35 Southern Dishes Your Grandparents Used to Make
It's no secret that Southern food is some of the most comforting homestyle cuisines in the United States. And sometimes nothing else will suffice except making recipes the old-fashioned way. That includes foods with slowly developed flavors that seep their delicious cooking smells through the house, making waiting impossible (more than one Southern child has burned their mouth on a just-cooked piece of fried chicken). We have you covered from appetizers to desserts with 35 classic Southern foods that you could find in a Southern grandma's recipe collection any day, plus the creative recipe ideas for recreating them at home.
Whether you grew up in the South enjoying home-cooked versions of these meals or you've just tried them at a restaurant, your mouth will be watering when you're done reading this list. Southerners know how to do food right—especially when there's an old family recipe involved.
The roots of "stuffed eggs" can be traced back to ancient Rome. But the term "devil" was introduced to describe spicy or highly seasoned food in great Britain in the 1700s. Southern cooks, meanwhile, have their own version of deviled eggs.
For a classic Southern deviled eggs recipe, boil the eggs, slice them, and put the yolks in a bowl. Next, mash the yolks with mayonnaise, mustard, and sweet pickle relish, plus a little salt and pepper. Lastly, spoon the sweet and tangy yellow mixture into the egg and dust with a bit of paprika.
And if you really want an authentic take on the Southern dish, Duke's is the mayonnaise of choice in the South. It's sugar-free and higher in egg yolks than most mayo, and plenty of Southerners will swear by the brand. Its homemade taste results in a creamier concoction.
Southern grandmothers often had a bread bowl where they kept flour ready to mix biscuits for the dinner meal. They perfected the art of biscuit-making as an easy way to fill up hungry bellies at their table, and you can do the same today with a simple biscuit recipe.
Back in your grandma's day, cooks would knead in their fat of choice—butter, shortening or lard—and add buttermilk or milk to pull it together. The best biscuits are sweet and tender on the inside and brown and crispy on the outside. The secret is to gently mix the dough, folding it over and creating layers. These treats were often served with cane syrup or homemade preserves.
There may be nothing more iconic to the Southern food canon than fried chicken. The meat, dredged in thick flour and fried to a golden crisp, is a salty and satisfying meal. A Southern grandma would probably have cooked this in a cast-iron frying pan, the seasoned cookware so valuable that it was willed to the next generation's best cook. Something about the pans gives the chicken a crispier skin while maintaining the tender juiciness of the meat, allowing Southerners to perfect the recipe.
The country's most famous fried chicken restaurant, KFC, was founded in 1930 to feed hungry travelers at Harland Sanders' roadside gas station. Sanders developed a recipe using a pressure cooker, much like the technology of an Instant Pot. That recipe hasn't changed much over the years. (By the way, if you're wondering, he was actually a Colonel, even though it was an honorary title.)
While peaches are grown across the United States, there is something very special about the versions harvested in Georgia. Known as "The Peach State," connoisseurs swear by the quality of fruit grown in the state.
Eating a Georgia peach is a multi-sensory experience of sight, smell, and taste that often results in sticky, sweet peach juice running down your arm. And the cobbler made from a fresh Georgia peach is delicious, especially with vanilla ice cream.
And if you really want to try an authentic version of the dessert, head to the Georgia Peach Festival. Every year, festival-goers make the world's largest peach cobbler and give it away for free to the event's guests. Can't make it to the South? This blueberry peach cobbler recipe tastes just as delicious wherever you are.
If you're not from the South, I bet you've wondered what grits are. Similar to polenta, grits are made by grinding white corn called hominy. Before the kernels are ground, the hulls are removed, resulting in a fine consistency.
Grits became important in Southern dishes because farms in the area typically grew corn. Usually served with breakfast and paired with eggs, grits are used for dinner too, often made with greens or topped with sautéed shrimp. Southern cooks have tons of methods to make their own grits. The best way to sample their unique flavor is boiled with cream, butter, and salt added to taste.
Banana pudding is a staple at potluck dinners, comfort food at funerals, and a sweet ending for summer suppers. Southerners have enjoyed scoops of the cool custard topped with whipped meringue and studded with bananas and Nilla wafers for years, and it's not going away anytime soon.
The recipe is great eaten the day it's made, but it's even better when the cookies have had a chance to absorb some of the sweet moisture of the pudding. They turn into a cake-like consistency that makes you hunt for more treasure at the end of your spoon. Nabisco printed its famous version of the banana pudding recipe on its boxes in the 1940s, and it's remained there ever since.
Chicken Pot Pie
While no one down South can claim that meat pot pies got their start in the area, there is hardly a family who doesn't sit down to this dish often. Maybe it seems so Southern because of the level of comfort it provides: pastry, broth, chicken, and vegetables all in one sitting.
Whatever the reason, chicken pot pie is a staple in the South and shows no signs of becoming less popular anytime soon. Loved by both kids and grown-ups, it's one of those meals that pleases everyone at the table.
Chicken and Dumplings
Many memories of Southern grandmas involve them rolling out the dumpling dough right on the counter, flouring the surface to prevent it from sticking. They cut the dough into strips and added it to a slow-cooked, flavorful chicken broth that had been simmering for hours. The boiled dumplings, combined with the tender chicken and vegetables, made many a satisfying Sunday meal, feeding a large family with one pot and less expense.
A funny-looking fish inhabits the creeks and rivers of the lower South, and it has whiskers. They are a fun fish to catch, simply caught by many Southern children with a cane pole loaded with a piece of a hot dog. Fishermen, meanwhile, have to be careful of the saltwater version—its poison-loaded barbs will cause a quick trip to the hospital.
The freshwater fish, like this 89-pound fish caught by an angler in South Carolina, is delicious fried in a batter of cornmeal, served traditionally with hush puppies, fried potatoes, and coleslaw.
Some bakers in the South swear by the addition of Coca-Cola to cake to punch up the sweetness and add airiness to the texture with the carbonation. The Coca-Cola sheet cake is smothered with marshmallows and icing straight out of the oven, adding to the gooey dessert.
Cracker Barrel adopted the recipe in 1997 when the company was looking for a way to use Coca-Cola in their menu, calling it "Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake." It was so loved by diners that it has now become their signature dessert.
Salted Peanuts and Coke
We have a love affair with peanuts in the South. No one is sure when exactly this love was combined with our obsession with Coke, but the combination of the two did become a satisfying sweet and salty snack that many Southerners remember from their childhood. There might not be a recipe for this goodness in your Southern grandmother's collection, but she surely helped you enjoy it to curb hunger while she cooked.
Sweet Potato Pie
A favorite for food lovers in the South, the sweet potato pie is a sweet and satisfying replacement for pumpkin pie. And it graces many tables on Thanksgiving.
The dessert's roots come from Africa, where yams were a loved, familiar taste. In the South, cooks substituted the sweet potato, which was readily available in the area, and turned it into a dessert. Not sure where to start? Patti LaBelle shared her family's sweet potato pie recipe, which has the technique of adding brown sugar before the sweet potato, creating a sweet layer of syrup near the crust. Her packaged version was so popular, it sold out in stores last year. Delicious!
Collard Greens with Pot Liquor
Related to cabbage and kale, collard greens are rich in beta carotene and are full of antioxidants and phytochemicals to prevent disease. But the tough, fibrous leaves require a longer cooking time, and this often reduces the nutritional value of the plant. Southerners had a solution.
It was common to use the "pot liquor," the nutrient-rich olive-colored water that was used to cook the greens, for a soup base or even just eaten soaked up by a piece of cornbread. Greens were usually cooked with some ham for flavor, making the resulting pot liquor salty and delicious.
Go ahead and thank the folks here at Eat This, Not That! right now. While recipes for creamed corn have all kinds of methods to cut corn kernels from the cob, there is a tool.
The best-creamed corn comes from a corn creamer, an implement that fits over your saucepan, shredding the corn and all its natural juices into the pot. A simple back-and-forth motion cleans the husk of any edible goodness. After that, simply adding butter and cream or half and half, along with a pinch of salt, and cooking for just a little bit creates the most delicious side dish in the South. The most important thing is to use fresh corn, specifically Silver Queen sweet corn if you can get it.
Logically, this had to be the next dish on the list. Fried okra makes a delicious accompaniment to creamed corn. Throw in a little chicken, and you have a glorified food coma, second only to Thanksgiving.
Okra is firmly rooted in Southern cuisine, but it's eaten all over the world, in almost every culture. And if you're shopping for the veggie, bigger isn't better. The pods turn fibrous and tough when they grow on the plant too long. It's best to pick and enjoy okra early.
A quick sandwich for lunch or easy appetizer before dinner, pimento cheese has been a convenient and tasty solution for Southern cooks since the early 1900s. The simple mixture is made of shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos, and seasonings.
There can be variations that involve mustard or garlic, but the simple recipe makes a delicious dip for celery or a fantastic topping for a burger.
Dolly Parton's character Truvy labeling sweet tea "the house wine of the South" in Steel Magnolias aptly describes the widespread love of this drink. Sweet tea can be found in nearly every Southern restaurant. And no meal is complete without its sugary accompaniment—the more syrupy, the better. Fortunately, the best way to make iced tea isn't difficult to replicate at home.
Most Southerners boil water in a pot and let tea bags steep for a while, making a pretty strong solution. It's then mixed with pure sugar cane sugar (lots) or simple syrup and water. The drink is then poured over ice, but it's best to cool it first to avoid diluting the taste.
Sweet tea can be an addicting beverage, counteracting the steamy heat of the summer. If you are looking for sweet tea that tastes authentic, it's pretty well known that McDonald's has perfected the blend.
This dish is served every New Year's Day, said to bring luck to whoever eats the flavorful mixture of pork, black-eyed peas, and rice. Add a few greens and "golden" cornbread to accompany it, and as the tradition goes, your year will be full of money!
Cornbread can be traced back before the settlers to Native American populations grinding maize into cornmeal to mix with water and salt. The crumbly quick bread was an instant favorite in the South, with chefs adding eggs and bacon fat and swapping water for buttermilk. The result, cooked in a cast-iron pan, was a bread crispy-fried on the outside with a tender, moist golden yellow crumb on the inside. There is much discussion about sweet versus savory cornbread in the South, but the original version was a bit tangier.
Country Captain is said to have originated on the coast of Georgia and, where captains brought spices and recipes from India into their ports.
For this dish, stewed chicken is cooked with tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and currants and flavored with fragrant curry powder, resulting in a flavorful meal often served over steaming hot rice. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed the dish when he visited Warm Springs, Georgia, for polio treatment.
Sour Cream Pound Cake
Every Southern grandmother had a favorite recipe for pound cake, varying only in the amounts of sugar, butter, or sour cream added to bring the best crust and condensed buttery center. The rich cake can be served sliced with strawberries and whipped cream or even toasted in the oven with a smear of butter.
The leftovers often find their way into a trifle, a sweet foil to lemon curd or chocolate custard. And why is it called a pound cake? The most simple recipes call for a pound of flour, a pound of eggs, a pound of sugar, and—you guessed it—a pound of butter.
A white candy that looks much like a cloud, divinity is made from only six ingredients (mostly sugar). Pop a piece in your mouth, and the sweet immediately begins to melt, coating your tongue with its sugary goodness.
The candy can be tricky to make, though. A humid day might keep it from setting, while dry weather helps it to cure.
Delicious with buttermilk biscuits, fig preserves were often found on a Southern sideboard. To make fig preserves, slice figs and cook them with sugar, lemon slices, or ginger to make a thick, sweet relish.
The jam, bottled in mason jars sealed with thick lids, made a great holiday gift, or a housewarming gift for new neighbors. And making the preserves allowed everyone to enjoy figs year-round, rather than just during their short season in the South.
Brunswick County, Virginia, and Brunswick, Georgia, both claim the origins of this dish. The Virginia General Assembly proclaimed the state the "birthplace" of Brunswick Stew, while the Georgia House of Representatives made the same statement on their state's behalf.
Regardless of where you fall in this argument, Brunswick Stew is a rich amalgamation of vegetables reminiscent of barbecue, but sweeter. The soup is stuffed with butter beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and meat. In Virginia, it's traditionally made with chicken, while Georgia adds beef.
Southern Potato Salad
There are as many recipes for potato salad as there are for barbecue and just as many arguments about which one is the best. Hot, cold, with mayo or mustard, celery, onion, bell pepper, or pickles, it seems no one can agree.
The way to make the best potato salad is, of course, your grandmother's recipe. Because every Southern family served their own version, grandma's recipe is the best. However, you should always use Duke's mayonnaise.
When this Southern snack is introduced, some people just can't believe it. Why would you take a perfectly good peanut and do anything but roast it? But boiled peanuts are something to be experienced. And a good peanut stand will have the right variety, with plump red or green peanuts savory from their immersion in the salty bath.
They should be cooked to where they have the perfect texture: not mushy, but also not raw. And it's best to enjoy boiled peanuts outside, where the juice and the shells can end up on the ground.
Butter, Karo syrup, eggs, and pecans. The sugary gooey goodness is enough to make your teeth hurt, but you keep coming back for more. Don't feel any shame: Pecan pie is an addictive addition to the holidays. The nuts are typically harvested down South from September to November, which times the harvest for Thanksgiving celebrations.
The nutritious nut has sparked yet another Southern argument about its pronunciation. Anyone down South will tell you that the way you say it is "PEE-can."
The filling of this dessert is a gratifying mixture of eggs, cream, and vanilla, with notes of nutmeg. Similar to buttermilk pie, this custard is made with what Southern grandmothers would call "sweet milk," or whole milk for the rest of us. A good recipe is smooth but not too eggy. My own grandmother would visit Morrison's Cafeteria and stand in line impatiently to get to the pieces that flew off the buffet.
Classic Southern foods have always reflected thrift, using ingredients that were available locally and developing ways to reduce waste. Giblet gravy is a way to use the other parts of the chicken, the ones you find inside the cavity. (Of course, in a Southern grandmother's day, the chicken might not have arrived pre-frozen.)
Giblet gravy uses the neck, gizzards, and hearts that are packaged inside modern-day grocery store birds. Cooks boil them slowly in chicken broth and craft them into a rich gravy especially suited to turkey or other dry white meats. Leave out the liver, though. Its flavor is a bit overwhelming to use.
Let me start this by saying: All types of Southern barbecue are all delicious. Now that we've gotten past that, there are as many varieties of Southern barbecue than you have fingers and toes. And people get really upset if you say theirs isn't the best. Whether you like your pit-cooked meat (pork or beef) covered with a mustard-based, vinegar, white, sweet, or tomato sauce, slow cooking with smoke creates one of the most classic Southern foods.
Red Velvet Cake
The roots of this dessert aren't exactly Southern. But it has become so iconic that you seldom see a collection of recipes or a church buffet without it added. The classic recipe comes from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, its smooth, cocoa-flavored batter topped with a challenging fluffy boiled icing.
Southern cooks also love to substitute a cream cheese icing, resulting in a cake that isn't too sweet but still pleasing. In the beginning, beets were used for the rosy hue, with food dye making it even brighter in the 1940s.
Chicken Fried Steak
You may be confused about the difference between "country-fried steak" and "chicken-fried steak." The country version is lightly dusted with flour and served with brown onion gravy, while chicken fried steak is heavily battered and covered with cream gravy.
Just like all things Southern, the dish is rich and hearty. It's typically served over mashed potatoes, with a side of vegetables. As for its origin, Texas holds the claim to the original chicken fried steak recipe. According to legend, a short-order cook named Jimmy Don Perkins accidentally combined two orders, one for chicken and one for fried steak, into the recipe we enjoy today.
Before refrigeration was widely available, Southerners learned to preserve their meat in a crust of salt, stopping the process of deterioration. They also used smokehouses to hang meat, slowly cooking it with a smoky fire to create hams that would last for months.
Country ham is usually salty and delicious, more like bacon than regular bland processed ham. Southern grandmothers most likely coated the ham with a glaze of brown sugar and pecans, creating a salty and sweet combination.
Sometimes plain vegetables can be, well, plain. But Southern grandmothers loved to jazz up their produce, and squash casserole is no exception. Tender cooked disks of squash with butter, onion, cream, and cheddar cheese make a delectable casserole. And the dusting of buttery Ritz Crackers on the top makes it decadent. The dish works well with any varieties of squash right out of the garden or the farmer's market.
Southerner grandmothers know how to make a meal out of rice, especially when they added celery, bell pepper, onion, and shrimp sautéed in bacon fat. This recipe was refined in the coastal Southern areas of Savannah and Charleston, where the ingredients were plentiful. Newer versions include pork, sausage, beef, or other vegetables.
Even if you don't have Southern relatives at home, you can enjoy these classic Southern foods at plenty of restaurants today. Or, better yet, choose your favorites and learn to prepare them yourself. There's nothing better than a home-cooked meal, especially a Southern one.