Visiting the South without tasting its outrageously delicious local specialties would be a travesty, but if you don't know the right way to order from a Southern menu, you'll miss out on all the little (actually, big) extras. And you might end up with something you definitely don't want. Keep in mind that cuisines do vary around the region: While certain Southern states that border the ocean are known for their fish-fry dishes, for instance, others specialize in the Creole style of cooking. But a few standard traditions hold fast-and-true in every part of the South. Here, your guide to decoding a Southern menu, so you can dine like you belong there:
1. If you order ‘tea’, you’ll get it iced and sweet.
While most Northern states and European countries think of tea as a hot beverage to start your day or help you unwind, "tea" in the South is considered appropriate for every single restaurant meal. Most families will have a fresh pitcher of it in their fridge at home, too. When you order "tea" at a restaurant, it’ll definitely be iced and super-sweet (and it's usually made with granulated sugar at most establishments). If you want anything different, make sure you specify. And mind your manners, please!
2. All of the fixin’s has its own special meaning.
In some Southern restaurants, you’ll notice an option to add "all of the fixin’s," and the meaning varies depending on where you are. If you’re at a BBQ place (and yes, Southerners consider BBQ a noun, not a verb, and they take it pretty seriously), "all of the fixin’s" could mean getting all of the various sauces on your table at once. Or it could reference side dishes and include anything from mac n’ cheese to collard greens and cornbread. While it’s always a good idea to get those fixin’s,’ make sure you've arrived hungry. Depending on where you go, there's a mighty good chance you'll end up with enough side dishes and sauces to make up a whole other meal. (Just ask for a doggy bag, which is what Southerners call take-out.)
3. Ranch is always appropriate, no matter what you’re eating.
You might think Ranch dressing is only something you put on Tex-Mex style salads, along with some avocado to mask the salty taste. But if you’re in the South, you’ll need to think again: Ranch dressing is often referred to as the "ketchup of the South," and for good reason. Southerners put Ranch dressing on everything: pizza, chicken wings, french fries, catfish. You name it, they’ve tried it. And if you ask for it at any restaurant, no one will blink an eye; they’ll just ask if you’d like two sides or one.
4. Beverages are always unlimited…
...and you can usually get one in a to-go cup. While some restaurants in other regions of the country may charge you per drink, the South usually subscribes to the notion that more is more. When you’re drinking sweet tea or any other non-alcoholic beverage, you can drink as much as you’d like, usually for only $2. And if you’re in the South during a particularly hot summer day, they might even ask if you’d like a drink for the road. (And another thing: Most servers will give you a straw for every beverage you have, whether you want one or not.)
5. Vegetables are not always vegetarian.
Be extra-extra careful if you’re a vegetarian visiting the Southern states: To give added flavor to leafy side dishes, beans and veggie medleys, some restaurants will cook their garden varieties in meat products. In some very Southern locations, you might even find pork fat or pieces of ham in green beans, or some "vegetarian" sides might be stewed with beef stock. Those ever-famous collard greens that mama said make you grow tall and strong? They're usually made with ham hock, which gives them that super-salty taste. Though it might break the rules for non-meat eaters, if you do consume meat products, you have to try this unique—and ahem, indulgent—way of getting your daily dose of veggies.
6. Hushpuppies are considered bread.
When you venture to a seafood restaurant or even a country BBQ place, you’ll likely get a side of bread and butter to start. As you’re beginning to enjoy that country-churned spread, you might notice some oddly shaped ball of cornmeal. These bites are called hushpuppies, and you’ll likely get them with every meal. Made of cornmeal, flour, eggs and buttermilk, they’re not exactly great for the waistline, but they’re melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Some places might add onions, garlic, corn or peppers to give dimension to this Southern classic. Best of all? The bread/hushpuppies basket is usually complementary to begin your meal.
7. It’s not pop or soda, it’s Coke.
Southerners don’t get too specific about their sodas when they want to order one, and this might be confusing if you’ve never lived in the South. When ordering a diet soda—regardless if you want Coca-Cola or Pepsi—you order a "diet Coke" and they bring you whatever they have. And if you try to order "pop" like they say in parts of the Midwest, or "soda" like they say everywhere else, you’ll get a Mmmhmm eyebrow raise. (And psst: Cheerwine isn’t actually wine, it’s a type of soda that’s only found in the South. Order it!)
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