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Southern cooking, in all its unpretentious, lip-smacking glory, is arguably the ultimate comfort food. It’s always held a firm grip on menus in the South, but now its many distinctive dishes and flavors are turning up in restaurants across the country, from quick service to fine dining, in classic form and contemporary interpretations.
A case in point is Holler & Dash, a new fast-casual chain from the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store organization. Culinary director Brandon Frohne built a menu around biscuit sandwiches and bowls — the former constructed atop half a biscuit and a bed of kale — with far-reaching Southern roots. The menu also features three variations on fried chicken sandwiches — hot style with cheddar and pickles; with goat cheese, green onion and spicy/sweet pepper jelly; and with pimento cheese and jalapeño sorghum.
Other Holler & Dash Southern-accented selections include a club sandwich with fried green tomato; country ham with red-eye aioli, kale and apple butter; andouille and sausage gravy over biscuits; and an egg white frittata with a dash of hot sauce. Grits, tater tots, biscuits and pickled veggies are offered as side dishes.
Greensboro, North Carolina-based Biscuitville Fresh Southern recently added a Spicy Chicken and Honey Biscuit to menus at all 50-plus locations following a limited time offering that turned out to be the most successful in the company’s history. The spice comes from cayenne, white pepper and green and red bell peppers, and the chicken is drizzled with honey from a North Carolina supplier.
Why the South, and why now?
Southern cooks prized local ingredients well before the locavore movement took root, and chefs interpreting time-honored traditions continue to spotlight the freshest seafood, locally raised protein, and just-picked crops. To label a dish “Southern” is to apply a broad brush. The foods popularized in Louisiana reflect Cajun and Creole influences and the abundantly available seafood supply. Texas barbecue is far removed from Carolina-style. Low country recipes lean heavily on local vegetables and grains, coastal seafood and pork.
At Zynodoa, a farm-to-table eatery in Staunton, Virginia, produce and proteins are sourced mainly from the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont regions. Starters feature brûléed cast-iron cornbread with homemade apple butter, Southern fried catfish, and curly kale salad. Main dishes include Virginia peanut-crusted catfish, citrus molasses brined chicken breast and country ham with poached egg semolina pasta. Grits are offered as a side option.
Grits, by the way, are trending alongside other Southern staples. Datassential reports that grits have grown 42 percent on menus over the last four years.* That even this pedestrian food is finding new fans is a testament to Southern cuisine’s appeal.
The fun factor
Outside of the fine-dining temples of New Orleans, Southern food lends itself to casual meals and snacking. Chicken-fried steak, soft-shell crabs, boiled peanuts, fried pickles, pecan pie, oversized sweet cocktails — what’s not to like?
When Turkey and the Wolf debuted last year in New Orleans, it captured the whimsy of the South with specialties like fried bologna, potato chips, hot mustard and cheese piled on white bread, and a slow-cooked collard green melt on rye with pickled cherries and cheese. Soft-serve ice cream arrives topped with the likes of date molasses and Key lime pie chunks.
Southern breakfasts are a flavor-filled departure from eggs-and-bacon territory at spots like Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, where sautéed shrimp, scallions, mushrooms and bacon are served over cheese grits. Southern-style poached eggs at Holeman & Finch in Atlanta come with griddled bacon, spaghetti squash, johnnycakes, boiled peanuts, kale, and sorghum syrup.
Chefs have lightened up Southern favorites
Lighter versions of typically heavy standards are winning over fans. Fried chicken and bulky biscuits remain crave-worthy, of course, but much of the Southern fare seen on menus these days exhibits a healthier profile. Greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and other sides are less likely to be thinly disguised vehicles for fat, salt, and meat gravies.
At Seasoned Vegan in New York, Brenda Beener tweaked her mother’s recipes by veganizing them, opting for herbs, pepper, onions and garlic instead of lard and meat, and swapping out seafood for burdock root. Los Angeles' My Two Cents serves a barbecue fried chicken Caesar salad and black-eyed pea hummus.
Even healthcare facilities are warming up to Southern fare. Recent menus at The Garden Row Café at Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend, Washington, offered BBQ grilled chicken with chili cheese grits and Southern-style slaw and gumbo with garlic rice and cornbread. At Greenville Health System in South Carolina, shrimp jambalaya pulls in smoky ham and sausage. Blue Gill at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, menus classics like fried green tomatoes; shrimp and grits, deviled crab and scallop cake; fried pickles, a wedge salad with blue cheese, pecans, bacon, tomato and buttermilk dressing; and main dishes like country ham-laced mac and cheese.
As Southern food evolves, it is likely to continue building a fan base across the U.S.
*Datassential reports that grits have grown 42 percent on menus over the last four years.