As a European meals journalist with solely a faint understanding of American gastronomy, I launched into a culinary highway journey by the Deep South

Five states in the Deep South, a tiny car on a highway full of mega trucks and a journalist with a huge appetite. My plan is to drive the Bible Belt from North Carolina through Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and on to Texas. The reason for this trip? I’m a European food journalist and have only a faint understanding of American gastronomy.

In southern Europe, where I live, American food has a reputation for being greasy and inferior to our own — a cliché perpetuated by the seeming popularity of plain burgers and all-you-can-eat buffets. My mission on this gastronomic journey is to dispel this myth.

Armed with a microphone, I set out to interview streetside locals, award-winning grill masters, and chefs who are preserving heritage through their interpretations of southern cuisine. My on-site research will feed into my new podcast Food Trippin’.

In North Carolina, I drive past “Get your ammo” signs between billboards for waffle burgers. It feels like I crashed in unfamiliar territory. Upon arrival in the Outer Banks—a chain of islands off the state coast—I am comforted by pastel-hued beach houses and dreamy sand dunes, home to wild horses. I can understand why the early settlers in America chose to stay here.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t expect much from the food, but the Outer Banks’ proximity to the Atlantic means it’s a go-to place for fresh seafood. The aptly named I Got Your Crabs is a roadside diner that serves just that. I wolf down a crab taco with a singing sriracha mayonnaise, mango, crunchy cabbage and cilantro. I could be in Mexico if it weren’t for the gray drizzle and Brad Paisley blasting over the radio.

Here I meet Sharon Kennedy, a local cooking legend, who promises me the best shrimp stew of my life. At her wooden plank beach house, we peel potatoes and fry shrimp while chatting about the hurricanes that ravage this part of the United States. “I find it invigorating,” says Kennedy.

A sturdy, steadfast meal to see locals through inclement weather, the stew is thickened with “pie batter” (a mixture of flour and water) and seasoned with parsley, salt, and pepper. (North Carolina spice is easy, Kennedy explains, because the early settlers didn’t have access to many spices.)

I’ve never seen fatter shrimp in my life, and the stew is heartwarming but not heavy. Served with endless refills of Kennedy’s sweet iced tea, I am touched by my first experience of Southern hospitality.

The same goes for my experience in Nashville, where my maid, Kiki, invites me home to cook with her mother, Darcelle.

“I got this from my mom, and she probably picked it up from her mom,” Darcelle says of the no-bake lemon cake we make. American pie is, of course, a Southern classic, but icebox pie is an incredibly easy alternative that was invented in the days before ovens were available to all Americans. We mix the juice of lemons with a can of condensed milk, pour it into a ready-made graham cracker crust and put it in the fridge. Voila. cake ready.

The cake has just the right balance between the hint of citrus and the sweet creaminess of the condensed milk. It alludes to the joys of convenience in America, where a store-bought base may make more sense when time and money are limited.

I see that on the street too. The drive-through, an American invention, even changed the types of fast food that were popular in the US from the 1950s. The burger became big because it can be eaten on the go, with one hand, while driving.

To avoid burgers, I head to Nashville’s Husk, the restaurant known for taking traditional Southern cooking to gourmet levels. Here I have my first batch of impressively delicious grits.

Endemic to the Americas, corn was a staple for Native Americans before European colonists arrived. The settlers embraced it, grinding the corn and mixing it with water to create a filling, polenta-like dish. Husk takes grits up a notch with a topping of tender microgreens, giant grilled shrimp and beetroot pearls that satisfyingly burst with the first bite.

So many of the places I visit on this culinary road trip take their cues from classic American fare, but with sophisticated twists. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, at the Old Capitol Inn, fried chicken is made lighter with a Japanese-inspired coating of panko breadcrumbs. In New Orleans — where Devilled Eggs are a mainstay — I eat at Bar Marilou, which forgoes the dense mayonnaise and egg yolk filling in favor of soy, puffed rice, and scallions and serves it with a side of burlesque.

In New Orleans, I dip in bowl after bowl of gumbo and jambalaya. Characterized by French, Spanish, West African and British influences, the dishes are a blend of cultures in one pot. And here I feel the European culinary flair more than anywhere else.

French settlers gifted New Orleans with delicious, creamy roux, but at Costera — an uptown eatery that blends Spanish coastal cuisine with a touch of Louisiana — I learn that the city’s flavors are bolder and spicier thanks to Spanish and West African influences.

When I cook with Anne Leonhard and Harriet Robin at the New Orleans School of Cooking, they tell me that the people here are obsessed with food.

“You go to the grocery store and talk to the people next to you in line about what you’re doing with the cut of meat you’re buying. It doesn’t matter whether it’s black, white, Spanish, Jewish, Vietnamese or whatever – the food brings us together,” says Leonhard.

Leonhard is of Cajun descent; The group of French settlers, or Acadians, landed in Louisiana after being driven out of modern Maritime Canada. Hence Cajun seasoning, a blend of paprika, garlic powder, pepper, oregano, and onion powder distinct from New Orleans. Then there is Creole cuisine. Robin explains that “Creole” means anyone of mixed ancestry (regardless of ethnicity) who was born in Louisiana after the colonies were settled. The definition speaks of the mix of cultures and flavors celebrated here.

At the Commander’s Palace, an institution since 1893, the weekend is reason enough to celebrate. I’m served a three-course brunch at a table decorated with balloons. Next to me, someone is cooking up a banana foster, a New Orleans flambéed dessert that uses cinnamon to sprinkle on the flames to create firework-like sparks.

It’s a real show of indulgence and I’m forced to unbutton the top button of my jeans. I was expecting this, but I didn’t know it would feel so good. By preserving and reinventing traditional dishes of the American South, innovative chefs and home cooks are bringing new meaning to soul food. There’s no traffic jam in sight – just pure southern comfort.

Anastasia Miari is the Grand Dishes co-writer and journalist behind Food Trippin’, a new travel and food podcast available on Spotify and iTunes. Travelers are reminded to inform themselves of any public health restrictions that may affect their plans.

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