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Five breakfasts from the American Deep South

Whether it's beignets, buttermilk pancakes or biscuits and grits, starting the day with a Deep South breakfast doesn't disappoint. We round up five breakfast specialities to order — plus, the best diners to try them, from Atlanta to Nashville.

By Jennifer Zyman
Published 18 May 2021, 08:00 BST
New Orlean's Cafe du Monde is renowned for its chicory coffee and beignets.

New Orlean's Cafe du Monde is renowned for its chicory coffee and beignets.

Photograph by Alamy

The cuisine of the Deep South is one of comfort, tradition and, above all, abundance of flavour. It incorporates produce that’s prolific in the region and therefore ingrained in its culinary history, such as sweetcorn, ham and lard (the South has an abundance of pig farms, and nose-to-tail cooking was standard practice long before it became fashionable). You’ll find influences ranging from West African to Native American, French and beyond. Dishes are hearty and homely, with breakfast featuring a host of savoury and sweet foods, including meat, eggs, quick breads such as biscuits, and all manner of gravies and jams. Here’s what to order. 

A beignet is a puffed up, sugar-dusted treat and a distant cousin of the doughnut.

Photograph by Alamy

1. Shrimp & grits

The dish: In parts of the South situated on the water — such as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina — you’ll find shrimp on every menu, often served atop a creamy bowl of grits (a slow-cooked porridge of cornmeal, water and milk). The best restaurants cook the shrimp until they’re just done enough to snap when bitten into, while the grits should be creamy and light as air.  
Where to start: Open since 1976, Poogan’s Porch in Charleston is a traditional Southern restaurant within a porch-lined Victorian townhouse. The shrimp and grits here feature andouille sausage, tasso ham gravy, onions and peppers. 

2. Country ham & red-eye gravy

The dish: Salty, smoked and cured, country ham pops up in a variety of guises, whether it’s flavouring a side of stewed greens or it’s the star of the show, served as a thick, steak-like slab cooked on a griddle. For breakfast, order it with dark and smoky red-eye gravy, made by combining the drippings from the meat with coffee, ideally in a
cast-iron pan, the intense heat of which coaxes out even more of its flavour.
Where to start: Nashville’s The Loveless Cafe has been going strong since 1951, and its country ham with red-eye gravy and eggs is a signature dish. Order a biscuit to go with it; they’re so good, they’ve earned a place on the restaurant’s neon sign.

3. Buttermilk pancakes

The dish: Whether you order them with a sticky and sweet pecan topping or just a simple pat of butter, pancakes are a Southern staple. Buttermilk — which crops up in a whole host of regional specialities, such as biscuits and fried chicken — is the not-so-secret ingredient that makes these pancakes extra fluffy.
Where to start: Bread & Butterfly is a neighbourhood spot in Atlanta serving French- and Southern-inspired dishes. The buttermilk pancake (served as one large single pancake) is fluffy, buttery and served with hot maple syrup.

4. Biscuits & gravy

The dish: Biscuits really sing of the South, especially when eaten with gravy. Of course, these aren’t your standard digestives — they’re more akin to scones, but flakier, more buttery and unsweetened. The gravy, meanwhile, is a creamy white concoction studded with chunks of pork sausage that add a wonderful savoury note to the whole dish.
Where to start: At Home Grown in Atlanta, the biscuits and gravy dish called ‘The Big Comfy’ is so popular there’s a digital counter keeping track of its sales. The large cathead biscuits (so called because they’re the size of a cat’s head) are coated in gravy and topped with curled pieces of fried chicken breast and a couple of slices of orange for good measure.

5. Beignets

The dish: Sometimes breakfast only needs to be a cup of coffee and a quick, sweet bite, and there’s no better sweet bite than the beignet. This puffed up, sugar-dusted treat, a distant cousin of the doughnut, was brought to America by French settlers, and is now a quintessential speciality of New Orleans.
Where to start: Open 24 hours, Cafe du Monde is a New Orleans landmark with the queue to prove it. The perfectly golden beignets are fried to order and well worth waiting for; wash them down with a cup of cafe au lait.

Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 17-18 July 2021 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

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