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Southern Salads: Coleslaw

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Creamy, cool and crunchy, Southern-style coleslaw is the perfect foil for many of our favorite dishes: tender, smoky barbecue; grilled hotdogs and burgers; fried chicken and fish. If we eat it, chances are it comes with a side of slaw. In South Carolina, you’ll find various coleslaw styles, but the most prevalent is mayonnaise-based, aka Southern-style. The first coleslaw recipes, however, contained zero mayo and for good reason—the condiment hadn’t been invented yet.

Food historians trace the origins of coleslaw all the way back to ancient Rome. But it was the Dutch who are credited with giving the dish its unusual name in the late 1700s when they referred to it as “koolsla”—a melding of the words “kool” (cabbage) and “sla” (salad). It was traditionally made with shredded cabbage marinated in a mix of vinegar, oil and melted butter.

The Dutch settlers who founded New York planted cabbage patches along the banks of the Hudson and enjoyed a constant supply of koolsla. But sometime after that, “koolsla” morphed into “coleslaw” and it’s been called that ever since. If you come down South, you’ll likely hear it referred to simply as “slaw,” though there are a handful of folks who will never stop calling it “cold slaw.”

When mayonnaise was invented in the 1800s, Southerners were impressed with its versatility and started making it for all kinds of dishes, including coleslaw. A vintage South Carolina recipe from “Charleston Receipts” called for a mayonnaise made from butter, vinegar and seasonings that were boiled together, then incorporated into beaten eggs until thick and creamy. The concoction was then tossed with chopped cabbage and voila! You had yourself a bowl of Southern-style slaw.

Nowadays, we buy our mayonnaise in plastic containers from the supermarket shelf to make our coleslaw dressing. If you’re a South Carolinian, the brand name “Duke’s” must be emblazoned on the label for your slaw and other mayo salads to be legit. (Not only do we prefer its tangy flavor profile, but Duke’s was born here, too.)

And while we respect our North Carolina neighbors’ preference for a vinegar-based slaw sweetened and colored with ketchup, we tend to regard it with suspicion. While we are tolerant of adding red cabbage, shaved carrot and chopped sweet peppers to our green cabbage slaw—and often give our dressings a good shot of vinegar or lemon and a dash of sugar, too—we usually draw the line at recipes that don’t call for a healthy (heh) amount of mayonnaise. (And, save that ketchup for french fries, how 'bout it?)

Southern slaw complements our favorite foods so well because the dressing is not only tangy, but delightfully creamy. In fact, South Carolina coleslaw is so tasty, it can stand alone just fine. Here is an adapted Duke’s recipe for the classic Southern-style of coleslaw favored across the state. Slap it on a wiener or a pulled pork sandwich, if you like. But it’s so good, you’ll want to eat it by the bowlful, too.

Southern Coleslaw
Ingredients
1 cup Duke's Mayonnaise
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. lemon juice or white vinegar
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
6 cups chopped cabbage (with bits of carrots, peppers or whatever fresh veggies you like mixed in)
Mix the first five ingredients. Toss with the chopped cabbage and vegetables. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to let the flavors meld.
That’s it, y’all!

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.