From fried chicken to scuppernongs and homemade ice cream, Southern writers are at their best depicting summer food scenes.
Summertime seems to hold a special place in the hearts of Southern writers. Maybe it’s because the season brings so many different occasions to try certain foods or drinks that make the sweltering temperatures and thick, muggy air just a little more bearable. Rising temperatures are easily forgotten with a bowl of homemade ice cream or frosty glass of Coke, and a family get together with a table full of food makes any summer day a good one.
We have all made that “aaahhhh” sound after gulping down something icy cold and perfectly refreshing on a hot summer day — and nothing says summer like lemonade. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout understands the power of this cool refreshment:
Lemonade in the middle of the morning was a summertime ritual. Calpurnia set a pitcher and three glasses on the porch, then went about her business. Being out of Jem’s good graces did not worry me especially. Lemonade would restore his good humor.”
Sweet iced tea is also particularly near and dear to Southerners’ hearts, especially during the summer. Sipping lemonade, sweet tea or even a more adult-friendly cocktail on the porch seems to be as much a tradition as ham on Easter. Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Sue Monk Kid’s The Secret Life of Bees and Tennessee Williams’ (pictured on a summer day) “A Glass Menagerie” are just a few works that include mentions of those sweet and refreshing summer libations.
With warmer weather comes a whole slew of juicy fruits beginning to ripen. Toni Morrison incorporates grapes frequently in many of her works, and in The Bluest Eye, two of her characters chase each other through a field of muscadine grapes as she explains:
The object of the walk was a wild vineyard where the muscadine grew. Too new, too tight to have much sugar, they were eaten anyway … The restraint, the holding off, the promise of sweetness that had yet to unfold, excited them more than full ripeness would have done.”
Muscadine grapes, which ripen in late summer, are native to states south of the Mason-Dixon Line and as far west as Texas. The first muscadine ever selected was named “Scuppernong” after the Scuppernong River in North Carolina where it was originally cultivated in the 17th century. Scuppernongs make an appearance in William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! as well as To Kill A Mockingbird:
Plucking an occasional camellia, getting a squirt of hot milk from Miss Maudie Atkinson’s cow on a summer day, helping ourselves to someone’s scuppernongs was part of our ethical culture.” – To Kill a Mockingbird
Summer is also a time for family get-togethers and special holidays — not complete without delicious food. As described in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes:
In the lush green summers … the green kudzu vine covered the sides of the mountains and grew up trees and telephone poles and the air was moist and heavy with the smell of gardenias and barbecue.”
Summer just wouldn’t be summer without the sweet smell of barbecue wafting through the air, but there is more to the season’s food than just pulled pork and ribs. Fried chicken with classic Southern side dishes persists as a staple to eat in the heat. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Teacake brings the whole neighborhood together for a delicious celebration:
A big table loaded down with fried chicken and biscuits and a wash-tub full of macaroni with plenty of cheese in it. When the fellow began to pick the box the people begin to come from east, west, north and Australia.”
Desserts for family celebrations seem to be one of the most important parts of the meal. Lemon chiffon pie, icebox pies and coconut or caramel cakes are all coveted sweets for summer, but ice cream — especially homemade — is one of those foods for which there is no match. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Mrs. Threadgoode reminisces:
I remember one Fourth of July, all of us girls had on our stars-and-stripes dresses, with our paper crowns. We were all out in the backyard, having our dish of homemade ice cream, waiting for the fireworks to start.”
Homemade ice cream is a Southern tradition, and eating it on the Fourth of July seems to make it taste that much sweeter.
It was a starry night — truly a little cool; that was hard to believe! Laura and India, in the back of the buggy with the food, rode at the head, Little Uncle, invisible, driving … With them rode a freezer of ice cream, the huddled napkins of chicken, turkey, and sandwiches, the covered plates with surprises, the boxes with the caramel and the coconut cakes and Aunt Tempe’s lemon chiffon pie. The jug of iced tea was somewhere — they could hear it shake and splash.”
With all of these classic foods at the heart of Southern summers, it’s no wonder so many Southern writers set such mouthwatering culinary scenes this time of year. No matter what you’re choosing to read this summer (our Summer Reading List can help), be sure to savor those descriptions of special meals and take the time to whip up a batch of homemade ice cream.
Featured photo of pie with ice cream by Steve Snodgrass and ice cream photo by jen on Flickr Creative Commons.