The Most Iconic Southern Foods You Have to Try at Least Once

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Ambrosia

In classical literature, ambrosia is the food — or drink — of the gods (the word derives from the Greek “ambrotos,” immortal). On the Southern table, ambrosia is fruit salad. Early versions, from the late 1800s, were often nothing more than orange slices with coconut and sugar. Over the years, it evolved into a more complex mixture, with varying ingredients including pineapple, maraschino cherries, marshmallows, raisins, and bananas, often with a topping of whipped cream. The one essential ingredient, everyone seems to agree, is the coconut.

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Banana pudding

Another dessert from the late 19th century, banana pudding was probably a variation on English trifle, made with sliced bananas, custard, and layers of lady fingers or sponge cake. In the 1920s, after Nabisco vanilla wafers (later renamed Nilla wafers) appeared on the market, they largely took the place of other baked goods. Today’s versions of this pudding are typically made with vanilla pudding, bananas, and Nilla wafers, and may have a meringue topping.

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Biscuits and gravy

The gravy in question in the Southern breakfast classic, is basically a well-seasoned béchamel sauce full of crumbled pork breakfast sausage poured over split biscuits. The dish probably evolved as early as the Colonial era, with the gravy used to soften what would have then been firm hardtack-like biscuits. Today, the biscuits are light and flaky (see below).

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Brunswick stew

This hearty stew was originally made with wild game, like rabbit, squirrel, sometimes even bear. It was invented either in 1898 in Brunswick, Georgia, or in 1828 in Brunswick County, Virginia (the two places still argue). Today the versions from both states and elsewhere in the South use tamer meats — chicken, pork (often smoked), sometimes beef. Onions, tomatoes, and lima beans or butter beans are other typical ingredients, while some versions include peas or potatoes. Burgoo is a Kentucky variation, made with chicken and mutton.

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Buttermilk biscuits

Whether served slathered in butter (with or without preserves) or as the basis for biscuits and gravy (see above), light, fluffy, already buttery buttermilk biscuits are one of the South’s great culinary treats. They became popular in the late 19th century, after the White Lily company, originally based in Tennessee, started selling soft, low-protein winter-wheat biscuit flour, perfect for the recipe.