Summertime in the South means plenty of sunshine and great food. Regardless of your location, you can find a signature staple of southern cuisine that is sure to fill your belly while making you wish for more. Learning about some traditional southern cooking practices may even help you expand your own repertoire in the kitchen or on the grill.
The Tri-Cities of Northeast Tennessee is rich in tradition and one of the most popular deals with our mountain heritage and cooking. Modern times have not entirely chased away this old-fashioned view of preparing food, and it can still be found in kitchens throughout Erwin, Jonesborough, Greeneville, Elizabethton and other surrounding environs.
Let’s take a closer look at the foundations of southern cooking, mountain style, and then discover some homemade recipes for a few of the most popular dishes. Be sure to check out our area Farmers Markets to get the freshest ingredients, and even some tips on great southern cooking!
Naturally Sourced Food
The south has traditionally been known as a poorer section of the country, particularly just after the Civil War. But poverty was nothing new to our ancestors in the Appalachian Mountains. Farming and growing anything was hard on sloped hills filled with rocks and not much soil. Much of what allowed families to survive was harvested from the land, both plant and animal.
Berries, leafy, shallow root vegetables and wild game were staples. This author is just past 50 and can remember his grandmother setting a table of fried squirrel or rabbit with gravy, biscuits or cornbread, potatoes, green beans, fried cabbage, and corn. Dessert was blackberry cobbler from berries we picked at her fence, slathered with homemade ice cream.
Most mountain families fared the same. Many small farms produced food that lasted all through the winter and into the next summer until the new harvest came in. My family’s summertime garden grew a wide variety of vegetables and required many hours of painstaking attention to battle weeds and varmints.
Basements, pantries or “tater-holes” underground stored row upon row of canned food in glass jars, from jams, to vegetables and pickled veggies, to meat and stews. This author also remembers spreading out potatoes all across our basement on old window screens to preserve them over winter.
Earlier generations depended on this and very little else to subsist on the land and keep everyone fed. Trips to the store for my grandparents were for staple goods only that could not be raised or made at home. Think of flour, seed, salt, sugar, pepper and other basics.
Simple Preparations for Large Meals
This author was obviously raised on southern style cooking that still prevails in Northeast Tennessee. Much of our food was fried or cooked with some sort of fatty meat for flavoring, and included a tasty sauce or gravy. Nothing was wasted – grease was the base for gravy and tomorrow’s cooking and even the bones were used for soup or a treat for the dog.
Memories crowd together of the times watching my grandmother cook at her stove, every eye in use, as well as the oven. While many claim the southern method of frying food was a fast way of cooking that kept the kitchen from getting too hot, my grandmother’s kitchen was an oven itself. Cooking was truly a labor of love that generated its own amount of sweat.
And yet, she could whip up a full meal faster than most restaurants, and with much better fare. Often, us kids would be drafted to help with preparations like breaking beans, shucking corn, picking berries, rolling out dough, cutting up vegetables and fetching other items grandma needed. During the late summer, we would be sent to the garden to pick fresh items; colder weather had us picking out canned varieties from the pantry shelf.
Favorite Southern Dishes
If all this recollecting of old memories has made you anxious for some good old-fashioned southern cooking, then get ready! Here are some of this writer’s favorite southern dishes, with actual recipes as close as I can reconstruct from family members. Another important note is that back in their heyday, these revered family figures rarely used written recipes.
Directions, when explained at all, were typically “a pinch of salt to taste,” “browned until crispy,” “cooked through until soft” or “I’ll know when it’s done by the color.” So, if these recipes vary somewhat from some you may know, understand that reconstructing them may not have gotten them entirely accurate.
Fried Green Tomatoes
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (or cornmeal)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 4 green, unripe tomatoes, cut into 1/3 inch slices
- Vegetable oil
- Bacon grease
The tomatoes you need are unripe and somewhat hard. They are not actually ready to eat unless fried. (Also works well for zucchini and crooked neck [yellow] squash).
- Heat oil to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and only deep enough to not quite cover the tomato slices while frying laid flat. Add bacon grease to the oil for flavor.
- Mix together eggs and buttermilk.
- Soak tomato slices briefly in buttermilk, then dredge in flour (you may also use cornmeal; this author believes the best is a mixture of both).
- Place immediately into hot oil, lying flat and allow to fry until coating is light brown.
- Flip and allow other side to become light brown.
- Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a drip rack. Do NOT place slices on top of one another on a paper towel, or they will become soggy.
- Salt and pepper as desired.
- If needed, place finished plate of fried tomato slices into the oven to keep warm while other dishes finish cooking.
- Use in place of any green vegetable, or with mashed or boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, biscuits and your choice of meat.
- ½ stick real unsalted butter
- 4 ears fresh corn, cut from the ear
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole milk or cream
- Optional: ½ cup red bell pepper
This recipe is best with fresh corn but you can also use frozen or canned. Adjust your cooking time accordingly.
- Boil cut corn until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain.
- Melt butter in a pot over medium heat, swirling until butter foams.
- Add bell pepper and sauté 3 minutes.
- Add corn and sauté 3-4 minutes.
- Add flour, milk and salt and mix together.
- Cover and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove 1/3 corn mixture and process in a blender until smooth.
- Return to pot and stir well.
- Season more to taste.
- Leftover mashed potatoes (about 2 cups)
- ½ to ¾ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 diced onion
- 1 egg
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
If you have more leftover mashed potatoes, adjust your recipe accordingly so you have the correct proportions. These are great paired with soup beans or as a breakfast with honey or syrup and butter.
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat.
- Combine mashed potatoes, flour, egg, onion, salt and pepper in a bowl to make a batter. If needed, add just a touch of milk.
- Drop circles of batter (about 4 inches across) into hot oil and cook until browned, about 5 minutes per side.
- Remove with fork or slotted spoon and place on a rack to drain.
- 2 tablespoons bacon grease
- 1 ½ cups cornmeal
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ tablespoon salt
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 large egg
The key points to this recipe are the bacon grease and a cast iron skillet. Pay close attention to how to handle the oil, for safety and for the best, crispy cornbread you have ever eaten.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. While oven warms, place a 10-inch cast iron skillet into the oven with the bacon grease. Leave the pan until the grease begins to smoke.
- Mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, buttermilk and egg into a bowl and mix until just combined.
- Pour hot bacon drippings from the oven into the mixture and quickly stir together (you should hear it crackling).
- Pour entire mixture into hot skillet and return to oven.
- Bake for 18-20 minutes. Remove when cornbread is golden brown (darker around the edges) and the edges begin to pull away from the skillet.
- Remove from skillet and serve hot with plenty of butter.
Southern Fried Chicken
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 2 large eggs
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons salt, plus additional for sprinkling
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces
- Vegetable oil
There are many variations on this recipe. Some soak chicken overnight in a brine and then soak during the day in buttermilk. Some do one or the other. Most early southern kitchens didn’t have time for long soaks or complicated sauces; there was other work to be done. This is the simplest and best recipe for anyone who wants good southern fried chicken that isn’t hard to make.
- Combine milk and eggs well.
- Combine flour, 2 tablespoons salt and pepper in a large resealable bag and shake well.
- Dip chicken pieces into milk and egg mixture and set aside until you have 3 or 4 ready.
- Add dipped chicken to seasoned flour and shake well to coat thoroughly.
- Repeat with remaining chicken pieces.
- Heat oil in a deep skillet to 350 degrees, not quite deep enough to cover chicken.
- Fry chicken about 10 minutes per side until done. Only fry a few pieces at a time to keep oil temperature high (for crispier chicken). Breasts cook faster than dark meat pieces, so combine in the skillet accordingly. Done chicken should run clear juice when cut.
- Remove cooked chicken to a rack to drain and salt immediately.
- If you are cooking a large batch of chicken, preheat oven to 200 degrees and keep a baking rack inside. Place freshly fried and drained chicken on the rack singly to keep warm.
What are your favorite southern summertime recipes for cooking? Share them with us or let us know how you fared using our suggested recipes!
Of course, you can find everything you need for these recipes and more across the Tri-Cities with 1-Find.com!