Local ingredients for genuine Gulf-region comfort food

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“Why don’t you go back to your double-wide and fry something” isn’t just a great line from SWEET HOME ALABAMA, it also sums up the view of Gulf Coast cuisine & culture held by many not from the region. Okay, there’s a lot of deep frying that goes on inside Southern kitchens, but as anyone who’s spent time there (or lived there) knows, that doesn’t encapsulate the region’s food, even the “comfort food” with which Ludo will experiment when he and Krissy do their pop-up restaurant thing at Mobile, Alabama’s Queen G’s Cafe tonight.

One of the things that makes Gulf Coast cuisine so varied is access to a variety of local ingredients. The warm, wet climate and long growing season creates opportunities for a wide range of crops. And the abundance of waterways, as well as the Gulf of Mexico itself, provides a wealth of marine life that also find its way into coastal kitchens and restaurants. So, as someone who spent the first part of his life within the “100-mile diet” zone of Mobile, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for local ingredients that Ludo might want to play with as he reinvents Queen G’s menu.

Crawfish: Yeah, people are still concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood after last year’s BP oil spill. Fortunately, Alabama is home to one of the most diverse populations of this freshwater shellfish most commonly associated with Louisiana (and, no, we don’t call them crawdads). Most commonly boiled, crawfish tails are also great fried, or as an ingredient in gumbo or etouffee.

Blueberries: They’re everywhere around Mobile. Get on the road outside the city and you’re bound to come upon a blueberry farm (including numerous you-pick operations). There’s nothing like some blueberry cobbler to round out a meal.

Okra: This Southern staple isn’t usually pretty when cooked  (which is the main reason I wouldn’t touch it as a kid), but, boy, is it versatile. Yes, it gets fried, too (I love me some fried okra), but you’ll also find it stewed with tomatoes and even pickled. And, of course, it’s a standard ingredient in seafood gumbo.

Pecans: Just South of Mobile in Northwest Florida (where I spent those first years), you’ll find lots of pecan farming. Maybe not as much as cotton, but it’s still a big part of the agricultural mix in the area (I still remember it from the requisite agricultural field trip). Does anything say “Southern comfort food” more than a big slice of pecan pie – with ice cream, of course!

Muscadine grapes: This grape variety is native to the region, and can be used like any other kind. Maybe some homemade jam for the biscuits? Or pie for desert?

Got other local food suggestions from the Mobile area foodshed? Share them…

Hungry for more? Tune in for a cross-country road trip with celebrity Chef Ludo Lefebvre as he reinvents American cuisine. LUDO BITES AMERICA airs Tuesdays at 9p on Sundance Channel.

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