A Southern-style breakfast may consist of the following: homemade biscuits, country (very salty) ham, red-eye gravy, and grits swimming in butter. If a fellow were still hungry, he might cook up some Jimmy Dean sausage, toss a few buckwheat pancakes with cane syrup (or molasses), and fry a mess o' eggs with the yolk cooked hard. Healthful? Hardly. But it's easy to eat very well (and very nutritiously) in the South, given the region's bounty of local vegetables and fruits, farm-raised meats, and fresh-off-the-boat seafood.
Southern cuisine is a blend of the Old World (meaning Europe) and the New World (meaning North America). Necessity forced early settlers to find ways to integrate New World foods, like wild turkey and corn, into their bland diet of dumplings and boiled chicken. Many of the most important elements of the cuisine came from African slaves, who championed such exotica as okra and peanuts, and who turned the vitamin-rich black-eyed peas, used by plantation owners to fertilize fields, into a Southern classic. These influences came together to create Southern cuisine, an amalgam that embraces such favorites as sweet-potato pie, pecan pie, buttermilk biscuits, sweetened iced tea, long-cooked greens, sweet creek shrimp, fried green tomatoes, pan gravy, and peanuts (preferably boiled).
Virtual culinary wars have broken out over how to make Southern fried chicken. Even Colonel Sanders once denounced the way that his chain franchise fried chicken. One old-time cook who had a reputation for serving the best fried chicken in Georgia confided that her secret was bacon grease and a heavy black skillet that was 50 years old.
If you travel the hidden back roads of the tri-state area, you can still find a granny cooking country delicacies such as chitlins (chitterlings): Not for the fainthearted, this backwoods plate is pig intestines turned inside out and then braised, boiled, and deep-fried to a crispy brown. Crackling bread is corn bread with crispy leftovers from the renderings of pork fat at slaughter time. Traditional collard greens are long simmered and seasoned with ham hocks.
What lobster is to Maine, catfish is to the Southern palate. Fried catfish and hush puppies (fried cornmeal balls) reign supreme. With a sweet, mild flavor and a firm texture, catfish (now commercially raised in ponds) is one of the most delectable of freshwater fish, despite its ugly appearance. The traditional way to cook it is in grease, but cooks today have created more delicate preparations, serving it with such dainty fixings as lime-and-mustard sauce.
Low Country specialties in the Charleston area include such dishes as shrimp 'n' grits and she-crab soup. Outdoor oyster roasts are popular in the late fall, when the bivalves grow big and plump. Confederate bean soup is made with onion, celery, bacon, sausage, ham stock, brown sugar, baked beans, and heavy cream. "No wonder our boys in gray lost the war," one diner told us.
In a bow to Southern heritage, wild game is featured on many a menu. Around October or November, hunters in the South, dressed in blaze orange, set out in the forests to stalk deer. The venison may be eaten right away or frozen for later use in the winter, when a steak might appear on your plate with grits and gravy. In the Carolinas, quail sautéed in butter is a tasty delicacy. More modern cooks season it with wine or sherry. Wild duck -- brought down by hunters in blinds on the scenic coastal marshes -- may be roasted and stuffed with potato-and-apple dressing (winning such noted gourmands as former president Bill Clinton).
Eventually, all talk of Southern cooking comes down to barbecue. People in Georgia, for example, have strong opinions about the barbecue that they're served in North Carolina -- and take our word for it, those views are never favorable. And what Carolinians think about Georgia barbecue is best left unprinted. Unlike Texans, who prefer beef-based barbecue, Southern barbecue artists prefer a slab of pork ribs or pork shoulders.
Some cooks slow roast the pork shoulder for 12 hours or so. Traditionalists prefer smoking it with hickory wood, although some use charcoal. No one agrees on the sauce. Will it be a pepper-and-vinegar sauce (eastern North Carolina); a pepper, vinegar, and catsup sauce (western North Carolina); or a sweet mustard sauce (South Carolina)? Surely barbecue -- regardless of how it's made -- has entered Dixie's Hall of Culinary Fame.
In summer, the fruit pickings are plenty, with local strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, and plums ripening at dusty farm stands. Georgia peaches are legendarily sweet and fragrant. The melon of choice is the watermelon. You'll find the best ones in your own garden or a farm stand.
Potlikker (also known as pot liquor) is the tasty water left in the pot after the greens, beans, or whatever have been long cooked, usually in the company of bacon grease, a ham hock, or fatback.
Many Southerners point with pride to the fact that you can get Continental dishes, French-influenced cuisine, and sushi throughout the South today. But visitors to the region deliberately seek out down-home Southern food. Though, unfortunately, it's harder than ever to come by.
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