From fried chicken in the Carolinas to beignets in New Orleans, the American South is known for its delicious comfort food.
Southern cooking is the very definition of comfort food: fried chicken, creamy grits, beignets, and gumbo. It is warm and welcoming. It combines influences from enslaved African Americans, Native Americans, the British, and the French, and recipes and traditions have been handed down from one generation to the next, reports Faith Rose, a food tour guide with Bulldog Tours in Charleston, South Carolina, and Advisory Board Member to the Culinary Institute of Charleston.
Still, there are geographic variations in recipes. So while you may find grits from Louisiana to North Carolina, Alabama to Mississippi, and Virginia to Georgia, the recipes will have been tweaked to each region’s agricultural bounty and cultural traditions—meaning it’s all the more fun to sample the following iconic foods whenever and wherever you head southward.
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You can rarely go into a Southern restaurant without spotting grits on the menu for breakfast—and increasingly for lunch and dinner. Made from stone-ground cornmeal, grits are typically creamy and often served with shrimp (seafood is ubiquitous throughout the Southern coastal areas). At 22 Square Restaurant in Savannah, for instance, the grits and shrimp are served in a Cajun truffle butter sauce with melted leeks and pork bellies, while at Another Broken Egg, a breakfast/lunch chain with locations throughout the South, creamy cheese grits are paired with both shrimp and andouille sausage that’s been sauteed with red peppers and onions.
Rice is a staple of the Southern diet, and is added to many dishes or served as a side. Having cultivated rice to perfection, enslaved African Americans taught white plantation owners how to grow and cook the grain, a history chronicled in the Netflix documentary High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.
One favorite version is red rice, alternately called Gullah red rice or Charleston red rice. Cultivated by the Gullah people, the dish consists of white rice that is cooked with crushed tomatoes, onions, peppers, and bacon or sausage to produce its distinctive red color.
This vegetable is so iconically Southern that it is included on the menu at the Sweet Home Café in Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Okra is green and pod-like with a slippery texture and a mildly bitter flavor—an acquired taste—and was probably brought to America by enslaved Africans. It serves a dual purpose in many recipes: It is both a nutritious vegetable and a thickener, making it popular in stews and soups. It can also be breaded and fried.
Also served at the Sweet Home Café, collard greens are a popular side dish in Southern homes. They’re a super-healthy dark leafy green vegetable in the kale family. They have the same tough leaves and bitter taste as kale, but Southern cooks know that once they’re steamed or braised, seasoned, chopped up, simmered, and softened, they are tender and delicious.
“Pimento cheese is the pâté of the South,” says Rose, but it’s not like the firm cream cheese version served in the North. “It’s more of a garnish and is made with mayonnaise, grated cheddar cheese, spices, and pimento peppers. And we don’t use Hellmann’s mayonnaise—Duke’s mayonnaise is the most popular brand in the South and is sugar-free.” Go to Charleston’s Handy and Hot café for an excellent Bacon, Pimento, and Egg Cheese Biscuit or Pimento Cheese Grit Bowl, she advises. Or make your own spread by buying the Signature Spice Blend from The Spice and Tea Exchange (it has locations all over the U.S.) and mixing it with Duke’s and shredded cheese.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes had their 15 minutes of fame in the 1990s when the book and movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg were released. Before then, most non-Southerners only knew about red tomatoes, and frying them was not typically on the agenda. Green tomatoes are picked before they ripen and are both tarter and crunchier than fully ripened tomatoes. Breading and frying them, and then dousing them with hot sauce is a favorite Southern trick. Sample them at River House in Savannah, where they’re served with a local goat cheese, a Vidalia onion relish, and a Sriracha remoulade, or at Anson Restaurant in Charleston, where the tomatoes are paired with a bacon jam and pimento cheese.
Hush Puppies and Boiled Peanuts
Hush puppies are cornmeal fritters that are fried till they’re crispy on the outside, but still soft on the inside. They’re often served with barbecue and seafood dishes. Boiled peanuts are simply peanuts that have been simmered for an hour or two until they’re soft and mushy.
Hyman’s Seafood is an institution in Charleston, and a favorite place for both Southern delicacies, says Rose. At Hyman’s, you’ll find nameplates at all seats detailing the famous people who’ve sat at a table before you—Sarah Jessica Parker! Barbra Streisand! Martha Stewart!—and there’s often a line out the door to get in. Leon’s Oyster Shop on King Street is another excellent choice for hush puppies, where they are served with honey butter.
If you have a sweet tooth, a beignet (pronounced “ben yay”)—a Southern-style fried donut powdered with sugar—is a delicious choice. Brought to New Orleans by French Canadians (known as Acadians), beignets can be found at Café Du Monde, which has several coffee stands around NOLA. The original stand is located in Jackson Square near the French Market. Another Broken Egg also serves an outstanding beignet, paired with a honey citrus marmalade.
Why is so much Southern food fried, including the staple fried chicken? Rose says, “First of all because fried food is delicious!” Beyond that, deep frying was a method of preserving food in warm climates before refrigeration was invented, she explains.
Nigel’s Good Food in North Charleston is a Black-owned restaurant that is known for its recipe. Virginia’s on King in downtown Charleston is also worth a stop, says Rose, and at locations across the South, you can sample crispy fried chicken on a Belgian waffle with chipotle honey at Another Broken Egg. In Nashville, if you dare, try “hot chicken”—Southern fried chicken flavored with a dry rub that is rated hot, hotter, and hottest—at Prince’s Hot Chicken, Hattie B’s, or Party Fowl.
Gumbo and Jambalaya
Gumbo is a Creole stew that is typically made with chicken, andouille sausage, seafood, or okra, and rice. New Orleans is the epicenter for gumbo in the South, and SoBou (for South of Broad) restaurant makes a distinctive one with a dark roux, while Commander’s Palace, often cited as one of the best restaurants in the United States, adds some hot sauce to its gumbo.
If you’re looking for something spicier, jambalaya is a Cajun rice casserole that is similar to gumbo. And if you’re wondering about the difference between the terms Creole and Cajun, Creole food usually refers to city food (New Orleans) and Cajun to country food (the bayous of Louisiana). Creole food also typically contains tomatoes, while Cajun food does not. Both are based on French cooking techniques and ingredients, but Cajun food tends to be spicier.