The first Europeans to settle in Southern Illinois were the French in the late 17th century. Concentrated along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, their influence can still be seen today in communities like Prairie Du Rocher. It would be around 100 years later before other areas of Southern Illinois would be settled to any great extent.
German immigrants, often traveling from New Orleans along the Mississippi River, appeared in the early 19th century. They settled along the western region of Southern Illinois, bringing with them their culinary heritage. The German language remained dominant within families until the onset of WWI but their influence is still strong. Restaurants, festivals and meat markets dot communities like Mascoutah, Maeystown and St. Libory.
Around the same time, settlers of Scottish, Irish and English descent entered Southern Illinois from Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of these families migrated from original settlements throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. They brought with them Appalachian and southern cuisine and heritage that is still part of daily life and dinner tables of descendants from these early settlers.
The earliest settlers in the region were farmers who also relied on the land to provide nourishment — whether fish from the rivers or wild game from the forests. Food traditions and family recipes were born from these early survival methods and, even today, it’s not uncommon to find catfish, wild game, or other “critters” gracing dinner tables.
Late in the 19th century, Southern Illinois saw an influx of Italian immigrants from Cuggiono, Italy arrive to work in area coal mines. Italian heritage is most dominant in and around the small town of Herrin. Residents take pride in their heritage and it, too, is evidenced through restaurants and festivals.
Take time to try one or many of our locally owned restaurants that celebrate Southern Illinois’ rich food heritage.