100 Southern Foods

by John. T. Edge - November 2008

From meats and sweets to seafood and sides–dig in

Southern food is all about the low and the high. On the one hand, it’s a pig ear sandwich, devoured beneath the glare of an overhead fluorescent at a stand-up counter in Jackson, Mississippi. On the other, it’s a pâté of chicken liver, savored, with a tumbler of bourbon, at a damask-draped table in Charleston, South Carolina. This roster includes both of those dishes. And it maps both extremes.

For fifteen-odd years now I’ve been documenting the stories told at our collective table, paying homage to our cooks by way of words. Still, the compilation of this list was an exercise in folly, attempted with a 100-count bottle of antacids and a modicum of hubris. I’m sure I’ll be roundly condemned for leaving out the hog’s temple boudin stuffed and steamed by Bubba Frey, proprietor of the Mowata Store, near Eunice, Louisiana. Perhaps I’ll be called a jackass for failing to recognize that the best chess pie in Christendom is baked by the nice ladies at the Whole Truth Lunchroom in Wilson, North Carolina.

But in the bites that follow, I hope that you recognize the diverse and delicious South I know and love. My idea was not to codify the best Southern eats. My aim was to assemble a sample of the sort of bounty that beckons the curious and the hungry. Upon first bite, each dish announces its peculiar terroir. And commands a second bite. Then a third. Enjoy.

MEAT

Beef Jerky
Bourgeois Meat Market
Thibodaux, Louisiana
Imagine a salted beef loin that has shriveled to one-tenth its original size. Imagine that, in the process, said petrified loin twig becomes the embodiment of umami. That just about explains this inexplicably good jerky. (985-447-7128)

Burger with Gin Sauce
Pirate’s Cove
Josephine, Alabama
The drive takes forever. When land finally gives way to bay, a shack emerges from the sand. Pirate flags flap. There’s good country on the box. The booty to be had is a burger, not too thick, not too thin, swabbed with a sauce of mustard and gin. (piratescoveriffraff.com; 251-987-1224)

Catfish of Pork
B.E. Scott’s Bar-B-Que
Lexington, Tennessee
Ricky Parker, longtime owner and pit master, calls it the “catfish.” Says it’s the tenderest cut from the tenderloin of a hog. No one argues anatomy and genus with Ricky. They just step to the window and name the part of the hog—shoulder, belly, ham, or, yes, catfish— they want pulled for a sandwich. (731-968-0420)

Cheesy Western
Texas Tavern
Roanoke, Virginia
It starts with an omelet of sorts, a disk of egg and peppers. But it only achieves greatness when married with a greasy, griddle-cooked burger. A drenching in mustard relish helps. (texastavern-inc.com; 540-342-4825)

Chicken Liver Pâté
FIG
Charleston, South Carolina
If this is poor man’s foie gras, I’ll settle for a double-wide, a bottle of Ripple, universal health care coverage, and a lifetime supply of chef Mike Lata’s exultation of offal. (eatatfig.com; 843-805-5900)

Chicken Salad and Saltines
James Food Center
Oxford, Mississippi
Minced almost to a pulp, the sweet dill relish becomes so much green sawdust. The chicken salad needs a little texture; that’s why I ditch the white bread in favor of crackers. (662-234-5991)

Chicken Stew
Midway BBQ
Buffalo, South Carolina
Ropy with threads of tender chicken, speckled with black pepper, this buttery and milky concoction has few, if any, barbecue house analogues. After slurping down a bowl, I like to walk the sawdust-strewn floor, perusing refrigerator cases stacked with streak o’ lean. (864-427-4047)

Chili-Slaw Dog
Nu-Way Weiners
Macon, Georgia
I taste cinnamon. Maybe cumin. I taste Miracle Whip. Maybe onion. Such are the flavors that come to the fore when I bite into a shockingly red weenie, loaded with chili and slaw, dished by this Greek-owned diner since 1916. (nu-wayweiners.com)

Conecuh Sausage Dog
Conecuh Factory and Retail Store
Evergreen, Alabama
Sausage is about hog oddments, about offcuts and by-products, spiced with sage and cayenne and such. Artisan sausage makers are much in vogue nowadays. Conecuh links, on the other hand, can be bought on the cheap at grocery stores. And samples are free at the factory. (conecuhsausage.com; 251-578-3380)

Cornish Game Hen
Cozy Corner
Memphis, Tennessee
Since the 1970s, the Robinson family has been working an aquarium-style smoker on which they cook the best ribs in town. They excel at stick bologna, too, known to some as Mississippi round steak. But their Cornish game hens, suffused with charcoal-flamed goodness, trump all. (cozycornerbbq.com; 901-527-9158)

Cuban Sandwich
Kool Korners Grocery
Atlanta, Georgia
I’m well aware that Miami is the capital of Cuban sandwichdom. But dig around and you’ll learn that Tampa was the original beachhead. From there it’s a straight shot up I-75 to Atlanta, where this skyscraper-ringed shotgun shack sells mojo-drenched exemplars of the plancha art. (404-892-4424)

Fried Chicken
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
New Orleans, Louisiana
The levee breaches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina flooded the Scotch House, Willie Mae Seaton’s Tremé neighborhood restaurant, in business since 1972. Her home went under, too, for they shared a roof, with the left-hand side of the double shotgun for living, and the right-hand side for cooking. Rebuilding took longer than expected. Volunteers raised money and swung hammers. Nearly two years passed before Willie Mae Seaton stood tall, once again, by her fry baskets. And it was already too late. Age and inactivity had taken their toll on the nonagenarian. In stepped her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton. Today, Kerry’s clapboard corner restaurant stands as a beacon of recovery, dishing deep-fried paprika-spiced chicken enrobed in a parchment-thin crust, an apt homage to the grit and spunk of Willie Mae, a woman who has given her life to the cookery of creolized soul classics. (504-822-9503)

Fried Rabbit Livers with Pepper Jelly
Cochon
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cochon started with chicken livers. Lately, rabbit livers have taken the lead. No matter. Pepper jelly—sweet and spicy and pleasantly gooey—is a constant. And so are shaved raw onions and torn parsley. And that trencher of toasted bread on which this study in magnificence rests. (cochonrestaurant.com; 504-588-2123)

Hash and Rice
Neal’s Barbecue
Thomson, Georgia
Trotters go in the cast-iron washpot. Jowls, too. Cooked down, over a wood fire, they become hash, kissing cousin to Brunswick stew. At Neal’s, rice is the preferred ballast, but a half pound of hacked whole hog works, too. (706-595-2594)

Hot Fried Chicken
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
Nashville, Tennessee
I fear the apocalyptic burn of the skillet-cooked and cayenne-swabbed chicken dished by Andre Prince Jeffries the way I fear the wrath of the Lord. So should you. One taste of a Prince’s drumstick rouses me from a twelve-pack stupor. (615-226-9442)

Hot Sausage Wrap
Southside Market
Elgin, Texas
One bite and your shirtfront will splotch. Two bites and your eyeglasses film. Locals once called these sausages “hot guts.” They’re a little less spicy these days, but the grease within still packs a flavor wallop. I use the so-called wrap of white bread as a napkin. (southsidemarket.com; 512-285-3407)

Hot Tamales
White Front Café, aka Joe’s Hot Tamale Place
Rosedale, Mississippi
Vestiges of early-twentieth-century Mexican farm worker immigration, tamales are the Delta’s fabled snack food. Barbara Pope’s hand-rolled cylinders of beef and garlic and chili powder are, by the way, the perfect accompaniments to a tall boy. (662-759-3842)

Inside-Out Hot Brown
Wallace Station
Versailles, Kentucky
The original Hot Brown, served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, is an open-faced turkey sandwich, smothered in Mornay sauce, crossed with bacon. This retrofitted country store goes Brown one better, tucking the goo inside and panini-pressing the whole. (wallacestation.com; 859-846-5161)

Mutton Sandwich
George’s Bar-B-Q
Owensboro, Kentucky
Pulled from the shoulder of an older lamb, streaked with yellow fat, smoked with a swirl of sassafras and hickory, the mutton that emerges from George’s pits will turn the heads and shock the palates of the pork-centric. (270-926-9276)

Pig Ear Sandwich
Big Apple Inn
Jackson, Mississippi
Get in touch with the frugal roots of our region’s vernacular cookery. Gum into this offal sandwich, slathered with yellow mustard, stuffed into a brown-and-serve roll. It’s all about texture. Or the lack thereof. (601-354-9371)

Pimento Burger
Kingsman Restaurant
Cayce, South Carolina
Pimento burgers are the national food of Columbia, a statement complicated by the fact that Columbia is not sovereign. But never mind that. And never mind that the Kingsman is technically in the Columbia suburb of Cayce. When a hot patty hits a cool patch of pimento cheese, melt is achieved and goodness blossoms. (803-796-8622)

Pork Chop Sandwich
Snappy Lunch
Mt. Airy, North Carolina
Charles Dowell, the owner, stakes his claim to greatness on the Tenderator, the device he uses to accordion-cut pork chops. But I’m thinking it’s more about technique—the one Dowell honed over decades—about how he milk-batters and fries pink slips of pig before slathering the buns with mustard, slaw, and chili sauce. (thesnappylunch.com; 336-786-4931)

Pork Neck Bones and Rice
The Sands
Nashville, Tennessee
A steam-table warhorse, dishing gut-punch eats for twenty-first-century field hands, the Sands excels at pot food, like cartilaginous neck bones with a stout and soulful gravy, served over white rice or sauerkraut, sopped by buttermilk flatbread or hot-water cornbread. (615-742-1652)

Pork Rinds
Kim’s Processing Plant
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Fried on-site in woks by the Wongs, a Chinese family of long standing in the Mississippi Delta, these pig skins (as well as chicken skins) taste somehow of Guangdong, somehow of Chinese five-spice powder. (662-627-2389)

Porterhouse Steak
Doe’s Eat Place
Greenville, Mississippi
A splatter of oil from a skillet full of fries. The forearm hair singes from the roaring back-porch broiler. Doe’s leaves its mark on cooks. The porterhouse, cut from the bone, and swimming in butter and blood, writes its legacy in the arterial plumbing of diners. (doeseatplace.com; 662-334-3315)

Redneck Taco
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Nolensville, Tennessee
I don’t like the slur, but I love the sandwich. How to do it the way Pat Martin does it: Take an oversize hoecake. Pile it high with threads of hickory-smoked whole hog. Gild the whole of it with slaw and sauce. Rake in the acclaim. (martinsbbqjoint.com; 615-776-1856)

Ribs
Archibald’s Bar-B-Q
Northport, Alabama
Loosening meat from the bone requires a good tug. Not a pull, mind you. Just a brief application of the incisors, and hickory-kissed pork strips fall away. The sauce, which you should apply with caution, is orange hued and vinegar nosed. (205-345-6861)

Roast Beef Po’boy
Parasol’s Restaurant & Bar
New Orleans, Louisiana
Garlic-bobbed gravy from this po’boy, served at the rear of a ragtag Irish Channel barroom, will trace its way down your forearms and find purchase in the crooks of your elbows. That’s the promise. (parasols.com; 504-899-2054)

Scrambled Hot Dog
Dinglewood Pharmacy
Columbus, Georgia
Oysterette crackers atop a drift of chili, puddled in a canoe-shaped bowl. Underneath, a chopped hot dog. And, somewhere, a bun. Scrambled dogs, dished at this mid-century soda fountain, are zeniths of the train-wreck school of cookery. (706-322-0616)

Slaw Burger
R.O.’s Bar-B-Cue
Gastonia, North Carolina
Imagine a shotgun marriage of Thousand Island dressing and finely mulched slaw. That’s what they slather on burgers at this still-thriving drive-in. No matter the name, skip the barbecue; the smoke just gets in the way. (rosbbq.com; 704-853-8788)

Sliced Pork Sandwich with Slaw
Craig’s Bar-B-Q
De Valls Bluff, Arkansas
The wallpaper calls to mind an Arkansas duck hunt as captured by a Japanese pastoralist. The sandwich—sliced barbecue capped with a diced apple and cabbage slaw, smothered in something like enchilada sauce—is a singular homage to the late pit master Lawrence Craig. (870-998-2616)

Soul Spaghetti
Collins Dream Kitchen
Jackson, Mississippi
Fat ham hocks, bobbing in a primordial stock. Sweet cabbage, smothered within an inch of its life. The buffet line at Collins offers real-deal eats, but the best is soul spaghetti, a casserole of dishrag noodles, tomatoes, and hamburger meat, buckshot with black pepper. (601-353-3845)

Spread
McClard’s Bar-B-Q
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The dish looks like a Chia Pet, covered in a furry orange carpet of grated cheddar cheese. Beneath it all is a rick of tamales and chili beans, chopped beef barbecue, onions, and—this part is important—Fritos, for textural contrast. (mcclards.com; 501-623-9665)

Stew Dog
Harold’s Barbecue
Atlanta, Georgia
The barbecue isn’t what it once was, but the cornbread is still shot through with cracklins. The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary is still the neighbor of note. And, of late, the Hembree family has begun ladling their peerless Brunswick on hot dogs. (haroldsbarbecue.com; 404-627-9268)

Stewed Oxtails
McKinley’s Bar-B-Que & Soul Food
Ensley, Alabama
Joe and Glow Moore, husband and wife proprietors of this brick hutch of a restaurant, are certified soul cooks. Oxtails, back-of-the-stove stewed until the beef (and the bones) threaten collapse, remind you that good food is imbued with both energy and poetry. (205-785-4101)

Whole Hog Plate
Scott’s Variety Store
Hemingway, South Carolina
The pig, split down its belly, leaves the smoke-shrouded pit house, bound for the chopping room, on a repurposed hospital gurney. Once it’s inside, the ladies cut the rind free with shears and pull the meat into necklaces of hickoried swine. Grab a loaf of white bread, if you like. (unreachable by phone)

Pages

Comments