Every signature dish has a story, especially the ones that help define a place, from city signatures eats like Louisville’s hot brown and Nashville’s hot chicken to regional delights like crawfish and cheese curds. Read on to discover their origins and the destinations to find them.
Nashville Hot Chicken
Nashville hot chicken is taking Southern food culture by fiery storm.
With spice levels ranging from mild to “Shut the Cluck Up,” Music City’s namesake extra hot fried chicken will have groups begging for sweet tea and crying for more.
Served up with pickles and white bread, hot chicken seems to be the Kardashian of food: inexplicably famous and growing more so by the day. Lore suggests the dish was developed, of all things, out of vengeance. A crossed lover laced a meal with a lethal amount of spice, but instead of repentance, Nashville hot chicken was hatched.
“We have several amazing spots for Nashville hot chicken,” said LouAnna Henton, director of tourism sales for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. “Assembly Food Hall houses Prince’s Hot Chicken, the original hot chicken restaurant. Puckett’s Grocery has meat and three plates. Then there’s the Loveless Café, an authentic Nashville restaurant on the Natchez Trace.”
No questions asked, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken is the most popular of Nashville’s hot chicken establishments (the restaurants attract gluttons for punishment in droves), but no location is suitable for large groups. Order ahead and picnic at a pavilion in Nashville’s famed Centennial Park instead. “We have utilized this method in the past and it works well,” Henton said.
The Hot Brown
How do you know it’s the 1920s in Louisville, Kentucky? Hotel ballrooms are packed with flappers and everyone wants to try the city’s hot new culinary creation: the hot brown.
“Party-goers danced the night away and wandered into the kitchen looking for a meal,” said Jordan Skora, marketing communications manager at Louisville Tourism. “The Brown Hotel’s chef was put on the spot. He had leftover bread, turkey, tomatoes and bacon that he popped in the broiler and topped with mornay sauce… and the hot brown was born.”
As the dish’s popularity grew, other restaurants in Derby City began offering their own takes on the baked, open-faced sandwich. Local menus have been known to sport hot brown pizza and hot brown tacos, Skora said.
To enjoy the hot sandwich within walking distance of distilleries and other entertainment, groups can head to the Bristol in downtown. If groups find themselves in Paristown, The Café offers its take on the hot brown as well. Authenticity can’t be beat by experiencing the original at the Brown Hotel, the second oldest hotel in Louisville. Visiting this fall? The Brown Hotel celebrates its centenary this year, and the city hosts Hot Brown Week in late October.
Smith Island Cake
A remote, nearly unreachable fishing village on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is the birthplace of Smith Island cake, a cake of staggering height and history.
“It’s the Maryland state dessert,” said Smith Island Baking Company founder Brian Murphy. “Smith Island cakes are amazing layer cakes made from scratch with ingredients I can pronounce: butter, flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla.”
The towering eight- to 15-layer cakes, cemented together with fudge frosting, have been a symbol of faith, community and togetherness ever since they were introduced in the 1800s.
“Smith Island watermen would go out for months at a time on the autumn oyster harvest,” Murphy said. “Their families would send them with provisions, quilts and Smith Island cakes, to remind them of the love of the community that they’d left behind.” According to Susan Seifried, vice president of public relations at Visit Annapolis, the thin layers of cake and fudge frosting were thought to moisten the cake and help it to last longer at sea.
While the cakes originated on Smith Island, for a time they were made only by request and came close to being lost to history. The Smith Island Baking Company in nearby Crisfield revitalized and grew the cake’s fame and boasts a large open storefront, where groups visiting in the afternoon can sample fresh goodies. “There’s nothing like a cake just out of the oven,” Murphy said.
Smith Island too far to include in the itinerary? Travelers to Annapolis can find Smith Island Cakes on the menu at a few locations, including the locally famous Boatyard Bar and Grill.
Crayfish. Mudbugs. Ecrevisse. Whatever the terminology, one thing is certain: Crawfish are très, très bon and delight groups visiting southern Louisiana.
“Most of our traditions are based around community and family,” said Kaylie Leblanc, assistant vice president of communications at Lafayette Travel. “So crawfish boils are community and family coming together. We love to share our Southern hospitality with others as well.” Faith tradition plays a role in the popularity of crawfish-centric foods: A large portion of Louisianans observe the Catholic Lenten tradition of giving up red meat between Ash Wednesday and Easter — occurring around the same time as crawfish season.
The crawfish boil is the quintessential Cajun feast. The freshwater crustaceans are cooked with spicy seasonings and, on occasion, sausages, potatoes, mushrooms, corn or other vegetables. Traditionally, locals enjoy them community-style on long buffet tables.
While in Lafayette, try Crawfish Haven, Louisiana Crawfish Times or Prejean’s. Neighboring Breaux Bridge is the crawfish capital of the world. Groups visiting during the first full weekend in May can sample crawfish every way imaginable during the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. For an immersive experience, groups can experience a crawfish excursion at Mrs. Rose’s Bed and Breakfast and Crawfish Haven in Kaplan.
“Cheese curds are the staple of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area,” said Ian Thompson, senior communications manager for Visit Milwaukee. “They are the salty snack of the Midwest!”
Cheese curds hold their title as chief snack thanks to the state’s role as the original dairyland. “With the creativity that we have with our dairy products, how do you snack? On cheese,” Thompson said.
Elegant or everyday versions, cheese curds of the fresh and squeaky variety can be enjoyed at Clock Shadow Creamery, the only urban cheese factory in Milwaukee.
“Our staff favorites are Pepperpot’s Cheese Curds, which have Jamaican Jerk seasoning in the batter,” Thompson said. “The secret to the best cheese curds is a recipe made of a light batter and cheddar. However, the fried ones do not squeak.”
Milwaukee Food and City Tours offer participants the chance to eat, drink and squeak their way through town. Groups can browse for cheese curds of all kinds at the Milwaukee Cheese Mart, a nearly 100-year-old institution.
Groups can venture off the eatin’ path in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “When you think of the Great American West, one of the images that comes to mind is the bison,” said Jim Walter, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Cheyenne. “Their free-roaming status screams freedom in the wide-open plains.”
Travelers clamor to see the animals — and soon after, get a taste. Groups can do both at the Terry Bison Ranch.
“The 340,000-acre ranch just outside of Cheyenne has 3,000 head of bison,” Walter said. “You can take a train ride into the herd, feed them, then head to the Senator’s Steakhouse restaurant at the ranch for lunch or dinner. They do everything: short ribs, burgers, steaks, and you can even buy frozen bison to take home.”
Additional options abound; downtown standouts include the Rib and Chop House Restaurant and Little America.
“With Bison and Cheyenne, it’s really two iconic pieces of the West coming together with the animal and the legends and the history surrounding Cheyenne,” Walter said. “It’s the perfect combination.”