The South's 10 Most Iconic Foods and Where to Eat Them
The South's 10 Most Iconic Foods and Where to Eat Them
Southern cuisine has no shortage of iconic foods, and you should definitely know how to cook a handful of them. However, there are some that you just need to travel for, no matter how good a cook you are, or how much praise is heaped upon a "Southern" restaurant that isn't in the South. Here are the South’s 10 most iconic foods and where to eat them at their best.
Biscuits and Gravy
The contrasting textures of crisp-on-the-outside biscuits and dense gravy make this Southern dish popular the world over. It became ubiquitous in the South after the Revolutionary War, when farmers needed a cheap and filling meal to eat during breakfast that would fuel them through the rest of the day. Go to Early Girl Eatery in Asheville, North Carolina, where the gravy is made from smoky bacon instead of the usual sausage.
A staple vegetable of Southern cuisine, nutrient-packed collard greens are typically cooked with diced onions, vinegar, salt, crushed pepper, and a salted meat. They are eaten year round, and on New Year's Day, they, along with black-eyed peas and hog jowls, serve as a symbol of wealth for the new year. Go to Kitchen 208 in Charleston, South Carolina, where the meatloaf gets topped with slightly sweet braised collards.
Fried Green Tomatoes
The dish called out in the title of Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (and in the 1991 movie of the same name starring Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson) is a staple in Southern kitchens and restaurants, though it is technically from the Midwest and has roots in diasporic Jewish cuisine. Go to Cotham’s Mercantile in Scott, Arkansas, where they coat green tomatoes in fish-fry breading before they go into the oil.
A traditional southern Louisiana stew composed of meat or seafood with seasoned vegetables — usually the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking (onion, bell peppers, celery) and okra — in a stock trraditionally thickened either with filé (sassafrass) powder or okra (whose name in various African languages was probably the derivation of gumbo), gumbo is typically served over rice. The dish dates back to the eighteenth century, when southern Louisiana housed a diverse community that included immigrants from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, as well as African slaves and Native American tribes. For this reason, gumbo has come to symbolize the region’s cultural diversity and cooperation. Go to Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans, where you’ll definitely need a bib.
Hushpuppies, golf ball-sized pieces of fried cornmeal batter, are one of the post popular side dishes in the South. They are said to get their name because hunters, fishermen, and soldiers served residual cornmeal mixtures from their own food to their dogs to keep them quiet. Go to the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where they serve a baker’s dozen of them with Cajun butter barbecue sauce.
We always like to hear that desserts are made from natural sugars, but pecan pies were actually popularized by the Karo brand of corn syrup, invented in 1902 in Chicago or New York; the company claimed it was one of their corporate executive’s wives ideas to find a new way to use the product. However you choose to fill it, no pie symbolizes the South more than pecan pie. Go to Not Just Pie in Monroe, Louisiana, where they bake the pecans in the piecrust first for a more even distribution.
Affectionately known as the “caviar of the South,” pimento cheese is a spread of sharp Cheddar or some kind of heavily processed cheese with mayonnaise, pimentos, and salt and pepper. Its ingredients vary by region; some areas add Worcestershire sauce or dill pickles. Go to Big Fatty’s in Knoxville, Tennessee, where horseradish and a Velveeta-Cheddar mix make a perfect filling in between two pieces of seeded toast.
Shrimp and Grits
Originally a breakfast staple of South Carolina fishermen in the Lowcountry, shrimp and grits is at home in most menus in the South. According to the Houston Press, it came to be seen as an iconic Southern dish only after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times in 1985. Go to Rita’s Seaside Grill in Folly Beach, South Carolina, which serves classics like shrimp and grits along with out-of-the-box items like blackened tuna nachos with watermelon pico de gallo.
Southern Fried Chicken
Southern fried chicken as we know it has origins in both Scotland and West Africa, and was a means of independent economy for some enslaved and segregated African Americans, who became noted sellers of poultry (live or cooked) as early as the 1730s. Today, it is one of the most popular dishes in American cuisine, enjoyed all over the country. Go to Kentucky, of course, but absolutely not to any KFC; instead, try Harvest in Louisville, which spices their chicken with seasonal spice blends. You can also travel to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken — the original, in Memphis, Tennessee, which we've voted the best fried chicken spot in America — or one of the seven outposts in four Southern states (with more to come).
Southern-Style Barbecued Pork
The smoky flavor that results when pork is long-cooked (and smoked) over indirect heat makes eating this iconic Southern food one of the most pleasurable culinary experiences in the world. There are many ways to enjoyed barbecued pork, such as pulled, which is when the meat (usually a shoulder cut) is tender enough that it can be torn to shreds by the simple tug of a fork. While good pork barbecue is not too hard to find, Jim’s Drive-In in Lewisburg, West Virginia, serves it to you on trays that fasten to the windowsill of your car. Is that an excellent way to enjoy your Southern road trip or what?