This probably won’t come as a surprise, but getting married in the South is a big deal, replete with lots of traditions, particularly when it comes to food. Like all customs, Southern wedding food traditions vary from region to region (and bride to bride!). As wedding season gets into full swing, here’s a look at some classic Southern wedding food customs.
Southern wedding festivities start long before the big day. Traditionally, bridal showers are held anywhere from a few months to a few weeks before the wedding, and in the South, they’re just as important as the wedding—if not more so. That’s right: it’s not uncommon for Southern bridal showers to be fancier than the wedding.
The adage “everything’s bigger in the South” certainly rings true when it comes to the menu at a Southern bridal shower. Along with seasonal beverages to sip, and a beautiful cake, expect an excess of hors d’oeurves in multiple varieties. Tried-and-true noshes include all manners of Southern finger foods, such as cheese straws, finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, and an embarrassment of sweets in addition to the cake. The key to making it work: keep the presentation upscale.
Although a bridal luncheon is not an exclusively Southern wedding trend in and of itself, it’s the idea of extending the celebration that makes it so popular in the South. After all, what bride doesn’t want an excuse to treat her bridesmaids, and a handful of close friends and family, as a “thank-you” before the wedding? Showing appreciation to everyone who’s helped you in the wedding planning process is beyond important. For one thing, that’s simple Southern manners. But it’s also a reason to keep celebrating!
Bridal luncheons usually take place sometime between the bridal shower and the big day, which are typically fancy affairs. For that reason, many Southern brides opt for a casual bridal luncheon. If that sounds like your cup of tea, consider a relaxed vibe featuring fried chicken, pigs in a blanket, fresh fruit, and, of course, charm cake.
A charm cake is a special cake that the bride presents to her bridesmaids. Charms hidden inside the cake predict a sweet and fun future for each bridesmaid. Traditionally, these charms might predict such things as who will be the next to marry, who’s soon to be engaged or have baby on the way, and so on. But you should have fun with it! You can make your own charms that say silly things like “you’ll eat the perfect taco” or “you’ll finally find a matching bra and panties set that is flattering AND comfortable.” A charm cake is a unique and special way to bond with your bridesmaids before the big day.
A groom’s cake is a great Southern tradition that’s become en vogue far beyond the South. Traditionally the groom’s cake is eaten at the wedding, but it can also be served at the bachelor party or the rehearsal. It used to be that a groom’s cake was a fruitcake, but that’s evolved as well—now, any cake will do as long as it reflects the groom’s taste (see: armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias). A groom’s cake may take any kind of shape and decoration, from a symbol of his favorite sports team to a beloved pet or other object of his affection.
It’s a Southern tradition for the bride and groom to give each guest a little gift at the wedding, as token of appreciation. The gift is typically small enough to easily be carried home or back to the hotel, and in true Southern fashion, the gift is usually something edible.
When we got married, my husband and I opted to gift little jars of North Carolina’s award-winning honey, which was a perfect fit for the historic garden where we held the celebration. The theme continued: each table was named for a flower indigenous to North Carolina, and our name cards were fashioned from custom packets of seeds that attracted bees and butterflies. Anything goes when it comes to these tasty keepsakes, but it’s common for the couple who’s getting married to choose a local treat for their guests to take home.
Like the gifts for the guests, in many Southern wedding celebrations, it’s tradition for the signature drink to reflect regional flavors. Mint juleps are a popular beverage of choice; other favorites include spiked sweet tea, cocktails based on bourbon or whiskey, or a simple lemonade.
In addition to showcasing a signature drink, the cocktail hour provides a great opportunity to highlight different aspects of the regional food culture. Because we had a coastal wedding, we served crab cakes, grape salsa, and seared tuna with spicy wasabi. Go local and you can’t go wrong.
If there’s one thing Southerners love, it’s a big party. Better yet: a party with great food. The menu at a Southern wedding reception is usually dependent on a few factors, including what time of day the reception will be held, where it will be held, and so on. But no matter what the circumstances, getting married in the South means serving Southern food, one way or the other.
Many Southern brides and grooms opt to go hyperlocal and serve food only from the town they’re marrying in. Others insist it simply isn’t a Southern wedding if there aren’t cheese straws, a beloved snack throughout the South. As for my husband and me, we decided to nod to our wedding locale as well as incorporating our favorite foods from father afield, so we served up traditional Eastern North Carolina barbeque, cole slaw, roasted chicken, hush puppies and a big old salad—for the non-Southerners, of course. (I really wanted to do a whole pig pickin’, but my parents wanted something more…elegant.)
Depending on how you view culinary traditions, getting married in the South can be a blessing or a curse. It’s all about striking a balance between tradition and innovation that makes the celebration a unique reflection of the bride and groom. But no matter how you do it, the food is always great, the bride always looks beautiful, and the women always cry.
Editor’s Note: Did you have any food traditions that you adhered to when you got married? What’s the best wedding meal you can remember having? Let’s dish!
Elena Rosemond-Hoerr is a photographer and writer based out of Baltimore. Born and raised in North Carolina, Elena writes about Southern food culture, blending stories and recipes to bring a piece of the South to everyone. You can find her delicious recipes on her blog, Biscuits and Such, and follow her food musings on Twitter @biscuitsandsuch.