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Why Southern Food Is So Hot

Chicken Scratch, Jody Horton

Photo by Jody Horton

A feast of Southern delights at Chicken Scratch in Dallas.

Thanks to our collective yearning for food with a distinct sense of place, down-home Southern staples such as barbecue, bourbon and biscuits have never been hotter. Their reach is extending well beyond their humble beginnings in diners and fry shacks to upscale restaurants devoted to baskets of fried chicken and the simple pleasures of, say, homemade pie. Here are eight iconic foods that embody the soul of the South and make for some mighty good eating. We asked the best chefs in the region why they matter, then picked great highbrow and lowbrow spots that do right by them. So roll up your sleeves and come hungry.

Husk's cornmeal-dusted North Carolina catfish with creamed corn grits.        


HI > Husk // Charleston, SC

In the South, ground cornmeal means grits. They’re a breakfast staple in Southern diners, where they’re served with butter, hot sauce and maybe a sprinkling of sugar or a river of giblet gravy. More upscale spots might anchor them to a braised shank. Today, innovative chefs pay attention to sourcing, seeking out organic and heirloom varieties of grain. Sean Brock, the acclaimed chef at Husk in Charleston and Nashville, highlights local producers throughout his menu, in dishes such as baked Geechee boy grits with Abbey oyster mushrooms and Tennessee cheddar.

LO > Bayou Bakery // Arlington, VA

David Guas, chef at this Louisiana-inspired bakery, gets his cornmeal freshly ground to order, from George Washington’s 100-year-old gristmill. “I take my commitment to locally sourced ingredients seriously,” he says. That devotion doesn’t always come easy. The first president’s gristmill is not accustomed to selling to restaurants, and they don’t deliver. “I physically go to Mount Vernon to pick up my cornmeal every week,” laughs Guas. “We make it work.”  

One of chef Tim Byres' signature biscuit sandwiches. Photo by Jody Horton.



HI > Chicken Scratch // Dallas, TX

Tim Byres, the chef at Smoke in Dallas, has devoted himself to the kind of satisfying scratch cooking he experienced on a barbecue- and fried chicken-inspired road trip. His new restaurant, Chicken Scratch, serves “knife and fork” biscuit sandwiches stacked with combinations such as fried chicken, collards, an over-easy egg and hot sauce (pictured right). It also offers baskets of crispy fingers and drumsticks. “I think fried chicken is the one big American taste memory that brings us all back in a personal way,” says Byres.

LO > Prince's Hot Chicken Shack // Nashville, TN

Soaked in buttermilk, dredged in seasoned flour and fried until crisp and juicy, fried chicken is part of a Southerner’s DNA. Nashville Hot, a style made famous at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, has amassed a cult following in Music City, thanks to its hot sauce brine and cayenne-dusted coating.


Biscuits and homemade preserves from Blackberry Farm.



HI > Blackberry Farm // Walland, TN

One of the most revered foods in the South relies on a handful of basic ingredients—flour, butter or shortening, buttermilk, baking powder and salt. There might be a pinch of sugar or a few grinds of black pepper or grated cheese and chopped onion. But in the hands of a true Southern baker, the golden, flaky results are definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Luckily, that finesse abounds, from diners to the luxurious Blackberry Farm, where chef Josh Feathers’ biscuits are served with sorghum butter and homemade preserves. 

LO > Big Bad Breakfast // Oxford, MS

“Given to one set of hands, biscuits can be transcendent, to another, an abomination,” says chef John Currence. The biscuits coming out of his Oxford empire, which includes Big Bad Breakfast, certainly fall into the former category. 

A bowl of seafood gumbo at Shuck's. Photo by Matt Noel.



HI > Shuck's // Abbeville, LA

Creole gumbo, the most common variety in New Orleans, is made with tomatoes and okra. Cajun-style gumbo is typically made with sausage and chicken (or game). In fishing villages along the coast, at casual spots such as Shuck’s, seafood gumbo is brimming with shrimp and crab. A note on garnishes: Gumbo is topped with rice or potato salad (the favored garnish in Cajun Country) and sliced green onions. 

LO > Cochon // New Orleans, LA

“It wasn’t until I made my first pot of gumbo that I realized that cooking was all I wanted to do,” says Donald Link, chef at Cochon and Herbsaint Bar & Restaurant in New Orleans. Chicken and sausage gumbo is his staple, but the chef makes seafood gumbo every year on Super Bowl Sunday.

A selection of pies from Scratch Bakery includes buttermilk sweet potato and chocolate chess. Photo by Chris M. Rogers.



HI > Scratch Bakery // Durham, NC

Of late, the appeal of pie as an affordable, everyday luxury has captured the imagination of smart pastry chefs throughout the region. Phoebe Lawless, owner of Scratch Bakery, left fine dining kitchens to open her own bakery devoted to old-fashioned pies such as lemon chess, buttermilk sugar and banana cream, and tarts that showcase regional ingredients such as Muscadine and North Carolina peanuts. 

LO > Goode's BBQ // Houston, TX

There’s always room for pie in the South: gooey pecan, warm apple with homemade vanilla ice cream, coconut custard, crispy-fried hand pies filled with fresh blueberries or peaches. In Texas, Goode’s BBQ ships its famous pecan pie (pictured left) around the country to Southern natives homesick for the sound of nuts clattering down a tin roof.

The summer succotash at Miller Union in Atlanta is scattered with fresh limas and pink-eyed peas. Photo by Jamey Guy.



HI > Miller Union // Atlanta, GA

They have evocative names—crowders, speckled butter beans, lady cream peas—and across the South, they signal the beginning of fresh summer eating. “No food illustrates the terroir of the South like field peas,” says Steven Satterfield, the James Beard award-nominated chef at Miller Union in Atlanta. Satterfield serves field pea hummus (with homemade lavash) as an appetizer; griddled pastured chicken with a scattering of peas and beans and summer succotash with fresh limas. 

LO > Whiskey Jar // Charlottesville, VA

The Whiskey Jar serves traditional cuisine from the Piedmont Region. That means rabbit (grilled loin with local sausage and creamed spring onions), hush puppies and biscuits (with sorghum butter and apple butter) and fresh peas. Chef Will Richey likes to simmer limas with ham and purées black-eyed peas into hummus.


Chopped pork sandwich topped with coleslaw from Skylight Inn BBQ. Photo by Chris M. Rogers.



HI > Skylight Inn BBQ // Ayden, NC

Great pitmasters are revered, and many learn the craft from their fathers and grandfathers. Schooled by his grandfather, Pete, who opened the restaurant in 1947, Sam Jones cooks whole hogs over wood at Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina. 

LO > Jim & Nick's Bar-B-Q // Birmingham, AL

More than any other meal in the South, barbecue brings folks together. And in most of the region, barbecue means pork: saucy ribs, tangy pulled pork on a soft white bun with pickles or whole hog. A new wave of restaurants is committed to using naturally raised pigs to deliver the best flavor. Jim & Nick’s uses Heritage hogs born and raised in Alabama. 


Collard greens at Hog & Hominy.



HI > Hog & Hominy // Memphis, TN

Leafy, nutritious greens such as collards, mustard and kale have been cultivated and eaten for centuries. Bundles of the deep green leaves are staples at Southern markets, particularly in the spring, fall and winter when the leaves flourish in cooler temperatures. Inspired by their Italian grandmothers but true to their Southern roots, Memphis chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman serve collards in fresh ways at their hip new spot Hog & Hominy and their upscale Anthony Michael Italian Kitchen, and praise them in their cookbook, Collards & Carbonara. 

LO > 12 Bones Smokehouse // Asheville, NC

Mature collards are typically braised with bacon, onions and garlic and finished with a splash of vinegar or hot sauce and served with their porky pot likker (the flavorful cooking liquid) and a hunk of corn bread to sop up the juices. Young, tender collards can be thinly sliced and served as a slaw. Collards and corn bread can make a meal or round one out—they’re typically served alongside roasted meats and barbecue. 12 Bones Smokehouse serves ’em with slow-smoked baby back ribs. //

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Major goof up in the biscuits review. You refer to Chef Currence' biscuits in the "latter" which makes them an abomination per his quote.
11/5/2013 12:57:04 PM

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