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

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Hush puppies

Hush puppies (sometimes styled “hushpuppies”) are basically cornmeal fritters — balls or “fingers” of deep-fried sticks of egg-enriched cornmeal batter. Though they now appear on restaurant menus as an appetizer (with dipping sauce), they are traditionally a standard side dish at fried-fish dinners. Folk etymology ascribes their name to the fact that people used to toss them to restive dogs to silence them, but Southern food authority Robert Moss has convincingly debunked that story, suggesting that it might just have meant that they will stop “the dogs in your stomach from growling.”

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Pimento cheese

The so-called “pâté of the South,” pimento cheese is a spread or condiment made from cheese (usually either cheddar or a processed cheese like Velveeta), mayonnaise, and pimentos, sometimes with cream cheese, hot sauce, jalapeños, onions or scallions, and/or various spices added. Pimento cheese was actually invented in the North, and was commercially produced and sold across the country as early as 1910. It didn’t become identified as primarily Southern until after World War II. Today, though, pimento cheese is a staple of Southern cocktail parties, church picnics, and potlucks — and pimento cheese sandwiches are one of the traditional foods associated with the annual Augusta Masters golf tournament in Georgia.  

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Smothered pork chops

In the South, “smothered” foods (the technique is also applied to chicken) are fried in bacon grease or some other fat, then covered with a pan gravy made from the drippings deglazed with stock or water and thickened with flour. (Onions are often added.) Smothered pork chops are a basic dish of the African-American kitchen — they were a signature item at Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta, a meeting place for some of the most important civil rights leaders in the ’50s and ’60s — and are considered a Southern comfort food classic.

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Shrimp and grits

Grits are coarse-ground corn kernels cooked into a kind of porridge in milk or water, an adaptation of a Native American preparation. They’re common at Southern breakfasts, usually graced with butter and salt (and sometimes with grated cheese or maple syrup). On the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, however, the Gullah — descendents of West African slaves — were known for eating grits with shrimp and other seafood. The dish remained a South Carolina specialty until 1982, when the late chef Bill Neal of the acclaimed Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, added cheese-infused grits with shrimp to his menu, attracting national attention. By the 1990s, shrimp and grits were found on menus all over the South and beyond.

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Sweet potato pie

It is thought that British colonists brought the idea of pumpkin pie (along with pumpkins, originally from the New World) to West Africa in the 16th century, and that slaves brought it to the American South — adapting it to yams, which they would have known at home, or sweet potatoes. White Southerners were no fans of pumpkin pie — it was considered a symbol of Yankee culture — so the sweet-potato version caught on across the region. The pie is usually spiced similarly to pumpkin pie and tastes a lot like it, but the filling tends to be lighter.