The American South has always escaped me. Growing up in the Midwest, most of my experience with the South involved highway rest stops on the way to and from Florida for summer vacations. There were trips to North Carolina as well, along with the occasional day trip to neighboring Kentucky, but the deep South and its culture didn’t even exist on the periphery of my own American identity as a kid. However, in 2011 I moved, to Texas, and everything changed. (Texas, and my surrogate hometown of Austin specifically, is not the South. Texas has its own distinct history and culture, but as a state of transplants and people looking to start anew, the South has most certainly made its presence known to those who call Texas home.)
Although I was mostly oblivious to Southern culture, minus whatever I retained from multiple American history classes, along with watching bootleg versions of Song Of The South in high school, it was Southern food that felt completely foreign to me. After a few years far below the Mason-Dixon line, though, not only have I learned to love dishes completely unknown to me as kid, but I’ve also found new appreciations for foods that I’d only ever experienced in their own diluted forms in the North. This might seem like a greatest hits list to some, but for me, these are the foods I learned to love and appreciate.
Out of all of the foods I’ve come to love after leaving the North, fried chicken is by far the one I had the most prior experience with—fried chicken is everywhere, and it’s done well by passionate cooks across the country. Some of the best I’ve ever had was at Harold’s, a Chicago institution, perfect in its own right. However, during my first trip to Austin, a friend and I stopped on the way at Gus’s in Memphis for lunch, and nothing was the same after that. The juiciest, spiciest, most flavorful fried chicken I’ve ever had, Gus’s lightly breaded chicken was my jumping-off point for real Southern food, and it was a delicious one at that.
Cornbread might seem like a simple thing, but when it’s at its best, it’s so much more. Yet, the importance of cornbread, both for utility and sustenance, is something that those in the North quite grasp. I grew up enjoying cornbread as an occasional treat, slathered in butter and/or honey, but I considered it nothing more than a novelty, a way to change up the pace at our family’s dinner table.
Go to any Southern potluck, cookout, or pitch-in and you’ll see a pan or two of cornbread on the table, never trying to steal the show, but always waiting in the wings. Whether you need to thicken a bowl of gumbo or you just crave a bite of something sweet after your fourth piece of fried chicken, cornbread is always there for you.
Unlike the cornbread I grew up with, the Southern varieties are driven by texture first and foremost. Often times the cornmeal itself is coarser, which provides a more rustic, homemade sensation when you bite into your first or third slice of the meal. And though the cornbread of my youth was solely an oven-baked loaf, the best southern cornbread almost always starts out on the stovetop, in a hot cast-iron pan that (at least in theory) has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. The crispy, almost fried crust that you get from the hot skillet is what gives southern cornbread a distinct look and sound, almost as if you’re opening a gift whenever you cut yourself, or a lucky guest, a slice.
Growing up I stayed away from anything green that wasn’t adorned with icing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day—especially foods of the leafy green variety. Decades later, I’ve come to love any number of greens, but most recently I’ve fallen hard for collards. Unlike much of their leafy brethren, collard greens hold up well to prolonged cooking, and when combined with nothing more than a ham hock and time, you’ve got yourself a delicious side dish. Salty, earthy, and doused in unctuous pork fat, collard greens are a perfect gateway food to fuel anyone’s interest in traditional Southern cooking.
“It’s like polenta, right?” As far back as I can remember, that question was the only thing I could associate with grits, but after relocating southward, I learned that there’s much more to a porridge of finely ground corn than meets the eye. Once used to fill up farmers before they ventured out into the fields, today grits are routinely cooked improperly or covered up with so many other seasonings and ingredients that it’s easy to lose out on the simple integrity of quality grits themselves. When the right amount of time and effort is bestowed upon lovingly milled grits, it can be a transformative experience for the eater, regardless of where you hail from.
Before anyone accuses me of heresy, please know that I fully understand barbecue’s regional specificity. I live in arguably the most barbecue-centric city in America, and although Texas-style holds its own distinct attributes, the South is still evident in every pit, in every plate, and in each and every bite. As the workingman’s food, barbecue once served as a way to get the most out of lesser cuts of meat, but more than anything barbecue is a food shared with friends and family, rather than by yourself. The whole experience: getting a big tray of meat and sides, sitting down at a rickety picnic table with a couple friends, and cracking open a few cold beers. There’s nothing more southern than that.
Max Bonem is an eater and home cook who is more than likely hungry at this very moment. He enjoys writing about food and talking to other people about what they’re finding most appetizing at the moment. Holler at him on Twitter @ChazarBlog.