I’ve lived in Florida for almost 40 of my 58 years and I’ve lived in the north Florida panhandle for the last 28 years. If you’re not a Floridian, you may not know that north Florida is in the deep South, while south Florida is a strange blend of New York and Cuba which is not in any way at all “southern” culturally, only geographically.
Since my wife was born and raised in a small town about 50 miles from where we live and qualifies as a gen-you-wine redneck, she introduced me to Southern cuisine. Some of it I like and some of it I don’t. The main aspect I don’t like is that Southern cooking is based on just three styles: fried, deep fried, and very deep fried. (Note: Barbeque is not a cooking style in the South; it is beyond cooking – it is a lifestyle.)
Over time, I’ve come to embrace certain Southern foods. These are my favorites:
In the “snack” category are two foods I enjoyed frequently while growing up in the Philippines. Since I found them here, I assumed they were “universal” until I eventually discovered otherwise.
In the case of boiled peanuts, it was 25 years before I learned they are a “Southern thang.” Our rehearsal dinner was at a local “farm house” steak restaurant which served boiled peanuts as an appetizer. It was then that I discovered that my Canadian relatives had never tasted them before and that they are not typically found in other regions of the country. Too bad, because boiled peanuts are far superior to roasted ones.
My other favorite Southern snack is pork rinds, which I knew as “chicharron” in the Philippines. When I was a kid, there was only the “natural” flavor. These day, there’s a few more, such BBQ and salt and vinegar. I still prefer the natural ones. At least pork rinds are widely available. (Cracklings are like pork rinds, but smaller and harder.)
Just a few months ago, I was introduced to a new favorite: fried pickles.
I know it sounds disgusting and that was my initial reaction upon hearing about them too. But I do like dill pickles, tasted a fried pickle slice out of curiosity and immediately embraced it. If you like pickles, you’ll like fried pickles.
I’ve been assured they are a Southern food and one website said they originated in New Orleans. I first experienced them at Hooter’s so you may find them at your local Hooter’s. Theirs are thin sliced dill pickles with a seasoned, light flour coating but I’m told there are also “sweet” fried pickles.
In the veggies category, my favorite is okra, which was brought to the Americas by African slaves. (I read somewhere that “gumbo” is an African word for “okra.”) My favorite rendering of cooked okra is okra and tomatoes but I won’t cook it myself because okra is pretty slimey during cooking.
My absolute favorite way to indulge okra is pickled okra, which for some reason is much more expensive than pickled cucumbers. I used to pickle okra myself. If you like dill pickles, you will probably love pickled okra. (They are not slimey.)
After okra, I also enjoy collards. I’m the cook of the house, but on New Year’s day, Susie will whip up the traditional Southern meal for that day: collards (for money) with ham hocks, and black-eyed peas (for luck). Otherwise, I prefer someone else prepare those collards because they have a strong smell while being cooked. I always “dress up” collards with some “green peppers in vinegar” sauce. In a crunch, I’ll take turnip greens with that same sauce.
In the South, there’s a great divide when it comes to fish. My wife is with what appears to be the dominant faction: catfish. I prefer mullet, another bottom feeder which is often disrespected by folks saying that the local paper is only good for wrapping mullet (but never catfish).
Although I prefer my mullet smoked, I won’t pass it up fried. A statewide fishing net ban enacted some years ago has caused mullet to become expensive and harder to find. Fortunately, a local church has an annual “all you can eat” mullet fry for a fund raiser and that’s when I satiate my mullet cravings. Whether fried or smoked, mullet is best taken with a beer.
While there’s room for debate over fish, there’s no debate over which meat reigns supreme in the South: pork. And even though I’m not fond of fried food, I’ll make an exception for fried pork chops. (I fry mine in a non-stick pan with just a bit of olive oil.)
I remember attending a county commission meeting a few counties away for business. It was a late afternoon meeting and at five the Chairman declared a dinner break because he noted that the Dixie Diner down the block was serving fried pork chops and he didn’t want to get there too late. I was closer to the door and beat him to the line!
The final category would be dessert, but it’ll be short and not so sweet because I don’t have any favorites that are Southern. My wife loves bread pudding, a classic Southern dessert, but I don’t care for it. And I find Key Lime pie too tart. I do enjoy pecan pie, but I think that has spread throughout the country. Same for Mississippi mud pie, which at least it retains it’s “southern heritage” in its name.
I guess I shouldn’t end without mentioning the quintessential Southern beverage: iced tea. In many restaurants, the only question is: sweet or unsweet? I assumed that iced tea had also spread across the land but apparently not so. A co-worker was visiting the Northeast, and asked for “iced tea.” She received a cup of hot tea and a glass of ice! (If the server misunderstood the request as “ice and tea,” it still means that they did not serve iced tea or that misunderstanding would not have happened.
While you can sample many of my favorites, including boiled peanuts and collards, by buying them in a can, I don’t recommend it. The canned versions are so inferior to fresh that I think you’ll have the wrong impression and write them off. Just wait until you’re in the South and taste them fresh. I think you’ll agree, as my wife likes to say, that they‘re “mighty fine eating.”
Now y’all come back next week, heah?