Grits to Gumbo: A Guide to Southern American Food

Southern American Food

Southern American Food has a unique taste and rich flavor. The cuisine drives its flavors from various influences absorbed over centuries.

If you look harder you will see major influences from Native American, European, African, plantation, and other influences. It shaped the way southern American food tastes and presents itself to food lovers.  

 Let’s delve into some of the best Southern American foods that one should try if exploring the culture and food.

10 Must-try Southern American Foods

Southern Fried Chicken

southern fried chicken

Yes, absolutely no discussion can start without the mention of Southern fried chicken. If there was to be a flag of southern American food, fried chicken would be all over it.

It’s a deep-fried chicken, coated with seasoned flour. Nowadays it is even pan-fried, and air-fried, but the authentic one remains deep-fried. Bless your heart if you don’t like the deep-fried one!

There is no one way to make Southern fried chicken but food lovers definitely love to try the recipes to get their version of Southern fried chicken.

Barbecue Ribs

Yup, that’s another favorite down yonder for y’all. Pork or beef is the protein of choice, coated with tangy spices and barbecue sauce. They are often grilled or slow-cooked in a barbecue pit.

These are usual staples at the barbecue in southern America. It is coated with the usual spices in a Southern household.

Shrimp and Grits

The name may fool you for its simplicity but the dish is nothing simple. There are various renditions and variations of this simple cuisine. It is usually as a breakfast but also served for supper as well.

But it is considered one of the comfort foods from home. Many students, who are away from home, cook it as one of the easy meals that remind them of home-cooked meals. It may have various renditions fancy and difficult, but also has some quick and easy-to-make recipes.    


jambalaya southern american food

What cannot be sorted over the bowl of jambalaya? It is the taste of home and easily one of the best and no-fuss recipes in southern American food.

Jambalaya is a one-pot recipe, and the beauty of jambalaya is the no fuss. You can get most of the ingredients from a store like a box of chicken stalks, a can of tomato puree, vegetables, a frozen bag of okra, and shrimp.

Everything does in a sequence of their cook time, sprinkle a bit of Cajun and other seasonings, and viola! It sure is one beautiful bowl of jambalaya. It can also be made without meat and it is easy-to-cook vegetarian meals for students.


Gumbo is a combination of many elaborate spices, proteins, vegetables and cooked with technique. It is a very hearty stew, served with rice. You can store the gumbo for up to two to three days, and the flavors in the gumbo keep getting better each day.

You can always add hot sauce when eating it with rice. The trick of making the roux and adding okra makes a difference to the overall flavor profile of gumbo.

Biscuit and Gravy

Southern American food is not all about heavy meals and greasy foods, biscuits and gravy reflect the simplicity and repurposing of ingredients.

After a heavy meal of proteins, the protein broth or soup is then repurposed into a simple and delectable breakfast – biscuit and gravy. It is one of the hearty and feel-good meals and traditional breakfasts in southern America. You will find this meal in many breakfast joints across the country.

Collard Greens

Collard greens are amazing leafy vegetables but cooked differently when cooked in the South. It is a slow-cooked pot of leafy green, with a dash of vinegar with your choice of protein. Mostly it compliments bacon or mince, but you can tweak the recipe as you like.

This is one of the Southern American foods that taste better the next day. Hence they are made in big batches to devour for two to three days.   

Shrimp Po’Boy

The legend says the sandwich was made for the poor street car drivers in New Orleans. But the recipe for present-day Shrimp Po’ Boy is a hearty, rich, and perfect daytime meal.

As always, you need Cajun, which is essential for any Southern American food. Then you need to be generous with rémoulade, and more hot sauce.

Pecan Pie

Pecan pie may be a favorite in many countries, but Southern American foods have a special affiliation with the dessert.

Some households make it with traditional sugar or maple syrup while some now prefer to use brown sugar. You would find this dessert in every southern get-together. On special occasions, it can be served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Sweet Tea

Every culture has its own kind of tea or coffee version. The southern version is a light cuppa that is cooked with your choice of sweetener, and baking soda until it is completely dissolved.

southern sweet tea

It is served cold that’s the part that makes it unique, but mostly it is served with lemon or mint leaf. It always compliments finishing off after a nice hearty meal or is perfect for summer evenings.

Southern American Spices

Southern American food is nothing without its spices. Everything that gives Southern American food its unique taste is its elaborate seasoning and spices. Here are some of the must-buy spices that should be in your pantry if you plan to cook Southern American food.


It is one of the most favorite seasonings and part of most southern American foods. Cajun is a clever blend of paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, thyme, black pepper, and oregano.

Cajun is an important ingredient in jambalaya, meats, and gumbo. It is also added to pasta and some salads to give it some added flavor and spice.

Old Bay Seasoning

We cannot associate Old Bay with Cajun for southern American foods, but it is used in some recipes to achieve a particular flavor.

It is a blend of celery salt, black pepper, mustard powder, paprika, and red pepper flakes. It is an integral part of most seafood dishes.

Smoked Paprika   

southern spices paprika

An important element of ribs, barbeque, chilli, and meats in southern American food, smoked paprika has evolved and been made to other countries and cuisines as a crucial element. The spice gives depth and smoky flavor to the cuisines; hence you will find it in most barbeque dishes.  

Creole Seasoning

The fragrant and herbaceous Creole seasoning compliments seafood boils, coups, étouffée, beans, and rice dishes.

It comprises onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, cayenne pepper, and basil in a secret concoction. The spice comes very close to Cajun in taste, but basil gives it a distinctive edge to it.

Cayenne Pepper

It is an integral spice of Southern American food. No gumbo or sauce is complete without cayenne pepper. It compliments meat dishes, and best to use it in moderation.

Onion Powder

Not a Southern American specialty anymore, onion powder compliments stew, soups, meat, and sauces.

All Spice

Adapted from Asian cuisine, allspice adds a zesty and aromatic touch to baked foods, desserts, and some soups and pies. A whiff of nutmeg, and cinnamon changes the whole vibe of the room.

Garlic Powder

If you are running low on fresh garlic, or don’t want the house to smell garlic-y for guests, garlic powder is a great alternative. Add it to your greens, casserole, pie, or meats for a burst of flavor and aroma.


New chefs are always skeptic about sage, but believe me, the herb changes everything. Perfect for meat, biscuits, and stuffing, you should try sage without any worry.

History of Southern American Food

cajun seasoning

The history of Southern American food is deeply rooted in the region’s complex cultural heritage, blending influences from Native American, African, European, and Caribbean culinary traditions. Here’s a brief glance at Southern American food history:

Native American Influence

Prior to European colonization, Native American tribes cultivated and harvested a variety of crops, including corn (maize), beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. These ingredients became staples in Southern cuisine and are still prominent today.

African Influence

With the arrival of African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, a significant culinary exchange took place. Enslaved Africans brought their cooking techniques, spices, and ingredients to the Southern plantations. They introduced okra, black-eyed peas, yams, and a variety of cooking methods, including frying and stewing.

European Influence

European colonists, particularly the English, Scottish, Irish, and French, brought their culinary traditions to the Southern region. They introduced ingredients such as wheat, rice, dairy products, and various cooking techniques.

The English introduced dishes like roast meats and puddings, while the French-influenced Southern cuisine with their expertise in sauces and pastries.

Plantation Cuisine

The plantations of the Southern United States played a significant role in shaping Southern food culture.

Enslaved Africans and their descendants created a distinctive cuisine by combining traditional African cooking techniques with the ingredients available to them on plantations. They developed methods like pit cooking, smoking, and slow braising, which are still integral to Southern barbecue.

Influence of Cajun and Creole Cuisine

In Louisiana, the merging of French, Spanish, African, and Native American culinary influences resulted in the development of unique cuisines known as Cajun and Creole.

Cajun cuisine is characterized by rustic and hearty dishes, while Creole cuisine reflects more urban and refined flavors. Both styles incorporate elements such as seafood, rice, spices, and roux-based sauces.

Influence of Migration and Globalization

Throughout history, Southern American food has continued to evolve through migration and globalization. The Great Migration during the early 20th century brought African Americans from the rural South to urban areas, resulting in the spread of Southern food traditions to cities like Chicago and New York.

Parting Thoughts

Today, Southern American food continues to thrive and adapt, blending traditional flavors with modern influences. Chefs and home cooks alike celebrate the rich culinary heritage of the South while infusing new techniques and ingredients to create innovative dishes.

All in all, the history of Southern American food is a testament to the resilience and creativity of diverse cultures, resulting in a cuisine that is beloved and cherished by people around the world.