Here at StyleBlueprint, we love planning road trips and vacations around where we’re going to eat, creating what I like to call “eat-ineraries” — but we’re certainly not the only ones passionate about unique culinary experiences around the South. To help guide travelers, many tourism bureaus and private organizations organize lists of destinations known as “culinary trails” that highlight spots offering regional cuisine and specialty foods. Check out this list of mouthwatering trails around the South, organized by state!
The Southern Foodways Alliance is an organization based in Oxford, MS. It seeks to preserve the culture of Southern food by examining its history, honoring the pioneers that created the cuisine, and recognizing the modern-day cooks who continue to advance it. They have spent more than a decade developing their Southern Barbecue Trail, mapping out some of the region’s greatest purveyors of smoked meats.
While you might think of tamales as a Mexican or Texan specialty, Mississippi has a strong tamale culture. The Southern Foodway Alliance created a guide to some of the best tamale joints in the state, mapped out as the Hot Tamale Trail. Stretching across the Delta from Tunica to Vicksburg, the Hot Tamale Trail makes many stops along the way, including at the annual Hot Tamale Contest in Greenville.
You’d think North Carolina and South Carolina would share some stylistic similarities in their barbecue. Still, even within each state, there are stark and definable divisions between pitmaster and diner preferences. The North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS) Historic Barbecue Trail showcases the best of the best in both the western and eastern regions.
East of I-95 is where pigs are smoked intact and mopped with that vinegar and pepper baste mentioned earlier. West is where the style is referred to as “Piedmont BBQ” or “Lexington-style,” after the town that is best known for pork shoulder served with a sauce or “dip” made from vinegar, tomatoes, and red pepper flakes. That dip also adds color and flavor to a unique side dish called “red slaw,” traditionally served with chopped or pulled pork and crispy hushpuppies.
On to something sweet, Surry County in North Carolina loves to introduce visitors to their unique dessert that is only found in local towns around the Yadkin Valley, like Mt. Airy and Elkin. They call it “sonker,” a baked dish of sweetened fruit covered by an unshaped dough crust that sure looks, sounds, and tastes a lot like cobbler. But don’t call it cobbler in Surry County! You can follow the Sonker Trail to discover eight spots to try this delicious dessert and decide whether it’s a cobbler. (Which it is. Just don’t tell them I said so.)
Even though North Carolina is about one-and-a-half times larger than South Carolina, the Palmetto State has managed to separate itself into four distinct barbecue styles. They are described and delineated on the SC Barbecue Trail. This trail is a family travel blog project out of Mt. Pleasant as they sought out some of the best barbecues in the state. Let Heather and Jim Roller be your guides as you discover the “Pee Dee” style of the northwest corner of the state that is probably closer to East Carolina with whole hogs flavored with peppery vinegar hot sauce.
The Rollers can also point you to the best barbecue joints in the Midlands section of the state, known for all-you-can-eat buffets of pulled and chopped pork torqued up by the addition of tangy mustard-based barbecue sauce, a nod to the German settlers of the region more than 250 years ago. The two main styles in the western half of the state feature a thin tomato-based sauce in the area that abuts North Carolina and a thicker, sweeter tomato sauce in the region along the Georgia line.
If barbecue is the most controversial culinary item in the South, whiskey must run a close second! Once dominated by Kentucky bourbons, “brown water” is now distilled by talented craftspeople across the region. The bourbons of the Bluegrass State still dominate the category, and touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a required pilgrimage for any whiskey lover.
With 37 distilleries represented on the Trail, it’s not something that can be accomplished in a single trip unless you plan on taking a month off work. However, the Trail offers a handy trip planner to help travelers break it into bite-sized (sip-sized?) segments arranged thematically or geographically.
Another option is Kentucky Tourism’s Urban Bourbon Trail, showcasing distilleries and bourbon bars within Louisville’s city limits. Download a virtual passport and collect stamps at iconic whiskey bars like Proof on Main and the historic Old Seelbach Bar, or go straight to the source at urban distilleries such as Rabbit Hole Distilling, Angel’s Envy, and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
In Tennessee, they’re rightly proud of their Tennessee whiskey, which is showcased on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. The path stretches from Old Dominick Distillery in Memphis to Lost State Distillery in Bristol. Along the way, travelers can make stops at big city distilleries like Nelson’s Green Brier in Nashville and Chattanooga Whiskey Co. or more rural settings like Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, and Short Mountain Distillery in the hills of Woodbury, a region with a long history of moonshiners.
Louisiana is a state with a rich culinary heritage, and the state tourism bureau has created eight regional food trails with evocative names like “Delta Delights,” “Seafood Sensation,” and “Bayou Bounty.” There are also thematic food trails like the “Gas Station Eats” listing of great convenience store cuisine put together by the collection of eight parishes that were once a neutral territory between Spain and the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, hence the name. Don’t think of gas station food as good eats? Then you haven’t tried the crispy rice boudin balls, smoky pork ribs, and meat pies of No Man’s Land!
If tacos are what you’re after, check out the Twitter musings of José R. Ralat as he shares his travels around the Lone Star State as part of his job as the Taco Editor at Texas Monthly magazine. (Coolest job title ever!) His beautifully-written descriptions of the food and culture he discovers in local taquerias are worth the price of subscribing to the magazine.
All photography by Chris Chamberlain unless otherwise noted.
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