Except for a 13-year exile in High Point, North Carolina, I have lived my entire life in Virginia. As such, I grew up to be a Southern man and a Virginia gentleman who appreciated not only Southern traditions, but developed a specific love for Southern foods.
As such, whenever I see stories of Southern Cuisine, I always stop to read them in hope of learning a few cooking tips I didn’t know. Earlier this week I came across a Southern Living story that identified the South’s most iconic dishes of all time, so I had to read it to make sure I didn’t miss one in my life’s culinary journey.
Ranked No. 1 was Mac & Cheese. Ok, I thought, it’s Southern, but No. 1 is kind of lofty for such an every day side dish. No. 2 was buttermilk biscuits, which I agree with, as it is a staple of many a Southern table to the point several Southern men I know claim with tongue firmly implanted in cheek that they decided to marry their spouses all due to their skills at making biscuits.
No. 3 surprised me. German Chocolate Cake was in the position, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine dish and my wife loves it. But to not only be No. 3 but also the top dessert mentioned runs counter to my Southern experience. I mean, if I’m ever being held hostage and I need to communicate I’m being held against my will, if I say “I don’t like banana pudding” you’ll know to call for someone to rescue me.
German chocolate cake, I’ve learned, does not derive its origins from the land of beer and schnitzel. It was invented in 1957 in Dallas with the key ingredient being a dark baking chocolate created by Samuel German. It actually was initially called German’s chocolate cake, then shortened to German chocolate cake. And I do know some who have had that cake as a tradition in their house for generations.
But a great Southern dessert is something very sweet and somewhat gooey. It’s the kind of treat you’re more likely to find at the church cover dish supper Sunday night than a 5-star restaurant. The recipes tend to be simple with only a few ingredients, and at least in my experience, become extremely addictive. As my daughter once said, “it tastes like I want some more.”
You’ll find some recipes in the lofty air of publications like Southern Living, but I’ve found the best ones in folded over homemade booklets sold for a $1 for fundraising, where everyone contributes their grandmothers’ favorite dishes. You buy one just to donate a buck, then read through it and think “I need to make that.”
So as a public service, I’m going to include what I think the top 10 Southern desserts are. There are ground rules, as, for example, if it has ambrosia or some kind of fruit or vegetable encased in green jello, it need not apply. It has to be distinctively Southern. And it has to be something I like 😊
- Banana pudding. They talk about dynasties in sports, but this dish is the all-time winner and still champion. If you’re not from the South, the proper pronunciation is NANNER pudding, and there is never a time it’s not appropriate. If you’re served a thick steak and banana pudding and you don’t know if you have room, you eat the banana pudding first. Like water, where hydrogen and oxygen join together, so too is the relationship between pudding and vanilla wafers. You cannot have one without the other. Serving banana pudding to a guest is a not so subtle way to say you love them.
- Peach cobbler. There are many kinds of fruit cobblers, but to me, peach cobbler is distinctively Southern. There’s a reason in Atlanta there are 71 different streets with some variation of the word “peachtree” in it. It is best served hot, gooey and with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream on it while still warm.
- Chess pie. Prepared properly, it is heaven on a plate. I once worked for a furniture company named American of Martinsville in Martinsville, VA, and there was an older lady who made the best in the world. When we would go to furniture market in High Point, NC, we’d buy all she could make and lay them out on a table in the dining area as our unique treat. Over the years I believe as many came to have one of those chess pies as looked at our furniture.
- Chocolate éclair cake. This is as simple a dessert as can be, but man is it good. Nothing more than graham crackers on the bottom of a pan topped with a generous mixture of vanilla pudding and cool whip, topped with another layer of graham crackers and finished with thick chocolate icing. Tasted my first one in 1980 when my then-girlfriend made one for me. We’ve been married ever since.
- Red velvet cake. The key here is the thick cream cheese icing. If you decide to scrimp on this because you want to save calories, it will say a lot about you. Mainly that you’re a Yankee. Same rule applies to carrot cake, which I would rank equally, but wasn’t sure it was distinctly Southern.
- Key lime pie. Good Southern desserts are very sweet and have a distinctive flavor, and this one is a great example. It also showcases how you can make it very complicated, as some restaurants go to great lengths to create theirs, yet if you can get to a box of key lime pudding and a graham cracker crust, you can make something that will still make your family happy.
- Pecan pie. If there’s a turkey served in a Southern home in November, there’s a pecan pie or two on the counter nearby. It too is sweet and gooey, and these days the old standard has been getting an upgrade with many variations. My favorite is the bourbon chocolate pecan pie.
- Bread pudding. Growing up, the older bread was put to one side and when you had enough you took that, some milk, a box of raisins, cinnamon, vanilla and a ton of sugar and made a bread pudding. You can have it warm, but I prefer it after sitting in the fridge all night. When we would visit inlaws many years ago, my mother-in-law would always make a huge bowl of it for me, and when I opened the fridge and saw it, I knew it would be the best thing I’d eat all weekend.
- Bananas Foster. I don’t know who decided to chop up bananas, douse them in sugar, cinnamon and a bunch of other things that run your blood sugar up to 300, then set it on fire, but I definitely appreciate whoever it was. A great desert in your finer Southern restaurants, and the tableside fire show is always fun.
- Chocolate pie. In the more hoity toity places, it has names like French Silk Pie, but it’s gooey sweet chocolate filling topped with some sort of whipped cream or meringue. And it doesn’t stay in the fridge long.
Among the candidates that didn’t make the list were sweet potato pie, mainly because of its similarity to pumpkin pie. There are some Southern homes where sweet potato pie is mandatory, but in mine, we prefer pumpkin. There is also something called a Hummingbird cake that is highly rated in Southern cooking magazines, but I’ve never had it. Same with a pineapple orange cake (known to many as a “Pig Pickin’ Cake) but I’m now going to try to make both and see what I get. May change the rankings.
But the cool thing about Southern desserts is everybody adds their own unique family stamp to recipes so everyone has a different favorite. And if you feel strongly that I’m wrong – a fairly common phenomenon around here – add a comment.
Then invite me over to your house to have some 😊