Stories produced by students in the Meek School of Journalism & New Media
Every region of the country and world has foods unique to its native consumers and chefs. Pork, fried chicken, corn and grits come to mind when thinking of the South, but foreign cuisines and the corresponding cooking techniques impact southern food culture.
Dutch and Rebecca Van Oostendorp moved from New York to Sardis, Mississippi to be closer to Rebecca’s family, and they brought their pizza with them. Eventually, they wanted to share it so they opened the Italian restaurant, TriBecca Allie Café on S. Main Street in Sardis.
TriBecca represented Ole Miss and won the first annual South Eastern Conference Pizza Classic on April 19, 2014, and they are set to compete in 2015 at the World Pizza Championships hosted in Italy.
They say their goal is to create a community, family and a greater understanding of pizza.
“We’ve established community with our restaurant and that’s what we set out to establish was to bring life to a small town main street and to share experiences that we’ve had with food with other people,” said Oostendorp.
The food is cooked in a wood-fired oven that Dutch handcrafted, and they buy all of their ingredients fresh.
“Whatever you’re eating on the special was most likely purchased within the last 72 hours,” said Oostendorp.
Melissa Hall, the assistant director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says the interplay between Italian and southern cuisines is a perfect marriage in large part because of the growing season in the South offering fresh ingredients and both cultures’ traditional reliance on the pig as a major protein source.
“Here in the South, if you were going to describe southern food for working class southerners somebody might say greens, pinto beans, pork and corn. If you were talking about working class Italians, you’d probably talk about the same four things,” said Hall.
Their “Magnolia Rosa Insalata Pizza”, that finished 2nd nationally in the American Pizza Championship in Orlando, Florida in 2012, boasts true Italian roots mixed with southern heritage.
“Some of the things from a cooking standpoint are true about Italian cooking the same as they are with southern cooking. It’s heavily reliant on what you have, what’s fresh and what’s in season. It’s comfort,” said Oostendorp.
Sara Camp Arnold, managing editor for the SFA, says the South’s system of slavery also influenced its food because slaves brought over food preferences that they not only ate but also cooked in white kitchens as well.
“Foods like okra and sweet potatoes along with the African yam, things like gumbo, which have international influences but have been southern foods for a long time. Now, you see things like cinchier collard greens or boiled peanut hummus that have an Asian or middle eastern influence in southern fine dining,” said Arnold.
There’s a historical imprint on southern food can be seen throughout the region.
“You see the Greek influence on restaurants in Birmingham. In New Orleans, you see the imprint of Italian immigrants and Lebanese immigrants in Mississippi. And now in the South, you see the imprint of Hispanic immigrants in the rural south and the imprint of Asian immigrants in the coastal south as people who come from traditional fishing cultures and settle in places like Houston and Biloxi,” said Hall.
Tony Ly, President of the Vietnamese Student Association at Ole Miss, says there’s more Asian -oriented food farther south than Mississippi like on the coast, but his group is sharing its food culture on campus. The VSA hosted its 4th Annual Taste of Vietnam on April 16 to generate interest in their national cuisine by way of serving pho to the Oxford community.
Mimi Nguyen, secretary of the VSA, grew up on her mom’s home-cooked pho.
“Pho is a Vietnamese beef noodle soup, the kind that we love. In the VSA’s pho, there’s beef soup bones, charred onions, roasted ginger, spices as in star anis, fennel, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and then there’s fish sauce. Traditionally, meats such as tripe, beef balls, shrimp balls, pork balls or pig ears could be used too, but a good hoisin sauce is what makes it,” said Nguyen.
Foreign cultures’ cuisines intrigue consumers and create curiosity.
“When immigrant entrepreneurs move to another country or another region and cook the food of their home, people are going to want to frequent that restaurant because it’s exotic and authentic at once,” said Arnold.
Oxford has a diverse food scene; on Jackson Avenue alone, there are numerous cultures represented by restaurants — Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican, to name a few.
There’s only one restaurant, H2O Oxford Oriental Café on University Avenue, with Vietnamese components but Nguyen considers it rather colloquial.
“They put ketchup in their pho instead of sriracha; that’s not real Vietnamese,” said Nguyen.
Based on the VSA’s events’ past success, Ly believes there’s room for more genuine Vietnamese food.
“We’re expanding our culture, and diversity is always good. We have a lot of people from different cultures, Americans, Indians and Hispanics who come eat Vietnamese food. So I believe there’s room for more Vietnamese restaurants in Oxford and all over the place,” said Ly.
Fusion cuisine, the combination between elements of different culinary traditions and cooking methods, is a big part of the southern food philosophy.
“If you pick a moment in southern history, you would be easily able to point to an immigrant culture whose food ways became a part of southern food ways,” said Hall.