This article is brought to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Expansive, diverse, and connected by endless open roads, the American South provides the perfect backdrop for an unforgettable culinary adventure. Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Louisiana swamps, this region is steeped in cherished traditions and constant innovation. Barbecue is a ubiquitous staple, yet the cuts and sauces are fiercely regional. The rich tapestry of history, culture, and identity weaves together with local flavors and ingredients unlike anywhere else. So, whether it’s hot chicken in Nashville or tamales in the Mississippi Delta, come and indulge in the authentic tastes of the Southern states.
- Missouri: St Louis Gooey Butter Cake
Legend has it that this moist, delectable mess of a cake came to be by chance in St Louis when a German baker went overboard with butter while making a coffee cake. The result is an intensely rich bake with a sticky layer that delights the taste buds, generously dusted with powdered sugar.
Where to find it: Park Avenue Coffee Roasters in St Louis offers over 60 variations of this indulgent Missouri treat, with flavors ranging from pumpkin to mango.
- Louisiana: Shrimp Po’boy
Taking the humble sandwich to new indulgent heights, the po’boy consists of a French bread loaf filled with deep-fried shrimp, sliced tomato, lettuce, tangy pickles, and a generous slather of mayonnaise. Originally known as the “poor boy,” this sandwich reportedly nourished the picket line during the 1929 Louisiana streetcar strikes. Today, it remains a beloved food sold in local joints throughout New Orleans.
Where to find it: Johnny’s Po-Boys in New Orleans offers 40 sandwich combinations, including the classic fried shrimp and even alligator sausage.
- Tennessee: Banana Pudding
Banana pudding holds such reverence in Tennessee that the city of Centerville dedicates an entire weekend festival to this nostalgic dessert every October. While each grandmother may have her own recipe, the essence remains the same: a velvety custard, layers of vanilla wafers, fresh bananas, and a luscious topping of whipped cream or meringue.
Where to find it: Cozy Corner in Memphis may have an unassuming exterior, but their gooey banana pudding is a local legend that should not be missed.
- Kentucky: Burgoo Stew
A cherished favorite on Kentucky Derby race day, burgoo stew is a hearty amalgamation of succulent chunks of meat simmered in a fragrant vegetable broth. The exact combination of meats may vary, but it often includes chicken, pork, mutton, and beef, while the vegetables might feature butter beans, sweetcorn, cabbage, or tomatoes. This labor-intensive dish requires slow cooking and constant attention, but the end result is guaranteed to please any crowd.
Where to find it: The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, known for its wood-paneled buffet, serves a rich and spicy burgoo stew, accompanied by fluffy cornbread muffins.
- Alabama: Fried Green Tomatoes
Forever immortalized in the Alabama-based book and film “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” this dish is now inseparably linked with the state. Slices of green tomatoes are coated in cornmeal, fried in bacon drippings to a perfect crisp, and adorned with various additions like remoulade, marinated Gulf crab, or andouille sausage.
Where to find it: Johnny’s in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, is renowned for their new-school meat-and-three restaurant, where fried green tomatoes take center stage on the chalkboard menu.
- Arkansas: Fried Catfish
Arkansas’s rivers and streams teem with whiskered catfish, making this dish a favorite among cooks throughout the state. The mild fish with its sweet undertones is coated in a cornmeal batter seasoned generously with cayenne pepper, paprika, and garlic powder before being plunged into sizzling oil. The result is a remarkably flavorful delight, best enjoyed with a side of hushpuppies—crunchy, bite-sized cornmeal fritters.
Where to find it: J Lassis Inn in Little Rock, a crucial meeting place for civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, serves award-winning catfish alongside a neon-lit jukebox.
- Louisiana: Crawfish Etouffee
This saucy seafood dish draws influence from both Creole and Cajun cuisines. The Creole version incorporates tomatoes into a traditional French-style roux, while the Cajun variation utilizes an oil base and more spices. Both versions feature onion, celery, and bell pepper, resulting in a savory, briny flavor enhanced by crawfish, shrimp, and crab.
Where to find it: Mother’s Restaurant, a New Orleans institution since 1938, prepares their butter-rich etouffee exclusively with Louisiana crawfish.
- Tennessee: Biscuits
These savory sides, more akin to European scones than the traditional concept of biscuits, have become a beloved accompaniment to meals throughout the South. Buttermilk biscuits, often served from dawn to dusk, are taken straight from the oven and presented in cloth-lined baskets. They pair perfectly with breakfast favorites like grits, eggs, and sausage gravy, or accompany main dishes such as fried chicken at any time of the day.
Where to find it: Loveless Café in Nashville, where bakers begin kneading dough at 3 am each morning, produces flawless biscuits that perfectly complement crumbly country ham.
- Louisiana: Beignets
Introduced to New Orleans by the French Acadians in the 18th century, these sweet delicacies consist of deep-fried choux pastry or leavened dough. Traditionally served under a shower of powdered sugar, beignets have also found their way onto savory menus as chefs experiment with additions like rich crab meat, fried chicken, or cheese.
Where to find it: Café du Monde, a renowned coffee shop that has been serving up sugar-dusted beignets in New Orleans since 1862, is a must-visit spot with perpetually long queues.
- South Carolina: Shrimp and Grits
Once a hearty breakfast for fishermen, this humble dish combines boiled cornmeal, reminiscent of porridge, with pan-fried shrimp. The creamy grits, fresh seafood, and a dash of Tabasco create a perfectly balanced flavor profile. In Charleston, South Carolina, shrimp and grits have found their way onto the menus of some of the town’s most refined restaurants.
Where to find it: Magnolias in Charleston has elevated this dish to fine-dining standards, serving sautéed shrimp, scallops, and a lobster butter sauce over a bed of the creamiest white grits.
This article was originally published in issue 20 (summer 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Southern cuisine
What are some iconic dishes of the Southern states?
Some iconic dishes of the Southern states include St Louis gooey butter cake, shrimp po’boy, banana pudding, burgoo stew, fried green tomatoes, fried catfish, crawfish etouffee, biscuits, beignets, and shrimp and grits.
Where can I find these dishes?
You can find these dishes in various locations throughout the Southern states. Specific recommendations include Park Avenue Coffee Roasters in St Louis for gooey butter cake, Johnny’s Po-Boys in New Orleans for shrimp po’boy, Cozy Corner in Memphis for banana pudding, the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro for burgoo stew, Johnny’s in Homewood for fried green tomatoes, J Lassis Inn in Little Rock for fried catfish, Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans for crawfish etouffee, Loveless Café in Nashville for biscuits, Café du Monde in New Orleans for beignets, and Magnolias in Charleston for shrimp and grits.
Are these dishes available year-round?
Yes, these dishes are typically available year-round in their respective locations. However, it’s always a good idea to check the specific restaurant or establishment for their operating hours and seasonal variations.
Can I find vegetarian or vegan options among these dishes?
While some dishes may have vegetarian or vegan variations available, many of the iconic Southern dishes mentioned in the text are traditionally prepared with meat or animal products. However, some restaurants and chefs may offer vegetarian or vegan adaptations, so it’s worth inquiring or researching specific establishments for such options.
Is there any recommended festival or event dedicated to these dishes?
Yes, the city of Centerville in Tennessee dedicates a weekend-long festival each October to celebrate banana pudding, showcasing different variations and honoring this nostalgic dessert.
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