‘What did you eat?’ is what I was asked the most after returning from a road trip through the USA’s Deep South. My answer, of course, was ‘everything’.
Roadhouses, diners, barbecue joints, chicken shacks, and other fine purveyors of Southern fare are the reason why stretchy pants are my travel uniform of choice. But it’s not all about gluttony. Trying different dishes is about getting to know Southern culture, history, traditions and communities, one dish at a time.
Here’s a sample of what you’ll polish off while road-tripping south of the Mason–Dixon Line.
1. Po’ boys
Want to strike up a conversation with a New Orleanian? Ask them where to find the best po’ boys and you’ll get some traction. A Depression-era sandwich dreamed up by a pair of brothers keen to hook up striking streetcar conductors with a free lunch, the po’ boy is one of Louisiana’s best culinary creations (along with Tabasco sauce). If you like the idea of French bread filled with a hefty amount of deep-fried oysters, shrimp, crab, catfish (or roast beef, gravy and Creole mustard), then you’re going to love New Orleans.
2. Southern fried pickles
Southerners recognise the power of the humble pickle. You’ll find fried pickles on menus in restaurants and bars all over the South. The beauty of the pickle is that it doesn’t need much dressing up to become the ultimate bar snack or appetiser. Slice ‘em, batter ‘em, throw ‘em in a deep-fryer, and you’re done.
3. Hot chicken
It’s been said that revenge is a dish best served cold, but in the case of one of Tennessee’s most beloved dishes, payback can also be hot as hell. Folklore says that Nashville-style hot chicken was first created by a woman scorned, who cooked up a super-hot batch of chicken to punish her womanising boyfriend. The devious plan backfired, with the man being inspired to open his own hot chicken shack. Decades later, Nashville is filled with hot chicken joints selling deep-fried chicken pieces doused in cayenne pepper-spiked sauce. Traditionally served on white bread with pickles, the dish that originated in Music City can now be found all over the USA, but there’s no better place to give your tastebuds a good old-fashioned scorching than in Nashville.
4. Peanut butter and banana grilled sandwiches
The type of culinary concoction associated with pregnancy cravings, the peanut butter and banana grilled sandwich is a must-order for any self-respecting Elvis Presley fan who makes the pilgrimage to Graceland. Served at Gladys’ Diner, the sweet and savoury sandwich was Elvis’ fave comfort food and a quintessentially Memphis dish to tick off your list. Novelty value aside, this menu item fit for not just a king, but the king, isn’t such a bad choice diet-wise. Packed with protein, potassium and fibre, this sandwich is actually a borderline sensible lunch in a sea of salty, oily, calorie bombs.
An Intrepid road trip throughout the South is incomplete without at least one visit to a smoky barbecue joint. From Savannah to Charleston, Memphis, Houston, Dallas and beyond, pitmasters cook meat low and slow over wood in all corners of the South, with a few regional specialities worth trying. North Carolina is famous for its pulled pork, Louisiana is where you’ll find the best Cajun-style boudin (smoked sausage), while Texas is all about beef brisket. Don’t eat meat? The sides are just as good as the main event. Order fried okra, slaw, hash brown casserole, slow-cooked collard greens, cornbread and fried green tomatoes. If you look closely enough, you’ll even find vegan brisket in Texas. Yes, Texas.
6. Peach cobbler
Proving that there’s more to Southern cooking than savoury items, Georgia (aka the Peach State) does a mean peach cobbler. A staple of down home country cooking, a warm cobbler made with Georgia peaches may not be the prettiest dessert (think: deconstructed pie) but it sure is satisfying, especially when enjoyed in a comfy diner booth accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and never-ending coffee refills.
7. Key lime pie
With origins in the Key West area, the Key lime pie was selected as the official pie of the state in 2006 when the Florida government passed legislature in favour of the sweet, tart baked good receiving the honour. Now there’s a government with its pie-rorities right. Any pie that has been the subject of senate talks is worth a try. Lucky Key lime pies are easy to find in the South, especially in Florida. When in the Sunshine State, try a pie made with authentic Key limes (not imported limes) and your life may just change. An honourable mention goes to all the other pies of the South: buttermilk pie, Mississippi mud pie, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, and coconut cream pie, we see you!
Brought to Louisiana by the French centuries ago, these hot, sugary, deep-fried donut-like treats are a café breakfast staple in New Orleans. Purists believe there’s nothing better than enjoying the traditional, powdered sugar variety with a hot coffee, but then there’s the folk who believe the beignet shouldn’t be held back. These are the people who order crawfish, cheese and jalapeno beignets. Time your trip to the Big Easy to coincide with Beignet Fest (pssst… it’s in October) and you’ll get to eat all the varieties. Vegan beignets. Peanut butter and jelly beignets. Chocolate praline beignets. Maple bacon beignets. All of the beignets.
9. Sweet tea
Be careful when you ask for some tea in Atlanta, Georgia (or anywhere in the South for that matter) because you’ll most likely get a pitcher of iced sweet tea, not a hot cup of milky tea. Ubiquitous throughout the South, sweet tea is especially popular in Atlanta. The answer to a humid summer afternoon, the refreshing mixture of tea, sugar and ice is the unofficial nectar of the South. Bonus points if you find a quaint porch swing to enjoy it on.
If fried pickles and po’boys take your fancy, join us on a tour of America’s Deep South now. Explore our range of adventures here.