The southeastern United States is something of a world unto its own. The Deep South’s unique culture, cuisine, and dialects can befuddle and bemuse outsiders who come to visit places like Savannah, New Orleans, and the beaches of the Gulf Coast.
If you’re traveling to the South, you may recognize some items on the menus in this region, but there will certainly be dishes that will sound as foreign to you as the New Orleans street name Tchoupitoulas. The food in the Deep South states draws influences from Cajun, Creole, Native American, French, Spanish, Caribbean, and African cultures. It’s always rich, sometimes fried, and generally delicious. Follow this comprehensive guide to get a sense of what will be on your plate when you visit.
Beignets are a wonderful creation brought to New Orleans by the French in the 1700s. The beignets are famously served with café au lait at Café du Monde in New Orleans. Beignets are hunks of deep-fried dough topped with a generous mound of powdered sugar. Be careful not to breathe in when you take a bite—you’ll end up coughing and spraying sugar all over your dining companions. Less common are savory beignets, such as crawfish beignets, which are my personal favorite. Though they’re not very common in restaurants, unfortunately, you can find them at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Blackened fish is a way of preparing fish (originally redfish, though it’s also done with catfish) popularized by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme. The filets are smothered in a thick coating of butter, spices, salt, and pepper, and cooked in a hot skillet, giving the fish a black, charred crust. It might look slightly unappetizing if you’re not into food that appears burned, but in reality blackened fish is rich, flavorful, and worth a try.
Boudin refers to a Cajun sausage most commonly made with grinded pork and rice stuffed in pork casings. In Louisiana, there are typically two types: red (or noir), a blood sausage, and white, or blanc, made without blood. It’s readily available across Cajun Louisiana, in towns like Lafayatte, Lake Charles, and Ville Platte, and some parts of extreme Eastern Texas. Boudin is becoming something of a delicacy in these areas, and those who make it are proud of their twists on the basic recipe. The Cajun Boudin Trail is a great resource for locating the best boudin.
Bread pudding is a traditional dessert made in homes across the South—and frequently found in restaurants, too. It’s a sweet dessert made from stale bread, but don’t let that turn you off. The bread hunks are baked with milk, eggs, sugar, and spices like cinnamon and vanilla, transforming a throw-away into a very appetizing dessert. Often you’ll find it drizzled with hot rum or whiskey sauce. I recommend trying it at New Orleans’ famous Pascale’s Manale restaurant.
Café au lait
Café au lait is French in origin and means “coffee with milk.” Café au lait is made with brewed coffee—don’t expect a strong espresso—and a generous proportion of heated milk. It was popularized by Café du Monde in New Orleans as a compliment to beignets, and can now be found throughout the South and, occasionally, elsewhere in the U.S.
Chicken and waffles
Chicken and waffles is the quintessential soul food. The dish likelydates to Plantation days in the South, though there are varying accounts of its exact origin. Fried chicken is typically piled on top of or next to a waffle—a bizarre pairing, but the combination of sweet syrup, butter, and rich, salty fried chicken somehow works, even if it is hard to eat. The restaurant Sweet Grass Next Door in Memphis serves very reputable chicken and waffles, along with other Southern staples like shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes.
Cornbread is a cornmeal-based bread that may have its origin in Native American culture and is now popular throughout the South. Cornbread is generally baked, served hot, and topped with butter. It’s a simple bread that is slightly sweet and is the perfect complement to dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. Cornbread can also be fried as in hushpuppies, usually found alongside fried seafood dishes, because you can never have enough fried food on one plate in the South.
Cracklins are essentially pork rinds, which are made by frying pig skin and fat. They’re extremely salty and highly unhealthy, but that doesn’t stop Cajuns from making them in high volume. While versions of cracklins are made in many other places throughout the world, the Cajun version has a high amount of fat and very little skin, and is made with generous amounts of Cajun spices. Driving through south and central Louisiana, you’re likely to see a slew of roadside advertisements for cracklins, most of which are made fresh that day. For eaters without heart problems, The Cracklin Trail is a website dedicated to finding the best cracklins out there.
Fried green tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes is a tasty side dish or appetizer of unripe tomatoes that are sliced, coated in cornmeal, breadcrumbs, or flour, and fried. The green tomatoes maintain their crunch when fried, so if prepared right they shouldn’t be mushy or falling apart. Fried green tomatoes are usually topped with some sort of sauce, usually a remoulade, which is a mayonnaise and Creole mustard-based mound of deliciousness. If you’re lucky, you’ll find this combination offered as a poboy option. Fried green tomatoes were immortalized in Fannie Flagg’s book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, a must-read for anyone unfamiliar with Southern ways. You can try the dish at the Irondale Café in Irondale, Alabama, which claims to be the inspiration for Flagg’s book.
Fried okra is made by slicing, breading, and frying the heat-loving vegetable that is curiously reminiscent of a witch’s finger. When okra isn’t fried, it tends to be rather slimy, so frying it cuts the slime a bit and makes the vegetable that much tastier. Fried okra is popular throughout the South as an appetizer or side dish, and fresh okra, slime and all is often used in gumbo. Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill, NC has great barbeque, served with sides of fried okra.
Grits originated in Native American cultures, which ground corn into meal using a stone mill. Grits are so popular in the South that the area from Texas to Virginia, where three-fourths of all grits are sold, is known as the Grits Belt. Georgia actually declared grits the state’s official prepared food. Grits are prepared by boiling the meal in water and/or milk. The result is a sort of creamy porridge topped with salt, pepper, and butter, popular at breakfast or as a side dish. Dubious? Get it with cheese, and you’ll be sold, or better yet, try blackberry grits at the Broken Egg Café in Mandeville, LA.
Gumbo is a rich stew that represents a combination of the African, Native American, Cajun, and Creole heritage present in south Louisiana. It’s made with onions, celery, tomatoes, bay leaves, and bell peppers, and seafood, chicken, and sausage are often added in some combination. There are some variations on the basic dish, depending on whether the preparer is influenced more by Cajun (making it spicy) or Creole cooking (meaning it will likely not be spicy, but still complex). The dish is thickened with filé, a powder made from ground sassafras leaves originally used by Choctaw Indians.
If you ask a southerner how to make gumbo, they’ll probably tell you it starts with a roux, a flour and fat base that also contributes to the thick consistency of gumbo. Gumbo is served over rice and frequently includes okra. For fantastic gumbo, head to famous Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. If you don’t want to offend Creole queen and New Orleans institution, Leah Chase, the chef who at 89 still cooks and chats with patrons, do not add Tabasco to your gumbo. President Barack Obama infamously offended her by doing so in 2009.
Jambalaya is frequently found in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. It’s a Creole rice- and tomato-based dish that originated in the Caribbean. The dish usually contains hunks of chicken and/or slices of spicy sausage, though the Cajun adaptation might include crawfish or shrimp or game such as alligator or the local invasive species, a very large rat called a nutria. Jambalaya is a favorite at Mardi Gras, when groups cook it in huge pots along parade routes in New Orleans. If you catch a whiff of something spicy, you might try asking for a bowl. If you don’t mind standing in line, some of the best jambalaya in New Orleans can be bought at Mother’s Restaurant.
Po’ boy is a sandwich served on thick French bread. The name is an abbreviation of “poor boy,” and though there are some disagreements on the exact origin of the name, the most agreed upon is that it was coined by New Orleans restaurant owners who served free sandwiches to striking streetcar operators. To this day, it’s not a fancy sandwich, and can be bought inexpensively at casual restaurants and even gas stations in south Louisiana. Ingredients include generous helpings of fried seafood or roast beef. Order it “dressed” if you want yours with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato slices. For arguably the best po’ boy in New Orleans, head to Parkway Bakery, or check out the annual Po’ Boy Festival.
Sweet tea is a widespread drink option in just about every Southern restaurant except those in New Orleans. Sweet tea is made from iced black tea and more sugar than is probably advisable. There’s usually a squeeze of lemon, too. Though it accompanies lunch and dinner, it’s almost a dessert in a glass. It’s the ultimate southern drink, sipped by generations of Southerners sitting in rocking chairs on wraparound porches on hot afternoons.