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Southeast cuisine: It’s fun to eat Southern

Tamales by Amy Streeter, courtesy Southern Foodways Alliance

If you don’t know where to look, you may miss the little cinder-block building. Huddled inconspicuously among a group of other commercial buildings on the main drag in Paducah, Kentucky, Starnes Barbecue doesn’t look like much from the outside — or the inside, for that matter. But looks can be deceiving. For many locals and visitors to Paducah, “Starnes” is another word for “delicious.”

The appeal of Starnes and other Paducah barbecue joints is the special style of smoked pork that is unique to western Kentucky. It’s one of the many distinctive flavors to be savored on a tour throughout the South.

Southern destinations treat travelers to local delicacies and signature dishes that are unrivaled in other parts of the country.

Next time you bring your group to the South, treat members to one of these great local foods.

Western Kentucky barbecue

Paducah, Kentucky
Starnes and other barbecue restaurants have an intensely loyal following in Paducah and the surrounding areas of western Kentucky. Although there are barbecue restaurants all over the country, the western Kentucky style is unique for its smoky flavor and sparing use of sauce.

The most common western Kentucky barbecue is pulled pork, smoked with a blend of wood chips that changes from restaurant to restaurant and served with a thin, spicy sauce that can be dashed on top of a sandwich or a platter of meat.

“Visitors are surprised at the barbecue offerings here; it’s a new experience for them,” said Fowler Black, sales director at the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People are used to more sauce on their barbecue. Here, it’s a drier barbecue, but you don’t have to add sauce to the meat because it’s ready to eat. It’s a finishing sauce, not the main ingredient.”

Although there’s great barbecue to be had at any time of year in Paducah, true aficionados will love visiting during the Barbecue on the River festival, which takes place on the banks of the Ohio River each September. The three-day festival attracts some 50 competitive barbecue teams, who serve up their secret recipes for judges and fans.

Fried pies and more
Mountain View, Arkansas
At the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, musicians, craftspeople and others preserve the folk traditions of the area, including some of the traditional foods prepared throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Among the most popular foods at the park are fried pies, handheld pastry pockets stuffed with a sweet filling.

“Traditionally, when you went out to work, you didn’t get back to the house for lunch,” said the folk center’s Jimmie Edwards. “Fried pies were a dessert, like a cobbler, and they were popular because you could make a fried pie and take it with you.”

Visitors to the folk center can snack on pies stuffed with apples, peaches or cherries, deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar.

The pies can also be found at events and festivals in the town of Mountain View, sometimes made with seasonally fresh blueberries or blackberries, or a chocolate filling. For a more complete Ozark meal, groups can dine in the folk center’s Iron Skillet restaurant, which serves a variety of foods typical to the area.

“We have an Ozark sampler, with a lot of things from the region,” Edwards said. “You get chicken and dumplings, ham and beans, turnip greens and fried okra. It’s served with corn   bread and homemade cobbler.”

Gulf Coast seafood
Gulf Shores, Alabama
A trip to Alabama’s Gulf Coast involves eating large amounts of seafood. The waters around the Alabama coast are rich with shrimp, oysters, crab and other seafood favorites that have come to be the culinary calling card of the region.

“One of the popular foods here are royal reds,” said Kim Chapman, public relations manager for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Those are a deepwater shrimp with a sweet, almost lobsterlike taste. They’re a larger shrimp and have a pinkish color. We usually serve them steamed or boiled with fried green tomatoes.”

Royal reds are popular at well-known seafood restaurants in the area such as King Neptune’s in Gulf Shores. Lulu’s restaurant, founded by Jimmy Buffet’s sister Lucy, serves heaping baskets of crab claws to diners every day, and the Hangout puts a surfer-party spin on many of the area’s favorite seafood dishes.

Groups can also go out on a deep-sea fishing charter, with the opportunity to dine on whatever they catch.

Ruston peaches
Ruston, Louisiana
Visit Ruston during the summertime, and you’re likely to encounter more than a few peaches. The small town in northwest Louisiana is surrounded by peach orchards, and since 1955, its annual peach festival has grown to become one of the largest agricultural festivals in the state.

Begin a peach-themed visit with a tour of the peach orchards at Mitcham Farms.

“Mitcham is the largest grower of peaches in this area, and their owner was the chief architect of starting and growing the festival,” said Timothy Bush, director of sales and marketing at the Ruston-Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau. “His son [J.E. Mitcham Jr.] is happy to give groups tours of the orchard and take them through how they get from the tree to your table.”

If your group is in town during late June, be sure to attend the Louisiana Peach Festival, which takes place this year June 24-25. During the festival, visitors find peaches everywhere from their hotel lobbies to local restaurant menus, and the downtown festival allows an opportunity to sample numerous other peachy products.

“There’s an arts-and-crafts show, with over 200 artisans there selling their crafts,” Bush said. “There’s a fine-arts show at the civic center. You can get peaches at the festival, and they always have some peach ice cream.”

Mississippi Delta
Hot Tamale Trail
It may surprise you to learn that a food more often associated with Mexico and the desert Southwest has found a following in the Mississippi Delta. Hot tamales, cornmeal-based dishes served rolled up in a corn husk, have become a staple of the rural communities in the Delta.

“We have oral histories that document the tamale tradition in the Delta back to at least the late 19th century,” said Amy Streeter, historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance. “One of the theories is that during the cotton boom of the 1920s and ’30s, migrant laborers from Mexico came to work in the fields and brought their tamale tradition, and the tradition was passed on to African-American field workers.”

However it came about, the tamale tradition has become one of the most identifiable flavors of Mississippi. The Southern Foodways Alliance created the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail in 2005, identifying about 45 restaurants and other vendors in the area that sell tamales.

Visitors who follow the trail can find not only tamales, but stories of how local purveyors learned the business and created their own versions of the food.

“One thing that is really characteristic about the Delta tamale is that they’re simmered in water, and traditional Latin tamales are steamed,” Streeter said. “They use cornmeal, so the Delta tamales are grittier in texture.”

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