From pit-house barbeque to sophisticated Creole classics, Southern cuisine is famous for big, big flavor.
Everyone knows that fried chicken and fluffy biscuits are Southern staples. But what about Country Captain (a stew-like chicken dish), Hoppin' John (made with black-eyed peas) and Louisville Hot Brown (a gratinéed turkey sandwich)? There are so many culinary classics of the American South: smoked country ham and redeye gravy, chicken and dumplings and crayfish étouffée are just a few more. And then there's Brunswick stew: first made with squirrel meat (now mostly with chicken), Brunswick stew originated in Virginia or Georgia--depending on who's telling the story. And for dessert? Don't forget the pecan or sweet potato pie, or fresh peach cobbler!
Barbeque is a Southern thing. Sure, its popularity has spread out to all points on the compass. But real barbeque is a revelation, seldom experienced outside of the South where time is of the essence--in the sense that it is essential to take your time. Only in the South can the style of barbeque provoke such raw emotional responses. In fact, whether you prefer barbequed "pulled" pork shoulder or ribs could be a product of where you grew up. Same goes for the ingredients you want in your barbeque sauce and whether you're working with pork or beef.
The Flour Makes 'em Fluffy
Biscuits are best in the South, where soft winter wheat flour bakes them up light and fluffy. Traditionally, lard was added to the mix, but in these health-conscious times, shortening frequently gets the nod. Biscuits make a scrumptious accompaniment to fried chicken or chicken-fried steak with creamy country gravy--or for breakfast topped with savory sausage gravy.
It's Got Soul
Much of what we consider traditional Southern cuisine comes down to us from the days of slavery. Slaves ingeniously made do with what little they had, turning poor cuts of meat into tender slow-cooked wonders and various vegetables and grains into flavorful greens, grits, black-eyed peas and sweet potato pies.
Laurels for Louisiana
Louisiana merits special mention as a food region entirely unto itself, with New Orleans as its undisputed capital. More storied than perhaps any other culinary region of the United States, Louisiana is where ancient culinary traditions collided, creating a uniquely American regional cuisine. Once settled in Louisiana, Cajuns and Creoles adapted their French- and Spanish-inspired food traditions to make use of local ingredients (including powdered sassafras leaves, known as filé powder). Cajuns turned bouillabaisse into gumbo; Creoles put a spin on paella, coming up with jambalaya.
Crescent City Classics
New Orleans is the undisputed food capital of the South. Its French, Cajun, Creole, African-American and Southern influences have rightfully earned the city its international reputation for culinary excellence. New Orleans is the home of such delights as dirty rice, blackened redfish, Bananas Foster, King Cake, soft-shell crab po'boy sandwiches, muffuletta sandwiches (which owe a nod to local Italian immigrants), and the traditional Crescent City breakfast of beignets and chicory-flavored coffee with steamed milk (café au lait).
It Takes a Melting Pot
Think New Orleans cuisine and one of the first things that comes to mind is gumbo. It's a New Orleans classic. We can trace the roots of this dish to the coming together of many cultures. The French influence can be seen in the rich roux base; Choctaw Indians contributed the file powder; slaves of West African origin contributed the okra, as well as the name "gumbo"; Cajuns and Creoles added the "holy trinity" of onions, celery and green peppers; tomatoes cooked with herbs came by way of Italians, while sausages might suggest a bit of German influence. Gumbo is one stew that really takes a melting pot!
Seafood is a major player in Southern cooking. The Gulf and the abundant fresh waterways that feed into it offer oysters for po'boys, shrimp for gumbos, catfish for frying and turtles for turtle soup. Let's not forget the crabs and crawfish, and the many other water-dwelling species--like red snapper, flounder, grouper and striped bass--that lend so much to Southern cuisine.
Into the Outdoors
The warm weather down South, coupled with a genuine love of hospitality, is enough to fill many social calendars with outdoor food events. Church and community picnics, oyster roasts and afternoon barbeques bring folks together to socialize over a common and comfortable cuisine. Of course, Southern hospitality can be as simple as a glass of sweet tea shared in the shade of a covered porch on a lazy summer day. Those wanting a little kick might favor a bourbon-based drink like a mint julep. Created by a Kentucky Baptist minister, bourbon is the only booze born in the United States.
Though native to South America, the peanut took a circuitous route to get to the American South. European explorers in South America first carried peanuts to Africa before they were brought back to America on slave ships. Today, peanuts (which are actually legumes, not nuts) are grown throughout the South, from Virginia to Texas. About half the yearly crop goes into making peanut butter! The rich-flavored pecan is another nutty Southern treat, particularly popular when converted into pies and pralines. Georgia and Texas are major producers.