The South Has the Best Food in America. Here's What You're Missing

Southern food

Cheapism / Rory M./Yelp / bhofack2/istockphoto / KoriKobayashi/istockphoto

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Sweet Homemade Key Lime Pie

Gotta Have Soul

You think your region has the best food in America? It's got nothing on the South. There's so much delicious food in the Southeastern U.S. states that it would take a lifetime to fully explore it all. 

Many people have caught on, and some of the best Southern foods have become popular and trendy all over the country in recent years. But it's never as good as the real deal. Here are just some of the Southern specialties you wish you had nearby.

Maya Angelou’s Buttermilk Biscuits

1. Biscuits

You won't find canned biscuits on tables in the South very often. Here they're made from scratch, and you'd be lucky if you grew up in a house where your grandma or aunty made them fresh every day. White Lily is the flour brand of choice, and it's difficult to find outside the region. 

There are various types of biscuits, too, and all kinds of ways of making them. Some get rolled and cut out, some are made with buttermilk, and some are baked in cast iron. There's drop biscuits, sweet potato biscuits, and cathead biscuits. And don't forget the greatest biscuit creation of all: biscuits and gravy.

Homemade Pimento Cheese Spread

2. Pimento Cheese

Pimento cheese is the ultimate party snack and simple sandwich spread. It's made by mixing shredded cheese with mayonnaise and chopped, jarred pimentos, a type of red pepper. Sharp cheddar is the typical cheese, and it must be Duke's mayo if you're going for traditional. Serve it with crackers at a party or on some white bread for a sandwich. Of course, it's also amazing on top of burgers, in grilled sandwiches, and practically anywhere else you can put it.

Chicken gumbo
Lara Hata/istockphoto

3. Cajun and Creole

Cuisine in Louisiana is just on another level, making it one of the best culinary travel destinations in the country. An historical blend of African, French, Spanish, Native American, and Caribbean traditions has made Cajun and Creole food a totally unique cuisine. New Orleans and the surrounding area is known for countless dishes, including jambalaya, beef debris po'boys, gumbo, beignets, and bread pudding, to name just a few. Everything is a celebration here, and every celebration revolves around food. 

For more regional specialties, please sign up for our free newsletters.

Homemade Barbecue Platter with Ribs

4. Barbecue

Barbecue is everywhere, but no one is more passionate about it or does it best like Southerners. Indigenous peoples in the area cooked over indirect fires, and the technique spread quickly. Now, there are countless regional variations within the South, from whole hog and vinegar-based sauce in eastern North Carolina to fatty smoked brisket in Texas. It's all delicious, despite the passionate bickering over which style is best. 

Related: 16 Barbecue Chains Across America That Are Actually Worth Trying

Corn bread baked in cast iron
Bruce Peter Morin/istockphoto

5. Cornbread

In areas outside of the South, cornbread is often sweet and cake-like. That's not what you'll find down there, though. It's a little more dense and rustic, with no (or very little) sugar in the recipe. It's often made in a hot cast iron skillet — sometimes coated with bacon fat! — so the crust is substantial and brown. In places like Texas, it's not unusual to see it with jalapenos and cheese baked in. 

Related: I Tried 8 Cornbread Mixes and This Was the Best

Peach Cobbler And Vanilla Ice Cream

6. Peach Everything

The South loves its fresh peaches. Georgia, especially, has become synonymous with the peach, where the trees grow well with large, juicy fruit. That means that Southerners are adept at utilizing the bumper crop of fruit every year so nothing goes to waste. Peach cobblers and pies are the go-tos, of course, but you can also find peach salsa, pork chops with peaches, and peach jams.

Related: 10 Classic Southern Cakes You Need To Try

fried chicken meal

7. Fried Chicken

Sure, every region of the U.S. has fried chicken, but it was perfected over centuries in the South, where it's an iconic dish. Interestingly, the technique of frying chicken may have originated from Scots-Irish settlers who passed it on to their African American slaves. Black culture has since fully embraced it, no matter how it began. Now it's one of the most popular restaurant dishes and home-cooked foods in the South.

Brandy McKnight/shutterstock

8. Grits

Native Americans introduced grits, a porridge made of ground corn, to settlers centuries ago. Since then, it's become a staple food for Southerners, especially the poverty-stricken. It's often eaten for breakfast, but it can serve as a side dish for any meal. Shrimp and grits is probably the most popular way to eat it outside of the South.

Related: Hearty Southern Breakfast Recipes Y'All Should Be Fixin' To Eat

Eating a bowl of Macaroni and Cheese

9. Mac and Cheese

There is not a holiday gathering at a Southern household where you won't find at least one pan of macaroni and cheese — especially Thanksgiving. People will find any excuse to make a batch of the cheesy goodness that everyone loves. Everyone has their own secret recipe for it, too, and you'll hear strong opinions about whether it should have eggs, a crunchy cracker topping, or American cheese, just to name a few variations. And don't even think about eating the boxed stuff.

Turkey casserole with broccoli, rice and crumbled crackers
John Hancock Photography/istockphoto

10. Casseroles

No one does casseroles better than Southerners. Mac and cheese is one example, of course, but there's dozens more. There's the typical ones you've probably heard of, like cheesy broccoli and rice, chicken spaghetti, and King Ranch casserole. But there's also a whole world of baked dishes that are almost unheard of outside the South, like pineapple casserole, poppy seed chicken, and spoonbread. You can't beat the ease and comfort of a casserole.

Hot Chicken, Prince's, Nashville, Tennessee
Rory M./Yelp

11. Nashville Hot Chicken

The Nashville-style hot chicken trend peaked a number of years ago in the rest of the country, but none of it ever comes close to the original. Prince's in Nashville is credited with creating the super spicy fried chicken, and it's worth a pilgrimage for hot food lovers. In its original form, it's bone-in fried chicken coated in a cayenne-laced oil, which keeps the coating crunchy, unlike most of the "hot chicken" imposters you find on menus across the country. 

Fresh Boiled Peanuts

12. Boiled Peanuts

The peanut had a long and convoluted path to the American South. It's native to South America, and it was the Spanish that introduced the plant to West Africa. From there, enslaved Africans brought it to North America, where it thrived in the hot climate. It's been a diet staple ever since, but there's one unusual way Southerners enjoy peanuts: boiled. The nuts, which have to be fresh from the field, are boiled in their shells until they're soft, often with spices and seasonings. They're sold right on the side of the road next to the peanut farm, or from gas stations in styrofoam cups.

Country Ham Biscuits on a Silver Platter
Holly Cromer/istockphoto

13. Country Ham

Just like Italy and Spain are famous for their hams, the South has its own version, simply called country ham. The ham is salt cured and aged, giving it a strong salty and funky flavor similar to prosciutto, which is quite different than the spiral-sliced "city ham" you're used to on holiday tables. Country ham is served on special occasions, and often thinly sliced on fresh mini biscuits. 

Collard Greens

14. Collard Greens

Collards are one of the oldest greens in the world — and, surprisingly, originated in the eastern Mediterranean. The Southern style of cooking them came from enslaved African Americans, who used the greens that they could gather along with whatever leftover bits of pork or meat they were given and stewed them together. It made for a simple but tangy and complex dish. When you eat them, don't forget to sop up the potlikker with cornbread.

Cuban Sandwich, Columbia Restaurant, Tampa, Florida
Joshua B./Yelp

15. Caribbean Cuisine

Thanks to the South's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean cuisine has flourished in some parts. Florida is known for its Cuban food, and the Cubano sandwich became iconic in both Tampa and Miami. Haitian cuisine, too, is hugely popular in South Florida, and there are many restaurants and cafes serving traditional dishes like griot and ox tail stew with pikliz, a Haitian pickled vegetable relish.

Sweet Homemade Key Lime Pie

16. Key Lime Pie

There's been some controversy over where and when key lime pie was first created, but no one can deny that the Florida Keys are home to it now. It's made with key limes, a tiny fruit variety that's more fragrant than the Persian limes in your grocery store. The juice is mixed with sweetened condensed milk for a perfectly potent mixture of sweet and tart flavors.

Banana pudding trifle in a large digh

17. Banana Pudding

Banana pudding is arguably the most iconic dessert of the South, but it probably didn't originate there. It wasn't until after the Civil War that Americans could actually get their hands on bananas reliably. That's when talk and recipes of banana pudding became more common, but it wasn't until after World War II that it was associated with the South. Southerners particularly adopted it because it's cold and refreshing in the summer heat, easy to make in big batches, simple to serve, and relatively cheap. 

Toasted Tomato Sandwich

18. Tomato Sandwich

Once the bumper crops of tomatoes start coming in from the garden, it's time for a Southerner's favorite tradition: tomato sandwiches. It's the best way to enjoy a fresh, ripe tomato, especially compared to the BLT, its more extravagant cousin. Slice the tomato thickly, salt and pepper it, and put it on white bread with plenty of Duke's mayo. Eat it over a sink, or else those tomato juices will make a mess. It's elegant in its simplicity.