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What to Eat in the South

Scrumptious pies, eclectic gumbos and stews make for good eating below the Mason-Dixon

En español | These 14 Southern states lay claim to a rich tradition of belly-stuffing comfort foods — all worth a detour drive to sample. 

Alabama: White barbecue sauce

Pecan pie and fried green tomatoes are beloved 'Bama dishes, but for something uniquely Alabamian, try some tangy white barbecue sauce. Unlike regular barbecue sauce, which is typically tomato-based, white sauce is mayonnaise-based. “It’s traditionally used as a finishing sauce, popular with poultry and pork,” says Stacey Little, author of The Southern Bite Cookbook. White sauce originated at Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, where the Gibson family has been smoking BBQ since 1925.  

Arkansas: Possum pie

No small mammals in this classic, crazily sinful Arkansas dessert, just crust with a cream cheese filling and chocolate custard, topped with a pillow of whipped cream (no one seems to agree on the origin of the name; it’s also sometimes called chocolate layer pie or striped delight). If you’re ever in the Fayetteville area, locals say, stop into Sassy’s Red House for Southern smoked baby back ribs and a big slice of its possum pie, while others favor the possum pie at Old South Restaurant, a diner in Russellville. Wherever you get it, don’t ask for the calorie count.

slice of key lime pie

mphillips007 / Getty Images

Florida: Key lime pie

The sublime (no pun intended) taste comes from the fresh, pale-yellow juice from locally grown key limes — smaller than the more common Mexican-grown variety. The pie also usually includes sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks in the filling, with egg whites fluffed up for a cloud of meringue topping. If you really want to sink your teeth into the stuff, visit Key West during its annual Key Lime Festival every July 4th weekend. It includes a raucous hands-free Mile High Key Lime Pie Eatin’ Contest.

Georgia: Peach Pie

It only takes one bite of a luscious, fresh peach, juice running down your chin, to understand why Georgia is nicknamed the Peach State. Its swoon-worthy peaches became big business here around 1870, soon after the first seeds were planted in Marshallville. Now the state grows 130 million pounds of them every year. The perfect peach is eaten in many forms: sliced or whole, in cakes and cobblers, but top a warm slice of peach pie with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream and you've got a piece of heaven. Some swear by a buttery, flaky crust, while others throw a dash of nutmeg into the mix — and Lane Southern Orchards fries its version.

Kentucky: Burgoo

Think gumbo and jazz: This improvisational thick mix of meats (pork, beef, whatever is on hand) is simmered for hours in iron kettles with cornmeal or oats and veggies. Sometimes you get a super-spicy burgoo cooked with chili peppers and/or a splash of bourbon or a blend of fragrant herbs. Where its name came from is as debatable as its recipe, but Kentuckians have been making the stew since around the Civil War; it’s long been a staple at potlucks, picnics and Kentucky Derby parties (often generously accompanied by that other state signature, bourbon). Mark’s Feed Store in Louisville is a popular place to sample burgoo, but the most legendary spot is at the historic Keeneland racetrack.

Louisiana: Gumbo

Like the city of New Orleans itself, gumbo is an eclectic mix. The name comes from an African word meaning okra, but this Creole stew is prepared by home cooks and restaurant chefs in seemingly infinite variations that may include okra, chicken, sausage or seafood. Its rich, hearty and smoky flavor comes from a dark French roux and sometimes filé (ground sassafras leaves). Louisianans are so passionate about gumbo, it “inspires countless arguments and controversies,” notes Nora McGunnigle, a New Orleans beer and food blogger. “Everyone thinks — no, knows — that their, or their family’s, gumbo is the best.” Visitors often head to Galatoire’s or Dooky Chase’s Restaurant for their first unforgettable bowl. 

"I’m from Nashville. I love the caramel cake. I love the peach cobbler. If I go to another Southern city outside of Nashville, I look for the best barbecue. I would probably drive three hours for the best barbecue."

— Carla Hall, host of ABC's The Chew

Mississippi: Mississippi Mud Pie

The South loves its sweets, and one of the prime examples is the Magnolia State’s mud pie. The dessert is well named. It’s as thick and rich as the Mississippi Delta’s fertile soil, and like the river (and any good Southern tale), its story is a little murky. While chocolate cake is hardly new, mud pie probably didn’t emerge until the 1970s. The densely layered chocolate cake is usually topped with a thick chocolate sauce or syrup, although variations can include pudding, whipped cream, marshmallows, peanut butter, pecans and even bourbon.  

North Carolina: Livermush

Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern calls this dish “fantastically delicious,” so keep that in mind while you read the description: It’s a loaf of hog liver and head parts and spices held together with cornmeal, a concept that evolved from the German-immigrant tradition of eating pork scraps. You’ll find it in grocery stores and diners, which offer fried slices for breakfast with eggs. Many rural gas stations sell livermush biscuits — a crispy slice of livermush atop a biscuit, sometimes with a bit of grape jelly. “It’s sort of like a Southern pâté,” says Clark Barlowe, a chef and seventh-generation North Carolinian who serves livermush (using his great-grandma’s recipe) with eggs, toast and sides of mustard and jam during brunch at his farm-to-fork Charlotte restaurant, Heirloom.   

Oklahoma: Chicken-Fried Steak

Why should poultry get all the glory of breading and pan frying? Beef gets in on the action across Oklahoma with an entree that starts with thickly battered, tenderized steak cooked in sizzling oil, and usually served with cream gravy and mashed potatoes. While some trace chicken-fried steak to European immigrants creating a variation of Austrian wiener schnitzel, it has long been a cowboy cuisine staple of the West. The Oklahoma Historical Society even calls it the state’s “favorite dish.” You’ll have no trouble finding chicken-fried steak on diner menus across the Sooner State, but the Red B Restaurant in Idabel gets especially high marks for its version.  

low country boil

bhofack2 / Getty images

South Carolina: Frogmore Stew

It’s not a stew and has no frogs. Named for a tiny island town close to the Georgia border, this one-pot Southern feast, sometimes known as a low country boil, is typically a heaping portion of boiled shrimp, hot sausage, potatoes, corn and spicy seasoning all cooked together. It’s pretty much perfect for eating outdoors with a cold drink on a hot summer night. Visitors to Charleston line up for Frogmore at the iconic waterside oyster joint Bowens Island Restaurant.

Tennessee: Hot chicken

The story behind this eye-popping Nashville dish is as delicious as the chicken: A lady in the 1930s got fed up with her cheating guy, so she served him his favorite fried chicken with the fieriest spices she could find. Bummer for her, he liked it and the result was Prince’s Hot Chicken joint. The classic version is served with white bread and dill pickles, with heat levels from cayenne pepper and other spices that rise to “XXXhot” or “Shut the Cluck Up!” all over Music City, though folks really line up for the hot stuff at Prince’s and Hattie B’s (also in Memphis).

Texas: Barbecued Beef Brisket

With a long tradition as cattle country, Texas is a carnivore's heaven, producing some of the best-tasting beef anywhere. The grand-daddy of them all: barbecued beef brisket, which is also considered by barbecue aficionados as one of the hardest barbecue dishes to get right. It’s not in the sauce or the rub: The smoking process is the key. Enveloped in a crisp, roasted fat-rendered crust the smoked meat must be tender and moist. Many of the best pit masters smoke meats with Post oak wood using indirect-heat-fired pits. A few favorites: Franklin Barbecue in Austin, where the burnt ends practically melt in your mouth; legendary Kruez Market in Lockhart, “cooking low and slow in the signature brick pits” since 1900; and Luling City Market in Luling, Texas. Devotees will wait in line for hours at their favorite joint, so be prepared to arrive early to partake in some bona fide 'cue.

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Virginia: Oysters

Coastal Virginia has seen some serious shucking through the years, where oysters have been an abundant food source for inhabitants for centuries. Now the tiny bivalves are considered so popular that the commonwealth is reputed to be the largest source of wild and farmed oysters in the United States, selling more than 40 million oysters in 2016. There are eight regions with very different flavor profiles located within the Chesapeake Bay area, James and Potomac Rivers and along the headwaters of the Rappahannock, to name a few. Oyster festivals and events abound throughout the year and November is Virginia Oyster Month. Follow the Oyster Trail along the eastern and western shores of Chesapeake Bay to discover oyster tours, wine tastings and pairings, waterman boat culture, kayaking, historic sites, artwork, farmer’s markets, lodging, eateries and more. 

West Virginia: Pepperoni rolls

The concept is simple, and the result is a treat: Slightly sweet bread dough is wrapped around pepperoni and baked. “There’s something special that happens in the oven,” says Candace Nelson, author of The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll. “All those spices and oils seep into the dough while it bakes, so you’re getting the magic that happens when they combine.” Local lore has it that pepperoni rolls were popularized by a coal-miner-turned-baker in West Virginia named Giuseppe Argiro — one of the many Southern Italian immigrants who flocked to the state for mining jobs — sometime around 1930. The specialty is now deeply rooted in West Virginia culture, found everywhere from convenience stores to pizza shops, often with additions such as marinara sauce, mozzarella and sweet peppers. Some of Nelson’s favorite places for getting pepperoni rolls: the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, where Argiro first sold his rolls, and Tomaro’s Bakery in Clarksburg.

With reporting and writing by Larry Bleiberg, Chris Hall, Ken Budd, Dana Rebmann and Gigi Ragland

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