Southern food. It really is a culinary category all its own. And there are as many variations to a traditional Southern dish as there are dialects of the drawl that highlights our region just as well. For instance, Louisiana fried chicken might be a tad bit spicier than its Carolina cousins. And don’t even get us started on barbecue.
We’re also big believers in don’t-dismiss-a-food-before-you-try-it. Down here we find most foods taste better with a dash of Tabasco, at a table surrounded by family and friends. Call us old-fashioned and we’re likely to agree. Some foods are just meant to be passed down through generations and shared. Here we want to share with you some of our favorite Southern eats.
And there are so many more we could mention—fried okra, sweet tea, chess pie, pecan pie—just to name a few. So let’s call this a starter list. If you’ve never experienced the pleasure of Southern culinary cuisine, welcome. We hope you set a spell and taste a few of our favorites.
- Fried Green TomatoesWhile fried green tomatoes were originally a Midwest food, Hollywood and Fannie Flagg established the crispy and tangy slices as a Southern icon (photo courtesy of Paul Goyette)
Here’s a kicker. These Southern favorites aren’t even Southern. Not historically speaking anyway. Today, their popularity seems to hold primarily in the South thanks to Hollywood and one Fannie Flagg and her book Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Cafe.It’s hard to pinpoint their origins to just one place. Most food historians agree frying green tomatoes most likely originated more than a century ago in the Midwest, where the last of the season’s crop just couldn’t beat the first frost. Well, you have to do something with all those unripe tomatoes. That said, Southerners will tell almost anyone that their family has enjoyed them for generations. In Flagg’s cookbook, Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook, she insists that she’s eaten them since childhood.
When it comes down to it, the fried green tomato combines simple ingredients to make something extraordinary, which is after all, what Southern food is all about.
Where to get it—Irondale Cafe in Irondale, Alabama. The restaurant, originally owned by Flagg’s aunt, Bess Fortenberry, served as her inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe.
- Biscuits and Gravy Even in the South gravy can take many forms, from sausage gravy to tomato and even a spoonful of chocolateThe biscuit has long been a staple in the Southern diet, but one thing that those above the Mason-Dixon Line are often confused about is that biscuits are strictly a breakfast food. Down here, biscuits are an anytime food. Just as good served at breakfast as they are beside a chicken fried steak at dinner.
Biscuits and their love affair with gravy have been traced back to the logging camps of the Appalachian Mountains, which is where the term “sawmill” gravy originated. Possibly what made biscuits and gravy such a hit in the South was that it was relatively cheap to make and fed a lot. Most importantly, it’s filling and nothing starts the day off right like biscuits and gravy.
While sausage gravy (or plain ol’ peppered gravy) might be the most recognized gravy of the South, biscuits and gravy can mean different things to different people. In Mississippi, you’ll find nearly everyone’s grandmother has a can’t-be-beat recipe for tomato gravy. Like the peppered gravy, it starts with meat drippings, but adds in tomatoes to give it a tangy and slightly sweet taste. Other areas swear by red-eye gravy or chocolate gravy (which doubles as a dessert). Down here, we care less about what you top it with, as long as it’s a fresh buttermilk biscuit underneath.
Where to get it—Ozark Café in Jasper, Arkansas. The biscuits are large and the sausage gravy’s done right. If you really want to expand your Southern culinary horizons, try the chocolate gravy. Order the large—you can thank us later.
- Fried ChickenThe granddaddy of Southern cooking, fried chicken is as much a part of the South as SEC football and humid summersNo talk of Southern fare would be complete without a nod to the granddaddy of the South’s cuisine. Fried chicken is as Southern as it gets. Most Southerners have memories of their mother or grandmother shaking the chicken pieces in a grocery store paper bag filled with flour, salt and pepper, and a maybe a dash of paprika.
Like most Southern topics, fried chicken’s origins have come up in many a heated debate (we take our food seriously around here). One side claims the Scottish brought their method of frying chicken in fat when they immigrated to the southern United States. Another theory points to the French, suggesting Southern fried chicken is an evolved variation on the fricassee.
However it came about, we’re happy it did. Ever since, chefs throughout the South have been creating culinary masterpieces from this favorite dish. If you haven’t tried chicken and waffles, put that on your list too.
Where to get it—Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina. For more than thirty years, Martha Lou herself has been serving up batches of traditional fried chicken—none of that fancy stuff.
- Grits While grits have been a staple of the Southern diet for quite some time, the addition of shrimp made a dish that even Northerners devoured (photo courtesy of T. Tseng)Don’t turn your nose up at this breakfast staple for many a Southern home. Grits are coarsely ground hominy (corn). In a basic recipe, the grits are cooked in a combination of milk and water, with a dash of salt, until they are near the thickness of oatmeal. A pad of butter rounds it out, but some prefer a sprinkling of sugar or cream as a final touch.
The popularity of grits probably was due greatly to the thriftiness of the dish. But grits have evolved so much from the basics and have come a long way from being a breakfast only item. Grits recipes can include ingredients from bleu cheese to the classic sharp cheddar. And don’t forget the dish that brought grits to the masses—shrimp and grits.
When Chef Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, first put shrimp and grits on the menu in 1982, a Southern icon was born. Shrimp and grits had been eaten in the low country for quite some time, but when a New York Times food writer visited in 1985 and published his experience at Crook’s Corner, those outside of the South got a glimpse at how upscale a low country dish can be.
Where to get it—Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is the go-to place for shrimp and grits, one of the low country’s most popular dishes. Chef Sean Brock is sort of a culinary superhero in the South, and he knows how to do shrimp and grits the way they should be done.
- A Mess o’ GreensForget the kale chips, the South will take a mess o’ greens with bacon grease over dehydrated veggies any day (photo courtesy of Brian Ambrozy)The South was eating greens long before eating greens was the hip thing to do. Forget the kale chips; in the South we’ll take a mess of greens with bacon or ham simmering in the Dutch oven any day.
A mess of greens can be any combination of leafy greens cooked down with some sort of liquid (we prefer bacon grease). Collard and mustard greens tend to be what you’ll find in most Southern kitchens. The collard green is so loved that South Carolina declared it as their official state vegetable.
And don’t forget the cornbread or a good buttermilk biscuit to finish off the “pot-likkr,” the juices left at the bottom of the pot.
Where to get it—Hoover’s Cooking in Austin, Texas. It’s definitely worth it to order the veggie plate (actually, they call their sides “house mates”). The mustard greens are a hit with regulars, but they also offer a jalapeno creamed spinach that fits a spicier palate.
- HushpuppiesChances are there were no pups around when these fried balls of cornmeal were first devoured under the name “red horse bread” (photo courtesy of Doug DuCap)One of the most common stories about the origin of hushpuppies goes back to the Civil War. As Southern soldiers were preparing their supper, they heard Union troops nearby. To keep the dogs from giving them away, they tossed them small, fried corncakes and told them to “hush, puppy.” Most food historians will tell you it’s a great story, but that’s about it.
According to food writer Robert Moss, the most likely origin of the hushpuppy comes from a food Southerners were already eating—red horse bread. Red horse was a common fish found in Carolina rivers, and the perfect side dish to accompany it happened to be little balls of fried cornmeal batter. Sound familiar? In the 1920’s and ’30’s the word hushpuppy started popping up for the same concoction, primarily as an accompaniment to fried fish.
Any true Southerner can’t imagine a fish fry without a side of hushpuppies. The popularity of the crispy-on-the-outside-soft-and-chewy-on-the-inside side has spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line and as far west as California. The variations of the hushpuppy have spread as well. Whether it be sweet or savory, with onion or jalapeño, we’ll take the hushpuppy any way we can get it. Just serve ‘em up hot.
Where to get it—Beck’s Restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina. Beck’s is the go-to place for what the locals call “Calabash style” seafood, but the generously served (and cheap) hushpuppies are what keep the people coming back for more.
- PralinesPralines, a treat we can thank the French for, goes South with the addition of Southern pecans and Louisiana cane sugarThe South has the French to thank for these delightful pecan candies. Which comes as no surprise as they have been cooked in Creole kitchens around New Orleans since at least the mid-1800’s.
The praline we all know and love in the South makes use of a nut that grows abundantly down here, the pecan. The original French version had almonds, but Louisiana cooks used what they had on hand (including Louisiana cane sugar) and a Southern delicacy was born. Candy shops from Texas to Virginia eventually picked up on the praline craze, but Southern candy purists know the best pralines have been and always will be from New Orleans.
Oh, and the crazy debate over pronunciation of praline? Most of us could care less as long as we have one in each hand, but it’s good to know that in New Orleans they never say “pray-leen.” It’s “prah-leen” in Creole country. You’re welcome.
Where to get it—Aunt Sally’s Pralines in New Orleans. The Bagur family has been making hand-poured Creole pralines since 1935.