A Gulf Coast state with fertile land, Alabama’s list of best-known foods and drinks is filled with local crops and classic southern fare. Although some of its most famous dishes don’t originate there, the “Yellowhammer State” has adopted them into its culture so seamlessly that one cannot be mentioned without the other.
Here are some of the most well-known foods and drinks in Alabama, in no particular order:
Fried Green Tomatoes
Even if you’ve never eaten fried green tomatoes, you’ve probably heard of them. They became a household name due to Fannie Flagg’s famous book-turned-movie, Fried Green Tomatoes. Although the dish was introduced to the United States in the 1800s by Jewish immigrants in the Northeast and Midwest, the aforementioned story’s Alabama-setting created a strong association of the dish with the south.
Add that to the fact that tomatoes thrive in Alabama’s climate, and it’s no surprise that the two have become linked.
Tomatoes are green before they ripen. When picked at this stage, they are firmer, tangier, and less juicy. This makes them perfect for frying, which is done after the fruits are coated in seasoned flour, buttermilk, and cornmeal. The tartness of the tomatoes perfectly complements the oiliness of the coating and results in a delicious appetizer or side.
What better place to try fried green tomatoes than the cafe that inspired the book and made them a Southern staple? Irondale Cafe in Irondale, a suburb of Birmingham, was the inspiration for Fried Green Tomatoes’ Whistle Stop Cafe.
Alabama White Barbecue Sauce
If there’s any cuisine that can hold the claim of being the pinnacle of Southern food culture, it’s barbecue. Texas, North Carolina, and every state in between give barbecue their own unique twist, and Alabama is no exception. In fact, the Cotton State’s twist may be the most unique of all—their barbecue sauce is white, rather than the typical reddish brown.
The sauce gets its white color from its mayonnaise base, which contrasts with the more common ketchup base. Vinegar is the other major component of Alabama barbecue sauce.
Restaurants will alter the recipe to create their own flavor, but it’s likely that it will contain some ratio of Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, sugar, garlic, onion powder, and black pepper. All these ingredients come together to form a creamy, tangy sauce that is perfect on any grilled meat.
Decatur, Alabama native Bob Gibson is believed to have invented white barbecue sauce in the 1920s as a coating for his restaurant’s chicken. Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is still a local favorite for authentic Alabama barbecue.
Whether you call them “PEE-cans” or “puh-KAHNS”, there’s no denying that this nut is a Southern favorite. Alabama in particular loves pecans, so much so that they were named the state’s official nut in the 1980s.
This is partially due to Alabama’s soil being perfect for pecan growth—making them an important piece of the state’s agricultural industry since the early 1900s. It’s also in part due to pecans’ ability to upgrade a wide variety of dishes.
Pecan pie is probably the most popular way to use the nut; the sweet, crunchy dessert is a mainstay of holiday meals. In the vein of desserts, pecans can be candied (baked in sugar and cinnamon to create a sweet coating) and added to cookies, ice cream, or just eaten by themselves. It’s also common to enjoy the nut in savory contexts, such as salting them, roasting them, and adding them to meat dishes.
Because pecans are so versatile, there are more ways to consume them than can be counted. Heaton Pecan Farm in Clanton, Alabama offers dozens of options, as does the Alabama Pecan Festival held in Mobile each year.
Like tomatoes and pecans, okra loves Alabama’s hot climate. While the crop’s introduction to the United States is believed to have been due to the unfortunate transatlantic slave trade, it has become a significant part of soul food cuisine, a.k.a. cuisine that is now a celebrated part of African American culture.
Okra’s prominence in soul food means that one of its most beloved preparation methods is deep frying. Fresh okra is crispy and tough, making it perfect for maintaining shape and texture throughout the frying process.
The vegetable is usually sliced into somewhat thick, bite-sized pieces. The bits are soaked in eggs, then dredged in a breading. Seasoned chicken or fish fry is often used as a batter to add an extra kick. The okra is then fried in oil until the coating is golden brown and crispy.
The Southern Kitchen & Bar in Birmingham serves fried okra alongside your choice of ranch or hot sauce for dipping.
Shrimp is another big player in Alabama’s food and industry, and has been since Europeans began to settle along the Gulf Coast in the 1700s. Once means of safe transportation were discovered, the seafood became widespread across the state. Today, you’re never too far away from an establishment that serves shrimp in Alabama. Bayou la Batre, along the state’s southern coast, is known as the “seafood capital of Alabama”.
There are numerous methods for preparing shrimp. Some of the more common ones are sauteing, grilling, boiling, and frying. They can be eaten on their own, or they can be added to pastas, soups, stews, and rice dishes. A classic Alabama combination is shrimp and grits, and just like white barbecue sauce, every chef puts their own spin on the recipe to make it personalized and delicious.
The restaurant franchise Shrimp Basket serves this seafood in a variety of ways, so everyone in the family can find a version they enjoy. Shrimp Basket has locations across Alabama in Gulf Shores, Foley, Auburn, Homewood, Orange Beach, and Tuscaloosa.
A cornmeal-based porridge, grits have been a staple in the diets of Alabamians for centuries. The Muscogee Native American tribe first created the dish by boiling corn, then taught European settlers to do the same. Grits have grown to become a famous breakfast food and entree that can be found all across the southeastern United States.
The grain is heated in water or milk until a homogeneous and soft mixture is formed. Sugar can be added to grits to make them sweet, but it’s much more common that savory elements are added to the dish. Along with melted butter, seasonings such as salt, black pepper, and other spices are stirred into grits. Salted meats such as bacon and sausage can be served either in the grits or on the side.
You can purchase grits in stores across the country, and online. Most traditional grits use white corn, while its similar Italian cousin, polenta, uses yellow corn. Although you can find mixed bags of yellow and white stone ground grits (affiliate link).
Metro Diner serves regular breakfast grits, as well as shrimp and grits. They have locations in the Alabama cities of Birmingham, Dothan, Tuscaloosa, Madison, and Trussville.
The origin of banana pudding is a bit of a mystery: the first recipe for it appears to have been published in the late 1800s in the northeastern United States. It’s unclear whether the name comes from the dessert’s custard component or the British’s use of “pudding” to denote any dessert.
It’s also a mystery as to how banana pudding has become associated with southern states like Alabama. The common theory is that it’s due to the ease of making it in large batches, which is perfect for the large gatherings southerners tend to have.
At first, the banana pudding was made by building alternating layers of sponge cake and sliced bananas before covering the concoction in custard (or pudding) and topping it all with whipped cream. In the 1920s, sponge cake began to be replaced with vanilla wafers, as the cookies were much easier to bake or buy.
Now, while the major components of custard and vanilla wafers are typically universal, exact recipes for banana pudding vary from chef to chef. The dessert is simple to make, but why not try one made by a professional Alabama baker? CakEffect in Hoover’s banana pudding is made with banana-flavored cake, a buttercream topping, and vanilla wafers.
Last, but certainly not least, is the sole drink item on the list. Sweet tea may not be native to the southern United States, but the version we know and love, is—tea that is chilled, and often served with ice. The oldest known recipe for sweet iced tea dates back to the late 1800s and calls for the use of green tea leaves. This was typical until World War II when black tea leaves took over and ended up sticking.
Sweet tea is fairly simple to make; often, the only ingredients are tea leaves, water, and granulated cane sugar or syrup. But the key is to add in the sweetener while the leaves are brewing, or at least while the drink is still piping hot.
This fully incorporates the sugar into the liquid so that you get an even amount of sweetness in every sip. It’s common to squeeze a lemon slice into a glass of sweet tea, or flavor the beverage with fruits such as peaches and raspberries.
Sweet tea is on the menu at most restaurants throughout Alabama, and in specialty shops like Alabama Sweet Tea Company in Montgomery. If you can’t make it down, they’ll ship you bags of their tea leaves (affiliate link) so you can brew a pitcher for yourself.
While these are some of the most famous foods and drinks of Alabama, the state boasts countless more dishes that are worth trying. No matter what your personal tastes are, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never go hungry when you’re visiting Alabama.