Southern Foodways: How to Eat Out Like a Local

Southern Foodways appears on Fridays as part of our collaboration with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that "documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South." Dig in!

Culinary Tourism is a thing—a big thing. So big, it has its own industry group: the International Culinary Tourism Association. Municipalities work to sell their local food scene as tourist-worthy. The National Trust for Historic Preservation names a Dozen Distinctive Destinations each year, cities chosen in part for their culinary diversity and draw. All in all, this probably is a bandwagon worth jumping on because when culinary tourism thrives, it’s local restaurants, artisans, and farmers who benefit.

Engaging in culinary tourism is actually pretty easy. It doesn’t require taking days off work, buying a ticket, or paying an admission fee. Rather, it requires only a commitment to getting off the interstate and resisting the urge to pull into a fast food drive-thru.

Go Native

Pull off the highway, engage a local. At the gas station, talk to not only the attendant but to the two or three local people standing at the pumps next to you. Ask them where they like to eat. Make it clear you aren’t looking for a chain—you’re looking for their best local food. Locals know the spots where prices are low, flavors are bold, and where everyone gathers. When you get to the recommended place, take a hard look at the parking lot. The parking lots of the best local restaurants will have a mix of pick-up trucks, minivans, and Cadillacs. Too much of one, not enough of another, and this might not be the right place.

20071005chucks.jpgIf you’re traveling to Auburn, Alabama, to root for (or against) the Tigers, you could eat your fill at any number of chain restaurants in the area. Or, stop in Opelika, Alabama, at Chuck’s B-B-Q. Read more about Chuck at southernbbqtrail.com.

Chuck's father, who died when Chuck was 6, worked as a cab driver in Columbus, Georgia, 40 miles east of Opelika. Chuck's mother, now in her 80s, still works the register two or three days a week at the Smokey Pig #2, just across the state line in Phenix City, Alabama. His mother came into the barbecue business when, ten years after the death of Chuck's father, she married his uncle, Buck Ferrell, who, in the early 1950s, opened the first Smokey Pig in Columbus. Turns out, Smokey Pig is the origin point for much of the barbecue in eastern Alabama and western Georgia.

Go to the Source

Visiting a town for business? Look around on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning for the local farmers' market. Ask the farmers which restaurants buy from them. Ask them where they like to eat. Fine farmers' markets abound in the South. From Houston to Carrboro, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ll find at the market the people who grew the vegetables, made the cheese, baked the bread, and caught the fish. They will in turn point you to the restaurants where chefs do right by their best products.

In New Orleans, the Crescent City Farmers' Market is an attraction unto itself. It is also the unofficial center of the city’s culinary life. The farmers, artisans, shrimpers, and artists who populate the market have an incredible depth of knowledge about the true culinary life of the city. And, they are more than willing to share.

Get off the interstate. Look beyond the tall signs. Grab a napkin and go!