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Southern Cuisine is Palate Perfect

Southerners take their cuisine and their hospitality very seriously. They argue about the proper seasonings for boudin or the best way to prepare fresh-caught flounder. And when Southern cooks compete with each other, it’s always their customers that win.

Groups shouldn’t merely attach meals onto the margins of an itinerary; they should incorporate food into the central focus of a Southern tour. The region offers many food-themed tours full of humor, history and deliciousness that offer more than the typical Southern fare. These tours feature dishes that combine traditional Southern elements with modern culinary innovations that surprise and delight restaurant patrons.

Bham Eat Drink Ride Food Tour

Birmingham, Alabama

When viewers watched Comedienne Joy take a bite out of the most talked about new dish in Birmingham, Alabama, they quickly developed food envy. Cassandra King, aka Comedienne Joy, developed a foodie following on her restaurant show “Dining Out With Comedienne Joy” on Talk Alabama’s TV program. After hearing person after person express a desire to eat like her, she developed a food tour that invited guests to dine at some of her favorite restaurants.

The Bham Eat Drink Ride Food Tour incorporates King’s hilarious comedy into an informative tour of Birmingham’s culinary hot spots. Her typical four-hour tour stops at four or five restaurants, though she personalizes tours for private groups.

The goal isn’t to show groups the same five places but, rather, to introduce participants to hidden restaurant gems. One tour might include hamburgers, Mexican food, cocktails, dessert and her personal favorite: fried chicken.

“The guests come to have fun,” King said. “I love to take people around. They don’t know where they are going. I like to make it not just some great food, but to try something different.”

For example, the tour might stop at a boutique liquor store for unusual adult beverages and shopping. At a local ice cream shop, participants can watch the storeowners make the ice cream before eating it.

The self-described “Queen of Clean” not only hosts a TV show but also focuses on food on her video blog. Her background in comedy means that although her tours center around tasty dishes, they also leave guests rolling with laughter.

Entertained groups keep coming back for more, which is why King recently purchased a second bus for tours. She also plans to expand the business to include a civil rights tour in February.

Ellijay Wine Country

Gilmer County, Georgia

Visitors never hurry through a winery. Instead, they slow down to sip wine, chat and take in the views. Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains provide the scenic backdrop for the five wineries in Ellijay Wine Country.

Groups can explore the vineyards and sample the fine wines at the following local wineries, each just an hour’s drive north of Atlanta in Gilmer County and Pickens County.

The Cartecay Vineyards in Ellijay incorporates more than delicious wines into its experience. Groups can take in the vineyard’s laid-back vibe by listening to live music on the outdoor patio. The site’s 1890s refurbished Tasting Barn can warm a chilly night with its wood-fired stove.

Not far off, the Engelheim Vineyards celebrates the owners’ German heritage, since the name means “Angel Home” in German. Owner Gary Engel leads tours through the winery to reveal its winemaking process, and then participants retire to a lovely tasting room for a variety of wine samples. Wine-pairing classes also help guests leave as wine pros. Groups can also book a wine-pairing dinner.

Travelers can take in a breath of fresh mountain air at Chateau Meichtry in Talking Rock, Georgia. The family-owned vineyard offers panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains while exploring the vineyard, the winery and the tasting room, since all the vineyard’s wine is bottled on-site. Guided tours, live music and tastings can also fill an evening at the vineyard.

With a focus on French wine, the Fainting Goat Vineyard serves a range of full-bodied reds, fruity whites and sweet blends. True to the name, the vineyard keeps goats on-site that visitors can pet and play with. Lawn games, mountain views, live music and coffee tastings add to the experience.

Cajun Boudin Trail

Lafayette, Louisiana

Pronounced “boo-DAN,” Louisiana’s sausage specialty incites controversy about the best way to prepare and cook it. Groups can form their own opinions on the state’s Cajun Boudin Trail.

Lafayette is a great place to start the trail, since it boasts a long love affair with the regional dish. Lafayette holds the annual Boudin Cookoff in October where chefs show off their version of the combination of cooked rice, pork, onions, green peppers and seasonings.

To make boudin, chefs run their ingredients through a meat grinder before stuffing it into a sausage casing. Though those are the basics, each recipe is a variation on those foundational ingredients. Groups can sample boudin balls, smoked boudin or seafood boudin at the cookoff event and throughout the year at restaurants and meat shops. Travelers can even take boudin back home with them, since many shops on the trail sell boudin in frozen packs with little travel coolers.

Boudin’s roots go back to the French “boucherie,” a communal hog slaughter where every portion of the animal would be used. The links of meat produced from those gatherings became known as boudin.

The staple Cajun finger food can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or all three. To decide which version of boudin to choose, trip planners can consult, a comprehensive guide to all the boudin in the state. Over 125 reviews, a map and suggestions help groups plan mouth-watering boudin itineraries.

One favorite stop, Don’s Specialty Meats, sells over 700,000 pounds of boudin a year. Boudin burritos, boudin tater tots and more variations prove the versatility of the Cajun classic.

Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours

Durham, North Carolina

Eleven years ago, Lesley Stracks-Mullem’s foodie brother-in-law paid her a visit in Durham, North Carolina. She planned an elaborate barbecue tour all over western North Carolina to ensure he tasted the best the region had to offer.

“It was as much fun for me to plan as it was for him to do,” said Stracks-Mullem, owner and co-founder of Taste Carolina. “I thought maybe there might be a market there. It turns out there was.”

Stracks-Mullem started Taste Carolina during the recession at a time when she couldn’t find a job after graduate school.

“It went from a hobby to a full-time business,” said Stracks-Mullem. “We now have 20 tour guides and nine different cities throughout North Carolina.”

The company offers walking tours of North Carolina in Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Wilmington, Charlotte and Asheville. The tours focus on locally owned, farm-to-table eating and drinking establishments.

At each stop, participants talk with chefs, learn about the history of the restaurant and enjoy food and drink. Tour guides also reveal the history, architecture and culinary landscape of the city in a laid-back, social afternoon or evening out.

Though weekend tours are open to the public, custom tours can be arranged for any day or evening for groups of at least eight. Each tour lasts about three hours, with five to seven tastings. Participants should expect to be full by the end.

Groups can include drink stops. Breweries or craft cocktails are frequently incorporated into tours at several of the cities. Alternative drinks are available for participants who don’t drink alcohol.

Mississippi Seafood Trail

Mississippi’s Gulf Coast

Freshly caught wild seafood has a flavor like none other. To highlight the superiority of the seafood caught off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA) created the Mississippi Seafood Trail.

“I don’t believe there is any finer seafood in the world,” said Pat Fontaine, executive director of MHRA. “We have some talented chefs throughout our state preparing seafood. Mississippi has won many national seafood competitions.”

Over 100 participating restaurants across the state offer a variety of items. To qualify, restaurants must offer at least one wild-caught seafood dish from the Gulf. Everything from po’boy shops to traditional seafood restaurants participate to honor the state’s high-quality seafood.

“When it comes to Gulf seafood, there is such variety,” said Fontaine. “Trying to make the decision of what to eat depends on whether you are looking for great fish, crab, oysters or something else. All along the coast you are going to experience all different types of seafood prepared in any way imaginable.”

Planners can find their quality local seafood for their groups using the trail’s website and app. Both include a map, driving directions, phone numbers and other useful planning information.

App users are encouraged to upload their own seafood photos or relate their experience with an audio recording feature.

Group planners can also encourage their travelers to use the trail’s app to find local seafood when dining on their own. Biloxi, especially, features a plethora of dining options on the trail, several of which lie in walking distance of each other.

Foothill Foodie Tours

Greenville, South Carolina

Raised on handmade spaghetti by her Italian family, Rose Woelker developed a sophisticated palate at a young age. After a career in Detroit, as an executive assistant and owner of a wedding consultant business, Woelker was familiar also with the art of organization. Once she moved to Greenville, South Carolina, she decided to put her two skills together to open Foothill Foodie Tours in 2018.

These tours don’t stop at the predictable restaurants in Greenville. Instead, Woelker wanted to expose guests to the hidden, local gems of the city, easy to find because of Greenville’s cuisine scene explosion.

The tour generally stops at four venues, each promoting a specialty. Tours run at various times for different experiences. The breakfast tour stops at breakfast eateries, including a crepe restaurant for a strawberry-covered crepe.

“Our dessert tours feature made-from-scratch European desserts and homemade pastries,” Woelker said. “We also have a tour on Wednesdays that is called Lunch With the Artists. While we eat lunch, we can talk with a local artist one-on-one, then have dessert somewhere together.”

Each tour features chats with either chefs or restaurant owners. Woelker incorporates the city’s long-reaching history into the tour, including its recent growth in locally owned businesses.

Groups looking to soak in the city’s nightlife can opt for the Vine, Shine and Stein tour for a drinking adventure of wine tastings, moonshine and craft beer samplings. On the similar Craft Cocktail Tour, participants embark on a sophisticated evening of drinks and hors d’oeuvres.