My Top Lip-Smacking Southern Foods

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?

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11 responses to “My Top Lip-Smacking Southern Foods

  1. You have made me very hungry.

  2. I consider myself a Southerner now that I’ve been in Florida off and on for thirty years but i will never get the South’s fascination with boiled peanuts. I think they are gross. But you can’t go to a FAMU football game without seeing thousands of people scarfing them down. Yuk!

  3. Nick,

    There’s no goobers like boiled goobers..lol! And it’s not just the South since they were popular in Asia too.

    When are you going to try some fried pickles? LOL!

    Here’s some interesting history about boiled peanuts:
    http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/BoiledPeanutsHistory.htm

  4. I really need to expand my culinary horizons. I have never had collard greens, boiled peanuts or mullet. (BTW, I thought a mullet was a hairstyle popular for men in the south 😉 …

    I have always known ice tea, but not sweet tea, which is just beginning to gain popularity here. I’ve yet to try it.

  5. Hi Terri,

    I’m sure there’s some Minnesota / Midwest foods I’ve never had either!

    Mullet has such a following in the South, they named a hair style after it! LOL!

    Sweet tea is so sweet I usually take mine half-sweet and half-unsweet and that’s about right.

  6. I’m with ee…I hate boiled peanuts! I also hate mullet. And I’ve never had a fried pickle! I’m also with Susie on the bread pudding thing…I love it, and make a killer version of it if I do say so myself. And pork chops in olive oil? Get outta here…we’re going to have you kick you out of the South if you keep that up lol.

  7. Well thar lil brother you amaze me. Boiled peanuts is a weekly treat for me. We have a roadside cart that I have supported for the last several years. A quart costs $5 and they are the big ones so they taste wonderful. It is my all-time fav snack. A cold Corona and boiled peanuts are kinda like caviar and champagne for the lower Alabama rednecks like myself. Those in the can should be banned, yuck, only in desperation. I also like the pork rinds. You left off beef jerky which is a fav. I have made either Collard Green Soup (Caldo Galledo style) or seafood gumbo for new years for many years. This past new years being an exception. I have a killer Gumbo recipe that has survived from the early part of the century. If we ever get together for a covered dish I will make it.

    http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/sopas_ensaladas.asp

    As for the true delicacy of the panhandle it is mullet. Fried or smoked it is outstanding with a cold Corona and some good coleslaw. You sir, are in mullet heaven in the big bend area. I say that having grown up on Boggy Bayou where we referred to ourselves as fish heads. A Saturday or Sunday mullet fry was about as good as it gets. In my Bayou we caught them with cast nets and cleaned them as we fried them. You are correct about mullet being bottom feeders so the quality of the water bottom determines how sweet the meat actually is. St Marks and the adjacent coastline have some of the best around. The mullet are starting to come backnow after being harvested to near extinction for their Roe which was exported to Japan. (I totally supported the net ban.) There was a place at Shell Point that burned down that was as good as I ever tasted. I introduced my wife to fried mullet there. The Seine Net in Woodville has some good mullet (but no beer) and there is a lil place just off 98 at St Marks River called Outzes(?) that has good smoked mullet and their coleslaw is ok too. I frequently stop there on my way back to Tampa and throw some in a cooler and drive on to Fanning Springs and take a break on the Suwannee River Park there with Smoked Mullet, cole slaw and a cold Corona.

    For the best fried food in the region take a day trip to Cross Creek and eat at The Yearling mmmmmmmmmmm good and they have cold beer and live blues and Fried Green Tomatoes to effin die for.

    http://www.florida-secrets.com/Restaurants/ENW/Yearling.htm

    As for “assd tea” it is quite simple to make. Bring2 cups of water to a boil over 4 tea bags, add one cup of regular sugar and dissolve. Fill a pitcher full of ice cubes and pour over it. It must be served cold as opposed to a really great green tea like Puerh.

    For dessert you left off “nanner puddin” and any kind of cobbler.

    ButI give you an A for adapting to the finer tastes of the South…….oh and what about good fried chicken.?:::)))

    ps if you drive back to Okaloosa County on HWY 20 when you get to Basin Bayou try Ncks for great fried sea food. I get the platter.

    pss did I say you need a Cold Corona to enjoy Southern food properly except when it is not avaiable, then they better damn well have sweet tea.

  8. But Fakename… how could I keep my oligarchial pretensions intact if I used anything but olive oil to fry those pork chops? 😉

  9. PT…you’re baaack! Hooray! I was getting worried about your absence.

    I’ve been to the Seine Net but not to Yearling.
    May have to check that out next time in Gainesville area.

    The Columbia is a favorite of mine. I’ve been to the Ybor City one once. St Augustine branch often sees my business.

    I like beef jerky, even if it is tough on my jaws. Didn’t realize it is Southern.

    I’m not much for pudding but cobbler is fine.

    I like fried chicken, especially the Cajun style of Popeye’s or Banjo’s, but it is no longer uniquely Southern.

    I’ll keep Nick’s in mind. I may be in Walton and Okaloosa counties next month.

  10. Mullet…ugh. I think it tastes like something like that died a few minutes before you caught it. It even smells bad to me. But I love catfish. I can only guess they must be eating different things on the bottom…
    Banana pudding when homemade…not just some jello vanilla pudding with some bananas and vanilla wafers thrown in, is one of the great pleasures in life! Second only to bread pudding of course.
    For seafood I’m sticking with Barnacle Bill’s in Tallahassee and Angelo’s in Panacea.
    And yes, how could you have forgotten fried green tomatoes, Anarchist? As for that olive oil thing….power to the people lol. I use a bit of butter mixed with veg. oil so the butter doesn’t burn. Browns the pork chops nicely.

  11. FN…I’ve never had fried green tomatoes. Don’t see it on the menus much either. Susie likes ’em!
    I’ll keep my eyes out for them though….

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