updated 4/23/2007 9:51:02 AM ET 2007-04-23T13:51:02

A Southern-style breakfast may consist of the following: homemade biscuits, country (very salty) ham, red-eye gravy, and grits swimming in butter. If a fellow were still hungry, he might cook up some Jimmy Dean sausage, toss a few buckwheat pancakes with cane syrup (or molasses), and fry a mess o' eggs with the yolk cooked hard. Healthful? Hardly. But it's easy to eat very well (and very nutritiously) in the South, given the region's bounty of local vegetables and fruits, farm-raised meats, and fresh-off-the-boat seafood.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

Southern cuisine is a blend of the Old World (meaning Europe) and the New World (meaning North America). Necessity forced early settlers to find ways to integrate New World foods, like wild turkey and corn, into their bland diet of dumplings and boiled chicken. Many of the most important elements of the cuisine came from African slaves, who championed such exotica as okra and peanuts, and who turned the vitamin-rich black-eyed peas, used by plantation owners to fertilize fields, into a Southern classic. These influences came together to create Southern cuisine, an amalgam that embraces such favorites as sweet-potato pie, pecan pie, buttermilk biscuits, sweetened iced tea, long-cooked greens, sweet creek shrimp, fried green tomatoes, pan gravy, and peanuts (preferably boiled). But eating in the South is not just about good food: It's about community. Southerners love their hoppin' John and grits, but most of all, Southerners love setting a table and breaking bread with friends and family.

Virtual culinary wars have broken out over how to make Southern fried chicken. Even Colonel Sanders once denounced the way that his chain franchise fried chicken. In the old days, when company was coming, Ma Kettle would rush out into the backyard, grab a chicken, wring its neck, defeather it, and slice it up, tossing the entrails to the hound dogs. She then fried it in lard, sizzling-hot but not smoking. One old-time cook who had a reputation for serving the best fried chicken in Georgia confided that her secret was bacon grease and a heavy black skillet that was 50 years old. "Somehow, that skillet mysteriously flavors my chicken," she told us. "The skillet was given to me by my mother, who'd gotten it from her mother. None of us ever washed that skillet."

If you travel the hidden back roads of the tri-state area, you can still find a granny cooking country delicacies. To enjoy these offerings, you have to have been born in Dixie "one frosty morn." The most famous dish she's likely to offer is chitlins (chitterlings). This backwoods plate is more for Rhett Butler than for faint-hearted Melanie. These pig intestines are turned inside out and then braised, boiled, and deep-fried to a crispy brown. Crackling bread is corn bread with crispy leftovers from the renderings of pork fat at slaughter time. Granny is also the one smelling up the house cooking collard greens, prepared the long-simmered way and seasoned with ham hocks.

What lobster is to Maine, catfish is to the Southern palate. Fried catfish and hush puppies reign supreme. With a sweet, mild flavor and a firm texture, catfish (now commercially raised in ponds) is one of the most delectable of freshwater fish, despite its ugly appearance. The traditional way to cook it is in grease -- a whole lot of grease. Cooks today, having been warned about the health dangers of eating so much fat, have created entire cookbooks about more delicate ways to cook catfish, serving it with such dainty preparations as lime-and-mustard sauce.

Low Country specialties in the Charleston area include such dishes as shrimp 'n grits and she-crab soup. Outdoor oyster roasts are popular in the late fall, when the bivalves grow big and plump. Confederate bean soup is made with onion, celery, bacon, sausage, ham stock, brown sugar, baked beans, and heavy cream. "No wonder our boys in gray lost the war," one diner told us.

In a bow to Southern heritage, wild game is featured on many a menu. Around October or November, hunters in the South, dressed in blaze orange, set out in the forests to stalk deer. The venison may be eaten right away or frozen for later use in the winter, when a steak might appear on your plate with grits and gravy. In the Carolinas, quail sautéed in butter is a tasty delicacy. More modern cooks season it with wine or sherry. Wild duck -- brought down by hunters in blinds on the scenic coastal marshes -- may be roasted and stuffed with potato-and-apple dressing (winning such noted gourmands as former President Bill Clinton).

Eventually, all talk of Southern cooking comes down to barbecue. People in Georgia, for example, have strong opinions about the barbecue that they're served in North Carolina -- and take our word for it, those views are never favorable. And what Carolinians think about Georgia barbecue is best left unprinted. Unlike Texans, who prefer beef-based barbecue, Southern barbecue artists prefer a slab of pork ribs or pork shoulders. If you use beef brisket or lamb, members of your dinner party might get up and excuse themselves, never to darken your door again.

Some cooks slow-roast the pork shoulder for 12 hours or so. Traditionalists prefer smoking it with hickory wood, although some use charcoal. No one agrees on the sauce. Will it be a pepper-and-vinegar sauce (eastern North Carolina); a pepper, vinegar, and catsup sauce (western North Carolina); or a sweet mustard sauce (South Carolina)? Surely barbecue -- regardless of how it's made -- has entered Dixie's Hall of Culinary Fame.

In summer, the fruit pickings are plenty, with local strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, and plums ripening at dusty farm stands. Georgia peaches are legendarily sweet and fragrant. The melon of choice is the watermelon. You'll find the best ones in your own garden or a farm stand. Test for ripeness by giving the melon the thump test (it should have a hollow reverberation), then take the watermelon out on your back porch and slice it. Southerners bring salt shakers to a melonfest. No utensils should be used in eating the melon -- only hands and mouth. Southerners suggest that you merely spit out the seeds that you encounter.

One piece of advice comes from Patsy Winton, who calls herself "South Carolina's literary sweetheart," even though her romantic purple poetry has never been published. She gave us this tip on eating watermelon: "Be sure to remove your shoes before you begin slurping, smacking, and finger-licking. No use to ruin a good pair of shoes. Whatever you do, don't scoop the delicious red flesh out with a melon baller. That will get you kicked out of the best Southern homes and invited never to return. Southern tradition must be maintained at all costs."

Potlikker (also known as pot liquor) is the tasty water left in the pot after the greens, beans, or whatever have been long-cooked, usually in the company of bacon grease, a ham hock, or fatback. Potlikker sounds like something from an old Hee Haw routine, with Grandpa Jones smacking his lips, but it's delicious.

Many Southerners point with pride to the fact that you can get Continental dishes, French-influenced cuisine, and sushi throughout the South today. But visitors to the region deliberately seek out down-home Southern food -- and, unfortunately, it's harder to come by than ever. You can find Old South cooking, however, by visiting a Southern bookstore. Look for any cookbook published by a local civic or church group. Sure, you'll probably find recipes that advise you to pour a can of Campbell's mushroom soup over your chicken, but you'll also discover priceless treasures of Americana. Where else can you find a good recipe for blackbird pie?

For a complete listing of Frommer's-reviewed restaurants, visit our online dining index.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments