The Origins of 15 Crazy Southern Food Names


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When it comes to our food, Southerners tend to be a pretty proud group—and with good reason. After all, the American South is the land of fried chicken, biscuits, and the entire city of New Orleans. But even the proudest Southerner will admit that some regional dish names are strange at best and, at worst, totally unappetizing (we're looking at you, livermush). Ever wondered what, exactly, goes into souse, or how a dish like Hoppin’ John got its name? We found the answers, y’all.

1. Burgoo 

This spicy stew is a favorite in Kentucky, where it reigns as an unofficial state dish. Though most modern restaurants serve versions made with pork or chicken, traditional burgoo includes whatever meat is on hand at the time (think squirrel, opossum, or even raccoon). The hearty dish, often mixed with corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, may have gotten its name from a thick porridge that the British Royal Navy served in the 19th century. However, some historians say the name could be a combination of the words barbecue and ragout. Another popular explanation is that the term came from a Frenchman attempting to say "bird stew."

2. Hushpuppies 

Southerners will fry just about anything. Hushpuppies, which are deep fried balls of cornmeal, were born at fish fries using the cornmeal left over from the fish batter. Because of their rural origin, the historical record on hush puppies is sparse. Some say the term originated when Confederate soldiers used them to quiet their dogs; others believe they served as a replacement for fried salamanders, called "mud puppies." The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink suggests another theory entirely: Hush was an old Scottish name for a lumpfish. It’s possible that the name "hush" got transferred to catfish, and the hunks of cornmeal that fell off were the hush's “puppies.” Craving hushpuppies today? You’ll find them at most Southern barbecue joints and, of course, at fish camps.

3. Swamp Cabbage 

You’ve likely eaten this dish but called it another name—the cores of the stems of Floridian palm trees are sold as hearts of palm. The trees, known as Sabal palmettos or “cabbage palms,” grow in the state’s swamps. Thus, in small-town Florida, it’s a swamp cabbage. Every year, LaBelle, Fla. hosts a Swamp Cabbage Festival, during which a Swamp Cabbage Queen is crowned.

4. Confederate Cush 

This cornmeal mash, typically fried in bacon grease and sometimes mixed with meat, vegetables, or seasoning, is reminiscent of fried polenta in its texture. It originated, as you may have suspected, on Civil War battlefields, where soldiers cooked the simple dish on everything from rocks to turtle shells. The cush part of the name is said to have come from a Cajun breakfast dish called couche-couche, consisting of fried cornmeal.

5. Souse 

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Many Southern foods are the product of an effort to eat as much of a pig as possible. Souse falls under that category—it's a cold cut made from the head of a pig and set in aspic. By the time a head is turned into souse, the eyes, brain, and ears are generally gone, but parts like the tongue remain. Additional ingredients, like cucumber or red peppers, or in Louisiana, crawdads or fish parts, are often added to the mix. And the name? It comes from the verb souse, meaning to immerse something—in this case, in a pickling liquid.

6. Jambalaya 

A simple explanation for this famed Cajun creation is that it was derived from the name of a French dish, jambalaia, which also contains rice, chicken, vegetables, and spices. An alternate theory behind the dish's tag: it comes from the Atakapa Native American tribe’s phrase “Sham, pal ha! Ya!”, which translates as, "Be full, not skinny! Eat up!" Whatever is in the stew's name, Jambalaya made with sausage, shrimp, and spicy seasoning is one of the Louisiana Creole culture’s most popular dishes.

7. Livermush 

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Unfortunately, livermush is exactly what it sounds like. This treat, best known in and around North Carolina, is a mix of pork liver, head parts, and cornmeal. The ingredients are ground together with seasonings such as pepper and sage, and then formed into a Spam-like cube, which is then typically cut into slices and fried. The dish originally became popular during the Civil War when food was scarce, and was likely brought to the South by German settlers via Pennsylvania and Delaware, as it’s similar to that region’s scrapple.

8. Chit’lins 

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Want some seriously authentic soul food? Skip the fried chicken and order chit’lins. This dish, made from the small intestines of a hog, is deep fried and served with hot sauce. Its name comes from Medieval England, where the dish was eaten by the very poor and called chitterlings.

9. Frogmore Stew 

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Good news: This one isn't what it sounds like. Frogmore is the name of a small community in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. It’s an area—and a dish—with deep ties to the African American Gullah culture, although the modern version is believed to have emerged in the 1950s. The stew is a one-pot boil, and often includes shrimp, blue crab, corn, and new potatoes. But “stew" is technically a misnomer, since the final dish is not liquid, but is instead served on a platter—or more authentically, placed on a paper-covered table—and then eaten with your hands.

10. Red Eye Gravy 

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There are many theories about this thin gravy’s unusual name. The sauce, which is made from the drippings of pan-fried ham mixed with black coffee, physically looks like a giant eye when it's poured into a round bowl (the coffee immediately sinks to the bottom). Some say the name comes from that appearance, while others insist that it's the caffeine in the coffee that inspired the “red eye” moniker. Still others tell the story of President Andrew Jackson requesting gravy for his biscuits, and demanding that it be as red as his cook’s eyes, which were bloodshot from drinking the previous evening.

11. Snapper Soup 

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Turtle soup isn’t exactly a common dish today—but that’s a fairly recent development. The soup, which is made with turtle meat, vegetables, and garlic, was once so popular that it was served in the White House, and a mock version was even canned by Campbell’s in the 1920s. Chefs who want to make it can now order farm-raised turtles from online specialty shops, but for the authentic Southern version of the dish, you need to get your hands on a snapping turtle.

12. Hoppin’ John 

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This Lowcountry dish made from black-eyed peas and rice is believed to have originated in slave communities. Its name supposedly comes from the Haitian Creole term for black-eyed peas, pois pigeons (say it with a French/Creole accent and it makes more sense). Today the dish is often served with bacon and chopped onion, and it’s a favorite on New Year’s Day, when it’s said to bring prosperity and luck to the eater. 

13. Cracklin 

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Are you noticing the “missing g” trend in Southern food names yet? This Louisiana dish is made from cubes of pork skin or fat that are fried in pork lard, cooled, and then refried again until they begin to crackle. The Southern version sets itself apart with a spicy Cajun flavoring, but cultures around the world have their own versions, from Mexico’s chicharrons to tóp mỡ in Vietnam.

14. Shoo-Fly Pie 

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Technically Pennsylvania can lay claim to this dish. But the famed Amish pie made its way south and is especially popular in the Virginia mountains where many Pennsylvania Dutch settled. The simplest explanation is that the pie's sweet and sticky filling—made from molasses and brown sugar—makes it particularly alluring for flies as it cools. 

15. Succotash

“Sufferin’ succotash” was a favorite phrase of Looney Tunes’ Sylvester, and, just like Sylvester, the dish was especially popular during the Depression era. Its cheap ingredients—generally, it's made with corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and peppers—earned it acclaim as the savior of the suffering. Its original name came from the Naragansett Native American tribe’s word “msickquatash,” which means “boiled ear of corn.”

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.