"Praise the Lard and Pass the Biscuits!"
I loved this saying when I saw it on a t-shirt at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., because it honestly and humorously captures the spirit of southern food. Perhaps more so than any other region in the United States, southern food has a history as rich as the red-eye gravy that smothers the buttermilk biscuits on southern breakfast tables.
My family and I sought out and experienced this flavorful food on a recent 2,100-mile road trip that took us from the Texas hill country through New Orleans to Memphis and Nashville and through Kentucky back to the Ohio Valley.
Southern cooking is a combination of flavors and methods that originated from European, African, and Native American influences. Though the food varies from state to state and even from different regions within states, there are staples that are found throughout the south.
One staple comes from perhaps the most notable influence-Native Americans. The wide use of corn, which was adopted from American Indians, is found on southern tables in everything from corn bread and whiskey to fritters and grits. No one could be happier about this than my 11-year-old son, who has embraced his father's Tennessean roots with a love of grits that would make his Granny Byrd proud.
According to "A History of Grits," to a Southerner, eating grits is practically a religion, and breakfast without grits is unthinkable. South Carolina felt so strongly about it that it named grits its official state food in 1976, recognizing 'Whereas, grits has been a part of the life of every South Carolinian of whatever race, background, gender, and income.' The legislature went on to claim "a man full of [grits] is a man of peace." Southern folks don't mess around when it comes to food.
Though not gourmands or even officially foodies, we do love to eat, and we love live music, so we planned our adventure to sample as much of both as we could. Though our trip included a lot more than just food and music, here are some of the highlights in those two categories.
Texas Hill Country
Austin is alluring because it has truly something for everyone. In addition to great food, Austin is home to over 200 live music venues, earning it the title of Live Music Capital of the World. Here are our top picks.
Our first quest, to find authentic barbeque, led us to Driftwood, Texas, about 25 miles west of Austin. Since 1967, the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que has been making their famous barbecue by slow-roasting dry-rubbed meats over open, wood-fired pits and basting them with their original recipe sauce. Named "The Tastiest Barbeque in America" by the Travel Channel's "101 Tastiest Places to Chow Down," the Salt Lick didn't disappoint. Known for their beef brisket, the Salt Lick also offers pork ribs, sausage and turkey, all served with potato salad, cole slaw and baked beans.
Bess Bistro was of interest to us because this upscale restaurant is owned by actress Sandra Bullock. Like Sandy, the setting is classy, yet casual; and the service was outstanding. The food is fresh and local. The entrees are interesting and range from a burger on a challah roll to steak pommes frites to pumpkin saffron seafood risotto. I fell in love with the "sides," which have a traditional southern flair - mac 'n cheese, fried green tomatoes, fingerling potato hash, and to-die-for carmalized cauliflower.
Good, inexpensive Tex-Mex is everywhere. Breakfast tacos are a local specialty and a must-try if you are there. We tried and recommend Guero's and Jo's, both on South Congress. Fresh, authentic and delicious!
Great music venues: La Zona Rosa and The Backyard at Bee Cave.
Like Austin, New Orleans is home to celebrated food and music. Driving there from central Texas through east Texas to Louisiana, we noted the changes in landscape from tall, rugged hills full of Texas live oaks to swampy bayous. The geography directly corresponded with the kind of food found in the region, which is known for its Cajun and Creole influence, where barbecue and Tex Mex give way to crawfish, shrimp, jambalaya and okra. Lunch along the way found my kids eating catfish and gumbo. Come to find out my grits-loving boy also eats okra like nobody's business, and my 12-year-old daughter who hates common foods like pasta and rice loved alligator. Apparently, it tastes just like chicken.
Our top picks:
Cafe du Monde is quintessential New Orleans. This outdoor cafe has been serving beignets (pronounced ben-YAYs), warm, puffy French-style doughnuts covered in powdered sugar, and cafe au lait, made with dark coffee and chicory, since 1862.
Mother's Restaurant is THE place to go for the best po boys (traditional submarine sandwiches served on crusty French rolls that have a light, airy inside) in New Orleans. Mother's boasts the world's best ham but is just as well known for their debris (the bits and shavings that fall off of roast beef into the gravy). A Ferdi special includes both types of meat on the po boy. A special note about Mother's: all po boys come "dressed" with shredded cabbage, pickles, mayonnaise, Creole and yellow mustards unless otherwise specified.
Founded in 1905 on Bourbon Street, Galatoire's is one of NOLA's old-line restaurants serving authentic French Creole cuisine. This fourth-generation family owned restaurant is a place that adheres to time-honored customs, good food, and excellent service. Timeless New Orleans favorites, such as crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole and gumbo, along with an endless supply of good French bread, are staples here. Galatoire's takes its southern gentility seriously?if you forget the dinner jacket required of gentlemen, you can borrow one of theirs.
Fave music spots: Tipitina's, and Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n Bowl.
On our trip from New Orleans, we elected to drive across the Causeway, a 24-mile double bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain, and through the rich, fertile land of the Mississippi Delta leading up to Memphis. This is an area where southern hospitality is alive and breathing-friendly, engaging people, and soulful music seeping out of juke joints.
Just about everybody knows that Memphis is known for its barbecue and for its blues. The best barbeque may be a toss-up between Blues City Cafe, known for its hickory-smoked ribs basted in maple barbeque sauce, and Charles Vergos' Rendezvous, which offers a renowned, well-seasoned dry rub. Both also serve additional southern favorites, like fried catfish and fried chicken.
Music hotspots: Almost anywhere on Beale Street: Huey's, Alfred's, B.B. King's, to name a few.
Nashville is a vibrant city full of history, music and culture, much of which stems from being the Home of Country Music. The harmony of city and country there is as rich as a balanced chord and definitely worth a visit.
If you want good ole southern comfort food, make The Loveless Cafe your destination. There you will find grits, okra, salty country ham, fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and the flakiest buttermilk biscuits ever, which you can top with homemade blackberry jam or peach preserves, sorghum, red-eye gravy or sausage gravy. As we heard at the Ryman Auditorium, "If that don't ring your bell, your clapper's done broke!"
Music venue musts: The Bluebird Cafe and The Grand Ole Opry
If you take a road trip like this, maybe some of our favorites may end up on your radar, too. There are hundreds of other great places out there, and maybe you'll discover your own favorites along the way. And it will be different for everyone-my husband liked the Tex-Mex we had in San Antonio. My son liked the grits. And, my daughter ... well, she liked the alligator. Go figure. We've talked a lot about pork in this article, so in the end if you undertake a trip like this, heed the advice of legendary pork-er Miss Piggy: "Never eat more than you can lift."