Some of the South’s most delicious dishes aren’t found in swanky restaurants favored by the James Beard Foundation and other esteemed culinary voices, nor are they restricted to grandma’s kitchen. Sometimes great food is found in places not even adventurous eaters think to look: gas stations and corner stores.
In the rural South of the 1800s, general stores were the original one-stop shops, offering everything from farm equipment to fresh produce. Some, outfitted with mailboxes, even served as post offices. It was a different era, when road trips were an essential part of life, not planned vacations.
As cars became more popular and affordable after the turn of the century, the stores added gas pumps, blurring the lines between grocery stores and fueling stations. Eventually, as society became automobile-dependent, gas stations even began cooking hot food.
For a while, institutions like these started becoming harder to find, with more big box stores and fast food restaurants opening not far from the exits along major Southern interstates and highways. Nowadays even major chains like QuikTrip are not only offering food, but in some cases are abandoning auto fuel altogether, in favor of serving hungry humans instead of thirsty SUV gas tanks. But in some locations, gas station eateries remain the most authentic places to discover surprisingly delicious regional dishes.
For those on the go, or anyone who loves convenience and quality at a low cost, don’t miss these gas station and corner store delights chosen as you tour the roads between Southern states. They’re great reminders that food doesn’t have to be served on a white tablecloth to be delicious.
Athens, Georgia: Bread Basket biscuits
The more gas stations you drive past in the Peach State, the more likely you are to find parking lot stands selling fruit and boiled peanuts. Don’t forget to step inside; you might be in just the right place for amazing fried chicken or biscuits. Athens residents and well-informed visitors get their morning fix at Bread Basket, a gas station eatery in the Boulevard Historic District, setup inside a Chevron. The biscuits are made fresh daily and can be ordered with fried chicken, sausage, ham or butter.
Lake Worth, Florida: Delicias Bakery Latin pastries and Cuban sandwiches
In South Florida you’ll find Latin pastries, including pastelitos de carne or fruta. The puffy, shell-shaped handheld pies are perfect for road-consumption, and come in savory and sweet-sour options like seasoned ground beef and cheese, and guava-pineapple). Also look for Delicias Bakery, located inside a suburban Lake Worth ExxonMobil station. Travelers stopping here can enjoy what may be the best Cuban sandwiches outside of Calle Ocho.
Salters, South Carolina: Pulled pork barbecue
In the battle of the pig, you must choose a side, or in this case a state (just be careful which you say is better, and how loudly). Gas stations in North and South Carolina offer pulled pork barbecue with variations of their famous mustard-based or tomato-vinegar sauces, and both states whole-roast their hogs on low heat for at least two hours – usually overnight, before the shredded favorite makes it onto your plate. The meat is then pulled apart, slapped onto a bun and doused in sauces, which differ by establishment depending on location.
Cooper’s Country Store, located in an Exxon station in the unincorporated community of Salters, South Carolina, has served travelers on Highway 521 since 1937. Signs of long-closed companies hang on the wall alongside mounted deer heads, and we’re fine with both nostalgia and taxidermy, but it's the pulled pork sandwiches, cooked in vinegar with a hearty amount of pepper, that are worth the stop. Unlike the rest of the state, known for mustard sauces, Salters is in Williamsburg County, where a signature vinegar sauce was adopted by early Scottish settlers.
Broussard, Louisiana: Boudin
Some Louisiana gas stations double as Cajun meat markets, hawking a regional sausage called boudin. Sold by the casing or ball-shaped, the tasty sausage includes cuts of seasoned pork, liver and rice. It's best served hot and ready to eat, but you can also buy it frozen in vacuum-sealed bags to enjoy later. Billeaud’s Meat and Grocery, inside a Shell station in Broussard, offers portions of boudin, cracklins (the Southern version of pork rinds) and plate lunches. “The gas station meat market in Cajun country is the best place to buy boudin and cracklins,” said Louisiana food personality Jay Ducote, who also says the dish is “about as quintessential Louisiana as it gets.”
Cleveland, Mississippi: Mississippi Delta hot tamales
It’s hard to go wrong in Mississippi when it’s time for a meal, unless you’re doing it on purpose (no idea why you’d do that). The state is known for creating signature versions of various dishes, but many consider Delta Fast Food, one of Cleveland’s favorite corner stores, to be the birthplace of the Delta hot tamale. The masa-covered seasoned beef dish has roots south of the U.S. border, arriving in the state via Mexican migrant workers. Modern Mississippi versions can be deep-fried or topped in chili.
“Over the decades, various cultures put their spin on the tamale until we had the hot tamale we love today,” said Anne Martin, author of Delta Hot Tamales and co-founder of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, Miss. “And what better place to find this perfect, portable food than at a gas station? You grab a bundle, and a lot of paper towels, and very carefully push that spicy goodness out of the corn shuck into your mouth.”
If you aren’t headed through Mississippi or any of the other states soon enough, use the recipe below to make one of the delicious pit-stop meals yourself.
Mississippi Delta Tamales
Makes 7 to 8 dozen tamales
Meat filling ingredients
● 6 to 8 pounds boneless meat (pork shoulder, chuck roast or chicken)
● 3/4 cup vegetable oil
● 1/4 cup chili powder
● 2 tablespoons paprika
● 2 tablespoons salt
● 2 teaspoons black pepper
● 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
● 1 tablespoon onion powder
● 1 tablespoon garlic powder
● 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Meat filling instructions
To start, cut the meat into large chunks and place in a large, heavy pot. Cover with cold water then bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the meat is very tender (for about 2 to 2.5 hours). Remove the meat and keep the cooking liquid for later.
When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove and discard any skin and large chunks of fat. Shred or dice the meat into small pieces. There should be about 14 to 16 cups of meat. Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Stir in the chili powder, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder and cumin. Add the meat and stir to coat it with the oil and spices. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is warmed through (for about 7 to 10 minutes). Set aside.
Corn shucks ingredients
● 8 cups yellow cornmeal or masa mix (available in most grocery stores)
● 4 teaspoons baking powder
● 2 teaspoons salt
● 1 2/3 cups lard or vegetable shortening
● 6 to 8 cups warm meat broth (leftover from cooking the meat)
Corn shucks instructions
While the meat is cooking, soak the shucks in a large bowl or sink full of very warm water, until they are soft and pliable (for about 2 hours). Gently separate the shucks into single leaves, trying not to tear them. Wash off any dust and discard any corn silks. Keep any shucks that split to the side, since two small pieces can be overlapped and used as one.
Stir the cornmeal, baking powder, salt and lard together in a large bowl until well blended. Gradually stir in enough warm liquid to make soft, spongy dough that is the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be quite moist, but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth.
Remove a corn shuck from the water and pat it dry. Lay the shuck on a work surface. Spread about 1/4 cup of the dough in an even layer across the wide end of the shuck to within 1 inch of the edges. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the dough. Roll the shuck so that the dough surrounds the filling and forms a cylinder or package. Fold the bottom under, to close the bottom, and complete the package. Place the completed tamales in a single layer on a baking sheet. Repeat until all dough and filling is used.
Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large pot. Place enough tamales in the pot so that they do not fall over or come unrolled. Fill the pot with enough water to come just to the top of the tamales, trying not to pour water directly into the tamales. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly (for about 1 hour).
To steam: Stand the tamales upright, closed side down, in a large steamer basket. Cover the tamales with a damp towel or additional husks. Steam the tamales over simmering water until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily and cleanly (for about 60 to 75 minutes).
Serve tamales warm in their shucks. Remove shucks to eat.
This recipe was adapted from the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Hot Tamale Trail.