“Do y’all have good food up there?” That is the question I most often get asked when I go back to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. They don’t know how I survive in the North without barbeque, fried veggies, or a million different kinds of cornbread. And because it’s often the case that Southerners stay right where they are — in the South — surviving without these and many other foods just seems impossible.
In short, the answer to that first question is “yes.” My first real Philly cheesesteak was almost a religious experience, and scrapple is on my list of things to try when I’m in a more adventurous mood. But there are some cravings that only the good ole South can cure.
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I found a food truck that boasted Southern favorites like collard greens and ham. I wasn’t hungry at the time, but vowed to return so that I could get my Southern food fix. When I went back the next day it was gone, and I hadn’t thought to memorize the name of the truck. To this day, I still have not found it.
As far as restaurants go, a few of them boast that they have good barbeque. Some even list it as “Memphis-style” on the menu. This is always a lie, so never let it fool you. The only eateries that serve Memphis-style barbeque are in Memphis. I find that the meat lacks that slow-smoked flavor, and the sauce is all sweet and no spice. Order cornbread and you’re in for a dry, crumbly mess. I ordered fried okra once, only to be presented with some sort of okra mush. Fried means crispy!
Fed up with my restaurant search, I began a new quest: to recreate my favorite dishes from home myself — but I ran into some obstacles. I was originally going to prepare fried green tomatoes but, after scouring several grocery stores and a farmers’ market in the area, I came away empty-handed. I also encountered some difficulties in finding okra. I finally found a bag of frozen okra, but I would have really liked it fresh. I found Luzianne brand tea – the true Southern brand – totally by accident. I had searched and searched for the brand, but had resigned myself to another kind, when I spotted a box of Luzianne on the floor, underneath a display of bread a few aisles over. It was still sealed so I snatched it up. Everything else was fairly easy to come by.
What the South does remarkably well is take normally nutritious foods and turn them into an artery-clogging (but delicious) dish. We love frying our vegetables. How else are we supposed to choke them down? Certainly not sautéed. If you do that, they might still taste like vegetables. Wouldn’t you rather your vegetables taste buttery, breaded and crispy?
And if you think you’re going to get any better meat than meat you cook in bacon grease, you’ve got another thing coming. As a bonus, your entire house will smell like bacon for at least a day. You may never have to buy an air freshener again.
Keeping in mind the fact that my home state of Tennessee is morbidly obese, there just isn’t anything better than down home cookin‘. In my quest for properly prepared Southern classics, I embarked on my own culinary adventure. These recipes can be slimmed down for those of you who would rather keep it healthy, but remember: It’s not authentic if it’s not bad for you. Consider these concoctions a treat, and think fondly of your Southern neighbors. For a truly Southern experience, locate a screen porch and eat there.
Shrimp and Grits
My dad used to make me grits for breakfast when I was a little kid. We got the Quaker packets that you could heat up in the microwave in 2 minutes. These came in excellent flavors like butter, cheddar cheese, and bacon. My personal favorite was the cheddar flavor. I first had shrimp and grits on a trip to New Orleans with my family. If there is any place to go for shrimp and grits, it’s Nawlins (South-speak for the Big Easy). This was especially exciting because my mom hates grits and all things that hail from the sea, and on this trip, I got to eat both. At the same time! They were cheddar grits, just like my beloved Quaker packets at home, and the shrimp were blackened to perfection. I never had them again. They’re available on most Southern menus, but I always took the option for granted. Now that I’ve come to the Northeast, I’ve found their disappearance from menus disturbing, and it makes me want the dish that much more.
1 cup grits
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 slices bacon
3 tablespoons butter
4 cups water
Bring water to boil and add salt and pepper. Add grits and reduce heat to medium. Cook until water is absorbed, taking care not to dry the grits out, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter and cheese. Cheese may take a while to incorporate completely. Add it a bit at a time to make this easier.
Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Cook bacon in skillet until brown and crispy. Remove from pan and chop into small pieces. In bacon grease, cook shrimp until pink with blackened edges.
Spoon grits into serving bowl and top with bacon and shrimp. Serve immediately.
Adapted from foodnetwork.com
Oven Fried Okra
Okra was always a treat. My family never made it at home, but my friends’ families would eat okra morning, noon and night if they could. One friend’s family was particularly crazy about it, and it was in their kitchen one evening in seventh grade that I first discovered okra. It’s available on every good Southern restaurant’s menu, and tastes excellent with a little bit of ketchup. These are Southern tater tots, if you will. Crispy, golden brown, and delicious. While most Southerners choose to pan fry their okra, I have opted for a healthier, baked alternative.
½ cup flour
1 cup okra, sliced into small pieces (fresh or frozen, thawed)
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Drizzle olive oil on a baking sheet and set aside.
Whisk egg in a medium sized bowl. In another bowl, combine flour, salt, pepper and paprika. I tend to like my okra a bit spicier, so I used ½ tablespoon. The amount of spices you use is completely up to you.
Drop okra pieces in the whisked egg ¼ cup at a time. Using your hands, coat the pieces completely in egg.
Transfer the egg-coated okra pieces to the flour mixture. Coat them well shake off any excess flour. Place them on the baking sheet in a single layer. Repeat until all of the okra has been covered in egg and the flour mixture and has been laid out on the baking sheet.
Bake uncovered for 40 minutes, or until brown and crispy. Stir okra halfway through the baking time.
Adapted from justapinch.com
Southern Sweet Tea
Ah, the epitome of Southern beverages. When I first moved up North, someone asked me, “Is it true that Southerners just, like, sit on the porch and drink sweet tea?” Well, yes, that’s absolutely true. At my house growing up, we had a screened-in porch that was great for sitting in on hot summer nights. The screens kept the skeeters (mosquitos) out, and you could listen to the cicadas. On stormy nights, you could smell the rain without getting wet. There is no better place than a screened-in porch. Mine had an honest-to-goodness rocking chair on it, and you could sip sweet tea and observe passersby. Every restaurant has sweet tea in the South. And while most do here, as well, it’s not the same. What you call “sweet tea” is actually a very poor excuse for mildly sweetened, watered down tea. Sugar is the most important part of sweet tea. If you haven’t put so much sugar in your tea that it can’t all dissolve, you do not have enough sugar. If you feel guilty about that, think of all the antioxidants you’re getting and enjoy the flavor of the South.
7 individual Luzianne tea bags*
1 quart water
1½ cups sugar
Bring water to boil. Twist all of the ends of the tea bags together (to make them easy to remove later) and place the tea bags in a large glass container or measuring cup. Pour the boiling water into the container and swirl the tea bags around to release the tea.
Place a plate on top of the container for around 9 minutes. For a weaker tea, take the plate off sooner. If you steep the tea for more than 9 minutes, you run the risk of burning the tea leaves, which can make the tea taste bitter.
Once the 9 minutes is up, press the tea bags on the side of the container with a spoon and throw them away. Add sugar to the tea and stir, making sure that it is dissolved. Add ice and let sit.
Once cool, serve with lemon wedges.
*Luzianne is the true Southern tea brand. Others will work fine for this recipe.
Adapted from deepsouthdish.com
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski