The Southern states of the USA are synonymous with soul food – local homestyle dishes served with a side of history, hospitality and a whole lot of heart. There are certainly staples – fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, grits, biscuits and gravy, mac and cheese are offered almost everywhere. Family recipes that were passed down through generations live on through restaurants that have adopted these recipes and brought them to the masses. Use the culinary classics below as a guide, but remember the best Southern meals will probably be the ones that warm your stomach and your soul.

Arkansas

The South is renowned for its penchant for deep-frying everything, and one of the best-battered creations is the fried pickle. Legend has it that the restaurant of Arkansas local Bernell “Fatman” Austin was located directly across from a pickle factory, so one day he used some hamburger pickle chips, threw them in batter, and charged 10 cents for a basket of 10. Today Fatman’s recipe is only known to the family and used once a year at the annual Picklefest in May.

Chocolate gravy is another uniquely Arkansan creation. While the pairing may not be an obvious one, don’t knock it till you try it! Believed to have been created in the Arkansas Ozarks, this condiment is made from flour, butter, sugar and cocoa powder, and served as a side at many country-style restaurants.

Also popular in Arkansas is the possum pie – made with a flour, pecan, butter crust, a sour cream cheese bottom, a layer of chocolate custard and whipped cream on top. According to Kat Robinson, author of “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” the pie is so-named because it “plays possum” representing itself as something else. “If you don’t know the chocolate is in there, it looks like a strange pecan-cream-pie hybrid,” she writes.

Alabama

Salads in the South can suffer somewhat of an identity crisis. (Take for example Ambrosia – usually made of sweet canned fruit, marshmallows, shredded coconut, and sour cream or Cool Whip … is it a dessert or a main?). But Alabamians know how to do it right. The West Indies Salad was invented at an eatery on the state’s Gulf Coast. Restaurateur Bill Bayley used vinegar, vegetable oil, and yellow onion to transform the local waters’ abundant crab supply into a dish designed to transport diners to the shores of the West Indies islands.

Not just the title of a novel and movie set in Birmingham, fried green tomatoes are another delicious source of Alabama pride. With tomatoes originating from Mexico, corn meal via Native Americans and the concept of frying introduced through the Africans, multiple ethnicities claim fried tomatoes as part of their traditions. But regardless of their origins, almost all Alabamians will agree that the finest firm-fleshed, crunchy-coated, unripe tomatoes can be found at the Whistle-Stop Café. And are best served with a dip of Alabama white sauce (a tangy take on traditional barbecue sauce) to the side.

And finally while rich desserts may be popular all over the South (banana pudding, pumpkin pie) pecan-featuring varieties are often authentic to Alabama – after all, it is the official state nut! One of the best examples is the Lane Cake. Mentioned in the literary classic that is “To Kill A Mockingbird” (by Alabama author Harper Lee) the original recipe was created by Clayton woman Emma Rylander Lane who used it to win a county fair baking competition in 1898. While there are many variations to Lane Cake, the unique part is the filling between each layer – traditionally made from pecans, coconut, whiskey-soaked raisins, sugar, egg yolk and butter.

Georgia

American Southerners love to snack on freshly harvested boiled peanuts, and in Georgia, it’s particularly popular to see road-side vendors cooking them over fire pits in large metal drums. To prepare, sellers simmer green peanuts in brine for hours, which softens both the shell and the legume inside. Snackers then pop each peanut by directly biting into the shell in a process similar to eating edamame.

Pimento cheese is also ubiquitous in Southern cooking. Made with Cheddar or American cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos (capsicum), it can be spread on crackers, added to eggs or transformed into a sandwich. Some Georgian recipes also like to include a little grated Vidalia onion – a trademarked and sweet variety of the vegetable exclusively grown in State production areas. Pimento cheese sandwiches are so beloved in Georgia that it’s become a staple item at the annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta. Locals say that you haven’t truly experienced Georgia until you’ve had a bite of pimento cheese.

To finish on a sweet note, bakers in “The Peach State” (so named because of a reputation in producing the highest quality fruit) have an uncanny knack for creating some of the best Peach Cobbler in America. Make like a local and order it “a la mode” with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. Or visit in June, for a free sample of the “World’s Largest Peach Cobbler” – the 3 metre/1.5 metre creation – made each year at the Georgia Peach Festival in Fort Valley.

Kentucky

The Hot Brown sandwich was first created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1926. While modern variations may feature ham, pimentos and/or tomatoes the original classic is an open-faced white toast sandwich, made with sliced turkey, mornay sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, before being grilled.

For a traditional state dessert, try Kentucky Derby Pie – a delicious legacy of the Kern family who first created it. Although the exact ingredients of the recipe are unknown, it is a chocolate and pecan tart in a pie shell with a pastry dough crust and shares its name with the horse race that is held annually in Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May.

The South may have soul but it also has spirit, with the origins of American bourbon found in present-day Kentucky. While distilling was likely originally brought to the area by settlers, including the Scots in the late 18th century, the dynasty continues among locals. Today, Kentucky bourbon features in the state’s popular mint julep cocktail, bourbon balls (no-bake treats featuring liquor-soaked pecans), or simply served neat.

Louisiana

A traditional Louisiana Po’ boy is a popular way to tend to rumbling tummies. It generally consists of meat, (roast beef or fried seafood, such as prawns, crawfish, oysters or crab), served on baguette-like French bread, with a crisp crust and fluffy centre.

For hungrier appetites, Louisiana locals will usually tuck into a bowl of gumbo, jambalaya or etouffée: These hearty rice dishes are all essential eats in Louisiana, but there are subtle differences between, so here’s a crash course! Gumbo is made of vegetables and meat and/or shellfish, seasoned to spicy, and with a soupier consistency than its Cajun rice cousins. Important: The rice must be served on the side. Jambalaya is a hearty bowl of rice with shellfish, vegetables and andouille sausage. FYI: The Creole version has tomatoes, but the Cajun version does not. Étouffée is a thick, spicy stew that is most commonly made with crawfish and ladled over rice. Note: The term is French for smothered or suffocated.

For a tasty end to a meal, N’awlins natives often opt for Beignets. This sweet specialty features fried pieces of dough, normally about 5-centimetres in diameter or 5-centimetres square. Sometimes described as a donut – without a hole – they are best enjoyed with a creamy cafe au lait from Cafe Beignet or Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Mississippi

The definitive characteristics of St. Louis-style pizza are a very thin cracker-like crust made without yeast, the use of Provel cheese, (a white processed dairy product that is a combination of Cheddar, Swiss, and Provolone) square or rectangle pieces instead of wedges. Grab a slice at Imo’s (904 S 4th St, St. Louis, Missouri) – a casual joint has a small handful of locations around St. Louis – and a big reputation.

Or try toasted ravioli. While there are multiple stories floating around about the origins of T-Ravs (to the locals), the most widely accepted is that a Missourian chef in the famed Italian neighbourhood The Hill, accidentally dropped his ravioli into hot oil instead of boiling water. Although debate continues about exactly which cook it was, the general consensus is that almost any you order in Missouri will be delicious.

Missourian sweet-tooths will commonly finish with a treat from family-owned frozen custard company institution Ted Drewes. Made with eggs and honey, and blended with dozens of flavours, this sweet concoction is so stiff that if you stick a spoon in and turn it upside down, it will stay put. The line is usually long, but well worth the wait.

Missouri

The definitive characteristics of St. Louis-style pizza are a very thin cracker-like crust made without yeast, the use of Provel cheese, (a white processed dairy product that is a combination of Cheddar, Swiss, and Provolone) square or rectangle pieces instead of wedges. Grab a slice at Imo’s (904 S 4th St, St. Louis, Missouri) – a casual joint has a small handful of locations around St. Louis – and a big reputation.

Or try toasted ravioli. While there are multiple stories floating around about the origins of T-Ravs (to the locals), the most widely accepted is that a Missourian chef in the famed Italian neighbourhood The Hill, accidentally dropped his ravioli into hot oil instead of boiling water. Although debate continues about exactly which cook it was, the general consensus is that almost any you order in Missouri will be delicious.

Missourian sweet-tooths will commonly finish with a treat from family-owned frozen custard company institution Ted Drewes. Made with eggs and honey, and blended with dozens of flavours, this sweet concoction is so stiff that if you stick a spoon in and turn it upside down, it will stay put. The line is usually long, but well worth the wait.

Tennessee

While barbecue means different things in different regions (depending on meat cuts and sauces), the general practice of Southern-style BBQ is exceptionally popular in Tennessee. Here barbecue is most clearly defined in Memphis; which is best known for both “dry” and “wet” pork ribs. Dry ribs are covered in a “rub” – a mix of spices and herbs – and then smoked. “Wet ribs,” on the other hand, are basted during smoking and then served doused in a tomato-based barbecue sauce. Memphis pulled BBQ is so good, it’s also often incorporated into other foods, including pizzas, nachos, and even spaghetti.

Moon Pies v Goo Goo Clusters: Sugar addicts the challenge is on! Take your pick from GooGoo Clusters: The disk-shaped chocolate bar containing marshmallow nougat, caramel, and roasted peanuts, created in Nashville, Tennessee. Or Moonpies: A Chattanooga, Tennessee, export consisting of two round biscuits, with marshmallow filling in the centre, dipped in a flavoured coating (accompanied by an RC Cola of course). Or throw caution to the wind and tuck into both!

Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee is the home of the drink that inspired a thousand country music twangs. Tennessee whiskey is distinct from other drinks because all current Tennessee whiskey producers are required by local law to produce their whiskeys in Tennessee and – with the sole exception of Benjamin Prichard’s – use a filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process prior to aging the whiskey.