Under French or Spanish rule for most of the eighteenth century, Mobile was a city dominated by European culture and Catholic tradition, both of which supported interracial relationships. A sense of common culture instilled respect between white Creoles and Creoles of Color. This mutual respect gave Creoles of Color rights that allowed them to build a large, prosperous, and powerful society in Mobile. Creoles of Color held high social and economic positions and worked in a range of occupations. Able to obtain land grants from the Spanish, Creoles of Color owned extensive tracts of land in Mobile and the surrounding county. Some owned plantations and slaves. They voted in municipal elections and lived in integrated neighborhoods.

In 1819, the Adams-Onís Treaty (or Transcontinental Treaty) between the Spanish and Americans made Mobile a permanent part of the United States. This treaty guaranteed the rights of citizens of the formerly Spanish territory, including Creoles of Color, and elevated them above the status of blacks. That same year, however, Alabama’s new statehood brought an influx of Anglo Americans to Mobile. These new arrivals made no distinction between Creoles of Color and blacks. Largely of rural, British, and Protestant, Anglo Americans prized the nuclear family, promoted strict family morals, discouraged marrying beneath one’s social status, and denounced racial mixing.

To distinguish themselves and their way of life from the new arrivals, Gulf Coast natives increasingly identified as Creoles. Though racially mixed, Creoles “recognized that they shared a unique culture that had evolved over generations of mutual experience” and included shared language, religion, food traditions, and architecture. But as the prosperity of plantation agriculture, through cotton, finally turned profitable, relations between owners and slaves changed.

A stringent slave code emerged in Mobile. Masters could no longer free slaves at will, and slaves could not purchase their own freedom. Free people of color were increasingly viewed as dangerous to the institution of slavery, which depended in part on preventing slaves from organizing or gaining access to education. In 1831, new Alabama legislation restricted free blacks’ access to slaves. The laws prohibited educating persons of color, restricted contact and commerce between free blacks and slaves, and enacted speedy trials for the accused.

During the next twenty years, from 1830 to 1850, Mobile transformed from a leisurely European port to a bustling American metropolis. The city’s population surged from 6,000 to 30,000, mostly from a mass influx of Anglo Americans from rural areas who dramatically altered Mobile culture. Creoles of Color fell from 9 percent to 3 percent of the population. By 1850, slaves represented 33 percent of the city’s population. Anglo Americans increasingly grouped Creoles of Color with blacks in a racially polarized society, where neighborhoods were now segregated.

Creoles of Color responded by emphasizing their Creole identity and seeking to distinguish themselves from blacks. They began exclusively marrying each other and joining Creole organizations. They sought any opportunity to identify and associate with whites and not with blacks. In 1846, members of the prestigious Creole Fire Company #1 voted to expel any member seen with a black person.

Despite these efforts, however, Creoles of Color in Mobile were stripped of their rights beginning in 1850, when Anglo Americans controlled the state legislature. The new laws were passed partly out of racism and partly because new white arrivals to the city coveted the jobs held by Creoles of Color.

After the Civil War, life appeared briefly hopeful for Creoles of Color. In 1868, two persons of color (one of them Creole) became the first Alabamians of color elected to the state legislature. But Reconstruction ended swiftly and was replaced by the extreme racism and total segregation of the Jim Crow era. In 1901, the new Alabama state constitution disenfranchised nearly all persons of color. In 1908, Creoles of Color were barred from voting in Mobile municipal elections.

In the twentieth century, many Creoles of Color in Mobile continued to hold themselves apart from blacks. When Vince Henderson was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Creoles of Color still “didn’t want to be considered black. They wanted Creole on their driver’s licenses and birth certificates. There was an unwritten rule that when you married, your spouse couldn’t be darker than a brown paper bag. The parents would hold your arms next to each other to see. You weren’t supposed to marry anyone darker than the family.”

When Creoles of Color participated in Mardi Gras, Mobile’s most significant festival, they attended events sponsored by the Colored Carnival Association, formed in 1939 to create Mardi Gras events for people of color who were shut out of white events. The resulting celebrations were infused with multiple aspects of black and Creole heritage. In 1940, following a parade in their honor, the first Mobile Mardi Gras king and queen of color proceeded to the home of Dr. J. A. Franklin to enjoy a champagne toast and gumbo, the enduring symbol of Creole and African heritage on the Gulf Coast.

Today, gumbo is still inextricably linked to Mardi Gras in both communities. “Every Creole family in Mobile owns at least thirty gumbo spoons,” Henderson says. “I could take you to any Creole home during Mardi Gras, and they would all be cooking the same four foods: red beans and sausage, baked ham, potato salad, and gumbo.” In fact, until she passed in 2012, Dora Finley carried on her grandfather J.A. Franklin’s tradition by making a large pot of gumbo for family and friends every year on the day of the king and queen’s parade.

Banana Pudding

At the dawn of the Civil War, Mobile was the third largest exporting city in the nation and a major cultural center in the South, akin to Charleston or New Orleans. But by 1890, the city had languished in an economic depression for 25 years, brought on by the market collapse of cotton, its primary export commodity. To revive the city, leaders turned to imports, which would both diversify the economy and make use of existing harbor infrastructure that went unused during cotton’s off-season.

Imports were part of a larger plan to transform Mobile into a “thriving deep-water port” at a time when investing in foreign markets was viewed as a critical economic development strategy. City leaders also had another reason for improving Mobile’s harbor. With its French and Spanish heritage and laissez faire lifestyle, Mobile had always been different from the rest of Alabama. But following the long economic downturn, Mobile had earned an image as a loose city known for horse racing, gambling, drinking, and prostitution. City leaders aimed to clean up Mobile, push it forward, and brand it with a new identity in the twentieth century.

With this in mind, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce offered an incentive of $1,500 to the first company to operate regular fruit ships from Central America to Mobile for one year. In 1893, the first commercial shipment of bananas arrived in Mobile on the ship Sala, consigned for the Mobile Fruit and Trading Company. The Snyder Banana Company soon entered the trade as well, making Central American bananas Mobile’s first regular import.

banana1Mobile joined the trade just as bananas were poised to become an American staple. In 1876, bananas were still considered an exotic fruit in the U.S.; most Americans had never even seen one. But by the 1890s, the combination of faster steamships and locomotives, an extensive railway system, and refrigerated boxcars brought more bananas to more regions of the country. In Alabama, new steamships rapidly crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile Bay, and rail connections took bananas directly to St. Louis and Chicago.

By 1900, the banana trade was a thriving enterprise and a linchpin in Mobile’s economy. The third largest U.S. importer of bananas (behind New York and New Orleans), Mobile was known throughout the nation as a banana port. By 1910, bananas had become affordable and accessible year round, making them “an integral part of the American diet in all parts of the country.” In Mobile, city leaders secured $3 million in federal funds for harbor improvements, allowing for extensive waterfront development in the 1920s. The Alabama State Docks was a modern port by 1927, and bananas remained one of the city’s most important exports throughout the 1930s.banana2

The Mobile banana docks sat at the foot of Dauphin and Government Streets in the heart of the downtown waterfront. Here, the United Fruit Company docked its signature white banana boats, “the Great White Fleet,” painted to reflect the Caribbean sun. When the boats arrived, longshoremen hefted the banana stems onto their backs and carried them down the gangplank. The stems then passed down a long line of men extending from boat to warehouse, where they were weighed, checked, and loaded onto refrigerated boxcars. In 1903, with the banana trade booming, the United Fruit Company invested in conveyors to unload bananas onto the docks.

            Banana dockworkers were predominantly black men. In fact, from 1890-1900, when the banana trade took root in Mobile, the city experienced its largest influx yet of black migrants from rural Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Many fell into the informal banana docks trade: picking up work when they could and collecting pay at the end of the day. It was not steady or unionized work, and it was certainly difficult, hot, backbreaking labor.

The banana docks spread along the downtown waterfront, occupying the equivalent of four city blocks. A hub of activity and noise, the docks were popular with local children who came after school and on the weekends to watch the commotion, eat free bananas, search for tropical spiders, and fish from the docks. Julian Lee Rayford’s “Banana Docks” chant is one of the few descriptions of Mobile’s banana docks in existence. In the opening stanza, he sets out to describe “The confusion and excitement, the great hurly-burly of happiness, the noise, the singing and chanting on the banana docks in Mobile.” Rayford first wrote the chant in 1939, continued to modify it until 1974, and always performed it with the changes in volume, pitch, and speed that he heard at the docks as a child.

Locals were intrigued by bananas and tried them in many existing recipes, including pudding. And just as bananas transformed from luxury to staple, banana pudding began as an extravagance before becoming a classic Southern dessert. Before the 1880s, bananas “were served only on important occasions and used in small quantities to display wealth and sophistication.” They were primarily used in desserts, and banana pudding was found at highbrow social events and on the menus of fashionable hotels.

When bananas became more affordable and available, more cookbooks included recipes for banana pudding, which became a dessert for all classes. Often made with leftover cake, it provided a way to use stale or extra ingredients by combining them with something fresh and affordable. Alabama native and chef Scott Peacock recalls his grandmother making banana pudding by combining bananas, eggs, and milk “with whatever she had on hand–leftover cake, toasted white bread [or] stale biscuits.” Affluent Southerners used vanilla wafers, cookies with origins in Southern homes and local bakeries. In 1929, Nabisco became the first company to distribute the wafers in cartons to preserve freshness, and their popularity soared.

But for rural families, banana pudding made with vanilla wafers was an extravagance. Bettye Kimbrell, raised on a farm in Fayette County in the 1940s and 1950s, recalls her mother making banana pudding only for special visitors and cemetery decoration days. Most rural desserts were made from ingredients at hand, including homegrown fruits and homemade syrup. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers was “a real rarity” for Kimbrell’s family, since both ingredients had to be purchased from the rolling store that came by the house each week.

Likewise, Cora Berry’s mother made banana pudding only for Sunday dinners. Berry’s mother, Mary, was born in 1944 and raised seven children in Mobile. She made banana pudding using bananas, vanilla wafers, and custard made from eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla, and milk. The dish was topped with meringue, baked until the meringue rose and browned on top, and served following a fried chicken dinner, a tradition Cora continues for her own daughters and grandchildren today.

But when I ask if she makes her mother’s version of banana pudding, Cora shakes her head. “I tried it once, but something went wrong. I think maybe I left it in the oven too long.” She laughs. “So now I just do it the easy way.” Like most Alabamians, Cora makes banana pudding by layering bananas and vanilla wafers in a dish and pouring pudding over them. Cora also adds vanilla flavor and banana flavor to give the pudding an extra kick, and tops it with whipped cream and crushed vanilla wafers once it cools and sets.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mobile’s economy changed dramatically. With extensive river and rail connections into Birmingham and the Midwest, Mobile became the ideal wartime port. Bauxite, raw wool, and manganese ore soon replaced bananas as the city’s leading imports. Though banana imports resumed prewar levels by 1953 and continued to rise, the United Fruit Company ended operations in Mobile in 1963. Del Monte shipped bananas through Mobile from 1974 to 1985, but then shifted to the port of Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi. In the early 1990s, the banana docks were razed to make way for a new convention center.

MoonPies

moonpie29MoonPies were first produced in 1917 at the Chattanooga Bakery in Tennessee. Created in response to coal miners’ requests for something solid and filling for their lunch pails, the MoonPie was especially popular among the working class. Measuring four inches in diameter and costing a nickel, the MoonPie was both affordable and filling. Similarly, in 1934, the Royal Crown Company in Columbus, Georgia, began selling RC Cola in 16-ounce bottles instead of the usual 12, also for a nickel. Together, the MoonPie and RC Cola became a popular 10-cent combination, especially as a workingman’s lunch. The phrase “an RC Cola and a MoonPie” rang familiar across the South, bolstered by the 1951 hit country song “RC Cola and Moon Pie” by Big Bill Lister.

Transportation improvements in the 1950s, including new highways, tougher vehicles, and more gasoline stations “served as a boundary breaker for the MoonPie.” The snack was soon sold and consumed nationally, though it was still most popular in the South and in areas with many Southern emigrants. In Detroit and Chicago, the MoonPie was a staple snack for industrial workers. Though MoonPies were originally one of two hundred confection items made at the Chattanooga Bakery, by the late 1950s the MoonPie had become so popular that the company produced nothing else.

Around this time, MoonPies made their debut as throws in Mobile Mardi Gras parades. Taffy candy and serpentine (rolls of unraveling confetti) were the most common throws early on. However, in the late 1950s, city officials banned serpentine, claiming that people choked on it. To replace it, float riders began throwing new items like rubber balls, beanbags, candies, doubloons (coins bearing mystic society insignia), bags of peanuts, bubble gum, and Cracker Jacks.

The thrower of the very first MoonPie is up for debate, and several local legends revolve around it. It’s likely that different people on different floats in different parades began throwing MoonPies (or local bakery versions of them) at the same time. But MoonPies’ real popularity as throws came in the early 1970s when the city of Mobile banned Cracker Jacks (the then-favorite Mardi Gras throw) because the sharp box corners injured spectators. MoonPies perfectly filled the Cracker Jack void, and they were an instant Mardi Gras hit. “Oh, to catch a MoonPie!” writes Marie Arnott, who attended parades in the 1970s. “Something that was actually edible and sweet! They were doled out sparingly and the chant in the crowd was always for MoonPies.”moonpie28

Over the next few decades, MoonPies grew into a Mobile Mardi Gras institution. Today, each float rider throws roughly 900 MoonPies during a single parade, estimates Steven Toomey, owner of the primary Mardi Gras supply store in Mobile. Parade crowds chant, clamor, and dash for MoonPies. “You can throw a MoonPie at a 2-year-old child and a 50-year-old will knock them out of the way to get it,” says city councilman Fred Richardson. “If you run out of MoonPies, you might as well just lay down on the float. You can throw beads for a little while, but the people will start calling for MoonPies.”

The magnitude of MoonPies in Mobile occurred suddenly to Richardson, who had been searching for a way to brand the city since joining the city council in 1997. “I was talking with someone one day about MoonPies, and it hit me,” he explains. “The MoonPie is us. It’s synonymous with Mobile. They don’t throw MoonPies in New Orleans. The MoonPie is ours. It was right under our noses, but we hadn’t done anything with it yet.”

Richardson contacted Barbara Drummond, executive director of community affairs for the City of Mobile, and joined by other city leaders, the group gathered to brainstorm about the MoonPie. They wanted to do something sustainable that would also strengthen the city’s First Night activities. They came up with the MoonPie Rise, an electronic MoonPie rising over Mobile on New Year’s Eve. Drummond contacted veteran float builder Steve Mussell about building the gigantic, electric MoonPie.

A Mobile native, Mussell works year round managing a staff of ten full-time employees to construct 60-70 floats per Mardi Gras season. “At first I thought it was kind of silly,” he says of the MoonPie idea. “I think everyone did.” But after realizing Richardson and Drummond were earnest and meeting with excited city electrical and construction workers, “it changed my attitude,” Mussell says. “Their enthusiasm was contagious.” In fact, many in Mobile changed their outlook on the project upon learning Mussell was on board.

And MoonPie Rise needed all the support it could get. Richardson’s decision to spend $9,000 of discretionary funds on an electronic MoonPie made him the subject of intense criticism. One Mobile county commissioner condemned Richardson for spending taxpayer money on a MoonPie in a recession year. But Richardson insists he was well aware of his citizens’ needs, and he saw opportunity in the MoonPie. He hoped the MoonPie Rise would be an economic engine for the city, improving the economy and creating jobs in Mobile in the long term. To Richardson, the MoonPie was an investment in the future.

moonpie23So on New Year’s Eve 2008, Richardson, Drummond, and other city leaders hoped 5,000 people would turn out for the MoonPie Rise. They had 5,000 MoonPies and as many RC Colas to give out, which lasted about 20 minutes. The crowd was estimated at nearly 13,000 despite the unusually cold weather, with temperatures in the teens. Local companies donated coffee and hot chocolate, and the Chattanooga Bakery created the largest MoonPie in history for the event. It was nearly four feet in diameter, contained 45,000 calories, and weighed 55 pounds.

Just before midnight, the electronic banana MoonPie rose 100 feet in the air. The countdown began as it got close to the top, and as the year changed to 2009, so did the lights on the MoonPie. As luck would have it, a CNN reporter was visiting his wife’s family in nearby Foley, Alabama, and the MoonPie soon appeared on CNN across the country. In its second year, attendance at the MoonPie Rise doubled, reaching 25,000. The MoonPie was placed on the city side of the river to make it more visible, and the weather was mercifully warmer. The event had expanded to include musical and dance performances, children’s activities, open nights at local museums, a ball, and webcams of the event. The Rayz, a Mobile-based band, wrote a song for the event titled “Moon Pie Over Mobile,” which was performed by Marcus Johnson and the Bay City Brass Band. And when the MoonPie’s lights changed to 2010, fireworks boomed behind it.

At the next city council meeting, downtown hotel owners thanked city council members. On a normally slow night, the MoonPie Rise had made a $45,000 impact on hotel sales, with all of the downtown hotels full. Richardson and Drummond cite several factors to explain the MoonPie Rise’s success. The event has the monopoly on the central time zone. The MoonPie is the only thing rising on New Year’s Eve instead of dropping. The MoonPie is innovative, different, and kooky. Southerners are deeply connected to it in a nostalgic way. Mobile is the metropolitan hub of the region and draws people from a wide area. But Richardson is also quick to credit the universal appeal of the MoonPie:

Cracker Jacks are for kids, but MoonPies are for everyone. The MoonPie cuts across barriers of age, race, economics. The MoonPie brings people together. If I had picked some other object, it could have divided the community. But nobody has anything against the MoonPie. Everybody loves the MoonPie.

This material is taken from Emily Blejwas’ forthcoming book on Alabama food.

Font Size