In Alabama, a “house divided” typically refers to spouses who support rival college football teams, but families get equally passionate and often downright persnickety when it comes to how Southern cuisine should be prepared.
Steamed or fried? Mayo or vinegar? White sauce or red? Dry rub or sloppy and slathered?
When it comes to favorite dishes, preparation methods or ingredients, Alabama food traditions are often defined by our culinary rivalries. The best part is tasting it all so you can sort out which side you’re on.
For some, real coleslaw is always mayonnaise-based, and vinegar-based slaw is considered a salad or relish (chowchow) and is served atop a smoked pork sandwich. Like cabbage, an equally divisive veggie is okra. Some love it soft — stewed or steamed — while others believe okra should only be fried in a cast-iron skillet and served crispy and hot.
A more recent rivalry has begun to brew over iced tea. For ages, an order of iced tea in Alabama has been assumed “sweet” unless qualified as “unsweet” by the customer. But now traditional sweet tea has its share of critics, including Alabama’s best-known chef, Frank Stitt, owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon.
“One of the great divides in the world of Southern food is the allegiance one has to iced tea,” Stitt says, with the mischievous smile of a man who knows he’s treading dangerous waters. “We the knowledgeable of Southern descent realize that iced tea may be improved upon with a sprig of mint or a squeeze of lemon and perhaps just the slightest drop or two of infused mint syrup.
“And we believe in the bottom of our hearts that to suffer down that impossibly oversweetened liquid that some of our lesser-educated friends call ‘sweet tea’ is insufferable. What some deranged folks produce under the guise of sweet tea is really a diabetic-coma-inducing concoction of sugar water muddied by a few tired, stale tea leaves. As you might surmise,” he adds, “sweet tea is not my cup of tea!”
Likewise, in this state where white barbecue sauce made its debut on a smoked bird long ago, dousing barbecued chicken in red sauce is a punishable sin for many.
Scott Jones, president of Jones Is Hungry and former executive food editor of Southern Living magazine, says this sauce debate is a regular occurrence in his house.
“I happen to love tangy white barbecue sauce, while my wife, Deanna, prefers the sweeter, tomato-based sauces found in neighboring Tennessee and Georgia. I find the versatility of white barbecue makes me…er, it… the clear winner,” Jones says. “From potato salad to grilled fish, the sauce plays well with so many foods beyond traditional barbecue chicken.”
Dish disputes may never be won, but rest assured, in this great food state they will always be fought. What’s your rub? Is there a preparation of a food technique you think is better forgotten? Is there a particular dish you think should reign over its lackluster counterpart?
About the Author
Katherine Cobbs is a food writer whose work has appeared in Southern Living, Southern Accents, Cottage Living and Cooking Light magazines. She has co-authored books with renowned chefs, including: Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita and The Hot & Hot Fish Club Cookbookwith Chris Hastings and served as editor of the recently released Cooking in Everyday English with Chef Todd English. Katherine resides in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband and three daughters.
The views expressed here are those of the author.