By William Shelton • May 18, 2023
Regional cuisine has an allure that is both exciting to the traveler experiencing a new locale, and has all the familiarity of going home for the native who was weaned on it. In some parts of the U.S. one simply cannot enjoy a piece of warm apple pie without the obligatory slice of sharp Wisconsin cheddar on top. However, those same individuals would shrink in horror if presented with a platter of collard greens, iridescent with grease, and boasting chunks of smoked ham hocks. A well-known shibboleth in Texas is whether or not a person puts beans in their chili, and woe-betide those who do! Local cooking traditions are as varied a pepper pot as the makeup of this vast country. Let’s take a culinary sentimental journey from the mid-Atlantic to the gateway of the West.
The 'Old Line' state of Maryland is rich in history and tradition. Federal architecture, formal and imposing, competes with clumsy, rambling clapboard houses, each lending taste and style to the visual appeal of both town and country. Likewise, my mind cannot turn to Maryland without thoughts of Lady Baltimore Cake, a sore trial to prepare, but terrestrial Heaven when tasted, and the more humble but equally delicious crab, no matter how it is prepared. Crab cakes, crab legs, crab salad, crab gumbo, the list is legion, and each should be savored. Beaten biscuits, which require deft pounding with a mallet for at least half an hour, stuffed with Damson preserves (a favorite of the Duchess of Windsor who hales from Baltimore) are worth the labor of love and improved biceps necessary for their making.
Charleston is a city which should not be missed. Christened the ‘Holy City’ because of its number of churches, Charleston is graced with coastal breezes, and fine formal gardens. However, Charleston’s crowning virtue is a singular dish: shrimp and grits. Other cities may pride themselves on their results with this recipe, but in my opinion nowhere is it finer than in Charleston. Grits, ground in Carolina mills, many of which still use the stone grist wheels, are a contributing factor in the texture and taste, not to mention the superior quality of shrimp available on the coast; I can hear the pearls being clutched in shocked horror at New Orleans with that statement, but ‘tis true. So, come to Charleston for the golf, historic houses, and antique stores, but stay for the shrimp and grits. Oh, and go visit Savannah, Georgia while you are there.
Medora Field Perkerson, in her book White Columns In Georgia, describes a typical Sunday lunch in Washington, Georgia as including such tempting treats like baked ham, fried chicken and ‘…fruit salad with late season peaches. Was there rum in it too?’ followed by an afternoon of social calls involving tea, wine, cake, and scuppernongs picked and eaten straight from the arbor. There is also in that land of vast orchards, pecan pie made with brown sugar and molasses, and nary a drop of corn syrup. No Georgia barbeque is complete without a pot of Brunswick stew, often including squirrel or rabbit meat. Atlanta has a well-earned reputation as being a cosmopolitan city of diverse tastes, but venture outside of the city and one will encounter hardy people with culinary traditions stretching back to colonial days, including root-based medicinal recipes.
All hail Memphis in May for the best barbeque to be had (more pearl clutching, this time coming from Terlingua, Texas). The annual competition is held on the banks of the Mississippi river, and hosts thousands of afficionados each with a well-guarded secret recipe. The combinations to locks at Fort Knox are more easily attainable than a list of these ingredients. If the spirit of Elvis Presley were able to transcend the veil of death it would not be to the Jungle Room of Graceland he would return, but to the riverbank for barbeque.
Alabama, land of azaleas, camellias, and kudzu, but also two of the most unique dishes to be found. One is a cake made famous during Prohibition, and later in the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird; the other a white and creamy barbeque sauce. Lane Cake is a Temperance Advocate’s worst nightmare. This delicious cake full of nuts, coconut, raisins, and iced in a white seven-minute frosting close to what the gods of Olympus must have eaten, also calls for a full cup of moonshine in the batter. I have heard that Bourbon or Whiskey will do if White Lighting is not readily available. Having partaken of this ‘slice of Heaven’ I can attest that car keys should be checked at the door. Alabama white sauce was invented in 1925 at Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur. It can be used as a marinade for chicken, and as a table sauce for vegetables and meats.
Louisiana is a land of food, and famous around the world for its restaurants and celebrity chefs. Dinner at Antoine’s has been a tradition for more than a century, and no trip to the city of New Orleans should be complete without a stop at Brennan’s restaurant for the Oysters J’amie, Bananas Foster, and Terrapin Soup (just try it). A shrimp boil in New Iberia, where red potatoes and corn on the cob are always welcome, or perhaps a fiery Natchitoches gumbo on the banks of the Cane River, each contribute to the taste of Louisiana. Sugar cane is grown along the river, and pure Louisiana cane syrup on a stack of buckwheat cakes, topped with a dollop of Creole cream cheese can’t be beat.
Then there is Texas, "with one great hand on the Rio Grande, and another in Galveston," or so goes the song. Because the territory, Republic, and state of Texas is and always was a land of immigration there is a rich and varied tradition of food. Tex-Mex is an amalgamation combining traditional Spanish cuisine with the later recipes of Mexico and Anglo Texas. The early Texians brought with them from their native lands the art of German baking, learned how to dry and smoke meats from the Comanche, Keechi, and Apache tribes, and carried favored dishes from the old southern states. Lest we forget its own unique creation from the days of cattle drives: chili. The cowboys herding thousands of cattle across the open prairie caught and put into the communal pot whatever wandered into the cow camp that day, added some dried spices and available vegetables, and called it breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The recipe is as elastic as the available ingredients and is a staple of every regional cookbook. Fear not, putting beans in chili is as equally forgivable a mortal sin as any other.
Food tourism has become a booming industry, and more often than not the range of meal choices is weighted more heavily than the ports of call or sights of interest when deciding where to holiday. Even if you plan on traveling no further than your home kitchen this year, find an unusual regional cookbook and get a taste of a new land.