I’m not alone when I say that I. love. food. Who doesn’t love an organic, farm-to-table meal prepared with tender loving care? I search for these types of meals when I go out to eat, and I also create this experience at home. With so many different types of food to choose from, you’d think it would be difficult to choose a favorite, right? Au contraire mon ami. Hands down, I will always be partial to Southern American food.
There’s just something about Southern food that is delicious, comforting and bursting with culture, color and memories. When I travel to Italy, I’m eating Italian food 24-7 but after a few days, I’m wondering if it’s possible to find a soul food joint in Rome for good Southern American fried chicken and biscuits. I can be in Japan, enjoying all the Tempura and Yakitori I can stand, but after awhile I’ll be craving some chicken and dumplings.
While I’m a Southern foodie at heart, I often prepare low-carb, vegan dishes for my family. But when we have cheat days it’s Southern food all the way! And when I need a recipe for a Southern specialty, I usually email my mother. She has a stash of recipes compiled from family and church members as well as several go-to-cookbooks she swears by. One of her favorites is Mama Dip’s Kitchen. Mama Dip is something of a legend in North Carolina. She has a very popular restaurant that serves all types of down home delicacies in Chapel Hill and has written several cookbooks. Other go-to cookbooks in our house include Normal Jean and Carole Darden’s Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine and any cookbook from the Southern Living Cookbook collection.
I thought I’d share some of my favorite Southern dishes. Take a look, ya’ll!
Grits flavored with salt, pepper and butter was a common breakfast in my home. Often it was a side dish to scrambled eggs and sausage or bacon. My mother liked to mix her eggs and sausage (or bacon) in with the grits. I always thought this concoction looked disgusting until I tasted it. It was surprisingly delicious.
As an adult, I often meet other displaced Southerners and we invariably wax poetic about our favorite back-home specialties. I learned about new ways to eat grits in these discussion. I’d never had cheddar cheese on grits or the famous shrimp and grits but once I finally tasted it, I was surprised that I had waited so long to try them.
Fried Liver Pudding
After a little research, I discovered that there are only five liver pudding factories in the U.S. and they are all in North Carolina. Liver pudding is apparently specific to NC, so even if you grew up in other Southern states like Virginia or Tennessee, you might never have heard of this food.
For the record, I hate liver. Well, I haven’t actually tried liver since I was a child but I remember the one time I sampled liver and onions over rice, my taste buds were very angry with me for an extended period of time. Liver pudding is somehow different. It has a mild, mealy texture mixed with an undisclosed mix of spices. It is best served fried crispy on the outside and a little soft in the middle. Liver pudding (not to be confused with liver mush) can also be served cold. I don’t know if this was a safe way to eat this product but liver pudding comes in blocks and I would slice it and eat it straight from the refrigerator. I think my mother ate hers with grits or scrambled eggs (sometimes between two pieces of white bread) but I preferred mine alone, so that no other tastes could hinder my enjoyment.
There is nothing like the taste of a flaky biscuit dipped in warm molasses swirling with butter. Most people identify molasses with ginger bread and ginger cookies but I will always think of the buttery, slightly salty biscuit as the ideal pairing for blackstrap molasses. Many people eat biscuits as a side with breakfast or dinner but I prefer to eat them alone as the whole breakfast or as a snack.
What is there to say about fried chicken? I mean, who doesn’t like fried chicken? There are versions of batter-dipped chicken in almost every culture but I will always prefer the South’s version. And there are so many different ways to season chicken, buttermilk, Cajun spices, garlic…the options are endless. Frying chicken is time intensive, requiring quite the time commitment to properly batter, season and then fry… In the end, it is worth it of course.
Frying salmon in your house leaves your house smelling, well…fishy. To avoid that offensive odor, my mother fries her salmon outside, in a special deep fryer on the deck of her house. I open all of my windows, turn the ceiling fan on high and set a bowl of ammonia by the oven to soak up the scent. Whatever works.
There really is no way to mess up salmon patties and the ones I have cooked turned out delicious. I like salmon patties best with a slice of warm cornbread dripping with sweet butter and a side of collard greens.
Growing up, fried fish was often cooked on Friday’s and my mother could never make enough. I remember eating fried fish (never sure what type) until I was stuffed. Fried fish battered in seasoned cornmeal, topped with hot sauce and served with golden-brown hush puppies (deep-fried cornbread balls) and sweet, tangy cold coleslaw is a favorite childhood memory of mine.
My mother makes excellent potato salad and usually the dish she is asked to bring to potlucks and Thanksgiving dinners. I can remember her letting my dad taste the recipe as she added dill and mustard and what have you. It was an on-going process, add ingredients, stir, dad tastes, repeat… She would strive for the perfect mix of ingredients, the proportion of sweet pickle relish to mayonnaise was always key. And finally, my dad would give her his all important seal of approval and the preparation was complete.
There is controversy of whether potato salad should be served warm or cold. I prefer mine chilled. In my opinion, the cooler temperature bring out the individual taste of the ingredients to advantage. And please do not confuse white potato salad with yellow potato salad, the taste difference is significant. It is actually German potato salad and Southern potato salad with the latter colored by the addition of yellow mustard. I know that German potato salad has its fans but I prefer the tangy, sweetness of the Southern variety.
Okay, lets face it. Anything deep fried is going to taste good but I have always had an affinity for fried okra. Deep frying takes an awkward, much maligned, slimy green vegetable and turns it into a viable dinner option loved by kids and adults alike. Not to say that I don’t enjoy steamed okra (Raw okra is also tops! Have you tried it?) because I do, but the salty crunch texture of the batter means that I am not thinking of slugs when I eat this vegetable.
Collard greens are healthy! Who knew that this tasty, filling vegetable provided so many healthy benefits and would become chicken-and-waffles- trendy with non-Southerners? Collard greens lower cholesterol, protect against cancer and provide digestion support. With most Southern foods being deep-fried, it’s refreshing to find a naturally-occurring healthy food in the mix. Of course, cooking greens with a ham hock helped with the taste, but not the aforementioned health benefits. Growing up, we had collard greens often and my mother cooking them with pork. But you can prepare them with smoked turkey and organic apple cider vinegar for the same great healthy taste.
The love of desserts is universal and certainly the South does not hold a patent on delicious treats. However, it seems to me that my mother made a banana pudding each and every Sunday and I would be remiss if I did not mention this star of Southern cuisine. There are many variations on the recipe but most traditionalists will demand that you use Nilla brand wafers and vanilla (not banana) pudding to layer with the bananas. I seem to recall my mother using lemon pudding on occasion and to great success. However she made it, it was and is an appetizing way to finish a meal. And I am happy to say that I make my own very pretty, skinny version of the banana pudding in a wine glass for my family and they love it.
I think someone tried to create the most delectable way to give a human being sugar shock and came up with the pecan pie. How else does one combine pecans with a cup of sugar cane syrup, an additional cup of white sugar, a dash of vanilla and a liberal dose of butter? This indulgent, sticky sweet dessert is definitely one that should be eaten in moderation but when you do, add a dollop of vanilla ice cream. The bourbon variety is also ridiculously decadent.
Sometimes Southerners take for granted the access they will have to sweet tea when they venture outside of their home region. Take me for example, I remember the first time I traveled to California. I was on summer break from college and having dinner in a Costa Mesa restaurant when the waiter sidled up to our table and asked for our drink orders. I asked for sweet tea. I actually said, “I would like sweetened tea.” You know, as opposed to unsweetened tea? Minutes late, the waiter came back with apology all over his face. “I’m sorry ma’am but we do not serve Sweden tea.” We had a good laugh about that and I ended up with a strong bitter drink simply called Iced Tea.
Sweet tea is an institution in the South. It is what you drink on hot humid days in the summer and how you replenish yourself during Sunday dinner. It is an all-purpose drink that goes well with any meal. It is also filled with sugar, so much so that often the sugar sits at the bottom of your glass in one or two-inch mountains. Well, no one ever said it was the healthiest drink even with all of those antioxidants.
I have since learned to enjoy my tea sans sugar with lots of lemon, or even the very strong Oolong and Jasmine teas popular in Japan. But there really is no replacement for a strongly brewed tea mixed with sugar and a slice of lemon. If you find yourself traveling around the U.S. and you want a taste of the South or just need an energy jolt worthy of a Starbucks venti latte, stop by any U.S. McDonald’s or Bojangles (The only reason I would ever stop at a fast food restaurant!). They both serve an authentic sweet tea that will have you singing Sweet Home Alabama-a-a-a-a-.
What are some of your favorite Southern dishes? Did I miss something wonderful? Sound off in the comments section below!