Every community has been shaped by the traditions and habits surrounding the growing, harvesting, storing, preparation and enjoyment of food. Food and the practices connected to it — “foodways” as historians and anthropologists call it — are an essential part of every culture on Earth.
“The history of food is the history of people,” says Meg McCrummen Fowler, director of the History Museum of Mobile. “We learn how they moved, how they survived and especially how they interacted with other people.”
In Mobile, six cultures primarily shaped our foodways, each making their mark on the region over the past 300 years. The Bay area’s bounty of natural resources, paired with enduring culinary customs from Native American, French, British, Spanish, American and African American cultures, have combined to create the unique food culture we enjoy today.
“Mobile’s foodways have always been different from other port cities on the East Coast,” Fowler says. “Those cities didn’t have as much diversity in their influences. Food profoundly links us to the experiences of Colonial Mobilians in a way that few other things can.”
Earlier this year, the staff of the History Museum of Mobile sourced dozens of historical recipes and found that, while Mobile and the surrounding area would be hardly recognizable to residents during its founding in 1702, some of the recipes for our regional staples haven’t changed very much.
So, the next time you’re enjoying bread pudding for dessert or spending hours making a pot of seafood gumbo for a special occasion, savor your connection with Mobile’s unique history, which happens to be delicious.
When the French settled Mobile in 1702, Native Americans known as the Mobile Tribe were living in South Alabama. Historians believe the French had a mutually beneficial relationship with the tribe, trading items such as nails, knives and guns for food and instruction about agricultural practices. Without the native Mobilians, it is unlikely the French colony would have survived.
One technique the Native Americans shared with the European settlers was the concept of companion planting, which involved planting corn, squash and climbing beans (known as “the three sisters”) together. Each of these plants helped the others survive, ensuring the harvest, and their produce formed the base of a stew called “msickquatash,” known today as succotash.
French cooking techniques applied to ingredients such as fish and oysters harvested from Mobile Bay have been a constant in our region. Diners who feast on fried seafood at restaurants along the Causeway may not realize it, but much of the food on their plates has been enjoyed by inhabitants of Mobile for more than 300 years.
A recipe for fried oysters found in “The Professed Cook,” an 18th-century English translation of a popular French cookbook, instructs the cook to “marinate some large oysters with vinegar, chopped sweet herbs, pepper; drain them and dip in a thick batter to fry; serve with fresh parsley.” Today, we often marinate oysters in tangy buttermilk and coat them in a cornmeal batter before frying.
The Port City became part of British West Florida in 1763 after Britain’s victory over France in the French and Indian War. When the American Revolution began in 1776, the Patriots invited East and West Florida to join their cause, but the inhabitants of these two colonies already struggled to meet their basic needs and chose to remain loyal to Britain.
Bread pudding, a staple on dessert menus along the Gulf Coast, originated in Europe and has been popular in Britain since the 13th century. Rather than throwing out stale bread, poor cooks would dip it in a liquid with other flavorings and ingredients and bake or boil it into a pudding to reduce food waste. Puddings could be sweet or savory.
Early British colonists brought puddings to America. The savory types were more popular at first, but Colonial Americans eventually began to prefer them sweet. Subdued versions of bread pudding, now a decadent and sweet dessert, are included in several 18th-century cookbooks
Spain declared war on Britain in 1779, and the Spanish flag began flying over Mobile in 1780. Of course, Spaniards had been in the Americas since the 15th century, beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492. So their influence was not new. As the Spanish colonized indigenous cultures in the Americas, they also imposed their way of eating, which they considered superior to that of the indigenous population. Spanish settlers brought livestock to North America, as well as oranges, olives, peaches, corn and wheat.
Early Spanish Americans likely consumed empanadas, and they are still enjoyed all over the United States. In Spanish, the word empanada comes from the word “empanar,” which means “to wrap or coat in bread.” Food wrapped in a crust was portable and remained fresh longer, essential in a world without refrigeration.
American (began 1813)
Mobile became part of the United States of America in 1813 during the War of 1812 when 1,000 men invaded Mobile and took the city without a struggle. Southern Americans in the 19th century ate what was locally available to them — rice, game meat, preserved meats and seasonal vegetables such as corn and squash.
Preserved pork was a necessity, as fresh meat spoiled quickly.
“Fresh meat was a rarity and an impracticality,” Fowler says. “Incorporating meat into one’s diet was a challenge. The best way to do it was to preserve meat with lots of salt. Salt pork became an important part of people’s diets.”
Today, we don’t rely on preserved pork for practical reasons, but those preservation techniques still influence the way we consume pork. Smoked sausage is popular nationwide, but in South Alabama, we’re particularly fond of a particular brand. Conecuh Sausage originated in Evergreen, 92 miles north of Mobile, when a man named Henry Sessions saw a need for frozen storage in an era before freezers were common in homes. Sessions opened Sessions Quick Freeze in 1947. Customers brought their pigs and cattle to be slaughtered and could rent meat lockers to store their meat. The Sessions family also made hickory smoked sausage on-site, which became incredibly popular in the Southeast. The freezer business didn’t last, but Conecuh Sausage remains an important part of South Alabama’s food culture.
Mobile’s foodways are also deeply influenced by the cuisine of the African American community. Beginning in 1707, enslaved Africans were brought to the region, and Mobile was infamously the 1860 destination of the Clotilda, the last illegal slave ship to land on American soil — 52 years after the international slave trade was outlawed. Descendants of the 110 Africans who survived the voyage maintained their African cultures and established the tight-knit community of Africatown.
Enslaved people in America passed down West African food traditions to their descendants, who adapted to the harsh conditions and a limited food supply, going on to powerfully influence American cuisine. African American cooks combined their own techniques with the culinary preferences of those they were forced to feed, creating a unique fusion of African and European cooking through the ingredients used and various preparation methods.
Gumbo, which is ubiquitous on Gulf Coast restaurant menus and in regional cookbooks, is literally a melting pot of many of the cultures that have influenced our region. Although the exact origins of gumbo are murky, it’s safe to say the okra-based stew wouldn’t exist without the adaptive genius of African American cooks. West Africans brought okra to the United States, which served as the stew’s thickening agent (“gumbo” comes from the West African word for okra, “ki ngombo”). Choctaw Indians introduced filé powder as an alternate thickener, and the roux was adopted from French cuisine.