There’s just something about Southern food. As cliché as it may sound, there’s an innate sense of character and soul to it. You get the feeling that there’s a real trail of history behind every dish. And of course, there is a deep history, one that melds disparate influences from Europeans, and Native- and African-Americans to create something truly unique. In fact, many make the argument that Southern food is America’s only true cuisine. But there’s also a special magic to this food, an inherent feeling that whoever prepared it put all their love and effort into it so that you, too, could experience the way they felt when they first tried it themselves.
To this day, every time I eat a ham biscuit, I am instantly transported back to my Grams’ kitchen in Winston-Salem, N.C., standing barefoot with the cool linoleum against my toes as I crane my 8-year-old neck to peek into the bubbling frying pan on the stove. My grandmother is a wonderful cook and an even better lady — full of happiness and love — and she somehow managed to imbue that sense of safety and comfort into her food. Sitting there at the dinner table enjoying one of her meals, you got the feeling that all was right in the world.
When it comes to Southern food, there's no need for frills or fancy packaging. Sometimes a simple slice of salty ham on a warm biscuit can seem more extravagant than an ornate sushi dinner at an expensive restaurant — in its simplicity is a promise of straightforward enjoyment, of memories made over plates of food shared amongst family and friends who love one another.
When you start to think of all classic Southern dishes, the ones that are perhaps most readily identifiable and representative of the cuisine, you realize how many there are. Fried chicken, okra, chicken-fried steak, pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, cheese straws, shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings… a list of the most iconic Southern dishes starts to get pretty long, pretty quickly. So which are the most essential? Which are the dishes that any good Southerner knows how to cook, and any good red-blooded American from outside the South should learn how to cook?
It was with this thought in mind that we set out to compile a list of 24 of the most iconic and essential Southern recipes. But given how many great dishes there are, how to narrow down to the essentials? To start, we spoke with director of the Southern Foodway Alliance, John T. Edge, about why there is such a strong connection between the South's culture and its cuisine. He explained, and as it was noted before, the South's cuisine has deep historical foundations because of the influences of so many cultures coming together during the early settlement of our country.
"What makes Southern culinary culture distinctive is the interplay between black and white, [the idea of people coming from] West Africa and Western Europe and interacting with Native Americans, those interactions are most apparent and what makes our food culture distinctive and vibrant," Edge said. And, if you're asking yourself why you need to know how to cook these dishes, just look to the Alliance's mission statement for the answer.
"Our real job is to introduce people to the South and the stories of the South through food; food is the gateway drug that gets you to learn about [the South's] history. Learn how to cook one of these dishes and [you'll learn the stories behind the dishes, too]," he elaborated.
Another thing Edge made clear was that there are no real "iconic" dishes of the South, because the South is a large part of the country, and "to say something's Southern is to say something's French," he explained. While there are some dishes that are enjoyed all throughout the South, they'll be different depending on where you are. Take, for example, fried chicken. "There's hot fried chicken, which is the style you'd try in Nashville, and then there's honey drizzle chicken which you'll find in some parts — not all — of Virginia," he explains.
With this in mind, we reached out to a group of talented chefs from a variety of Southern restaurants for their recipes, stretching from Nashville to New Orleans, in order to represent all regions of the South. And boy, did we collect some delicious recipes, including a few modernized classics of traditional ones that we're familiar with. Served together, it’s hard to think of a greater feast on classic Southern foods.
From Hominy Grill in Charleston, S.C., there’s a recipe for fried green tomatoes, from chef Ted Lahey of Table & Main in Roswell, Ga., a recipe for collards. We tapped Rappahannock Oyster Co. for their recipe for roasted oysters and turned to Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville, N.C., for a revamped take on pimento cheese that serves it warm as a dip. There’s a celebrated recipe for fried chicken from chef Ashley Christenson of Beasley’s Chicken + Honey in Raleigh, N.C., and a recipe from chef Chip Ulbrich of Atlanta’s South City Kitchen for banana pudding. Buttermilk biscuits, chicken and dumplings, tomato pudding, catfish, cheese straws, and pecan pie… they’re all there. We even threw in some cocktail recipes too, after all, where would a great Southern meal be without a sweet tea, a mint julep, some moonshine, or a Tallulah cocktail? Whether you’re consulting a recipe from Hugh Acheson’s Atlanta institution Empire State South, or Art Smith’s Southern Art, you can’t go wrong.
Fried Green Tomatoes from Hominy Grill
Roasted Oysters from Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Mint Julep from Proof on Main
Buttermilk Biscuits from Seersucker
Deviled Eggs from Roost
Chicken and Dumplings from Virginia's On King
Tomato Pudding from Hominy Grill
Catfish from MilkWood
Cheese Straws from Red Truck Bakery
Fried Chicken from Beasley's Chicken + Honey
Barbecue from 4th & Swift
Shrimp and Grits from Southern Art
Crabcakes from Slightly North of Broad
Cornbread from Percy Street Barbecue
Banana Pudding from South City Kitchen
Moonshine Cocktail from Loveless Cafe
Pecan Pie from High Cotton
Tallulah Cocktail from Ollie Irene
Collard Greens from Table & Main
Shrimp Po'Boy from Empire State South
Pimento Cheese from Tupelo Honey Cafe
Fried Pickles from West Egg Cafe
Chicken-Fried Steak from Thomas O. Ryder
Sweet Tea from Nicole Campoy-Leffler