By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
Picture a bowl of steaming hot chicken and dumplings. Now add a slice of warm pecan pie with a golden crust. Next, think about big plate of fried catfish surrounded by perfectly browned hush puppies.
Then, picture a massive pulled pork sandwich dripping with savory barbecue sauce and tangy coleslaw.
The dishes, along with many others, are iconic in the South. The cuisine is part of everyday life. But would you drive 30 minutes if you could get great fried green tomatoes or banana pudding and a memorable experience?
The state’s tourism industry is betting you will, and betting you will be joined by people who didn’t grow up eating Southern food. To capitalize on the food interest, the Mississippi Development Authority is launching a culinary tourism program later this summer.
Culinary tourism, according to the International Culinary Tourism Association, is the pursuit of unique and memorable culinary experiences of all kinds, often while traveling, but people also can be culinary tourists at home.
ICTA said the “unique and memorable” part is key to understanding culinary tourism.
“Many times people hear ‘culinary tourism’ and they think it means restaurants that have earned five stars or better, or high-end wineries,” the ICTA says on its Web site. “That is not the case, as culinary tourism is not exclusively what is pretentious or exclusive. Culinary tourism includes a local pastry shop, an interesting bar on a nameless street that only locals know about, the pretzel vendor on the streets of New York City or a gelato vendor on a historic street in Italy.”
Culinary tourism includes cooking schools, cookbook and kitchen gadget stores, culinary tours, guidebooks, caterers, wineries, breweries, distilleries, food growers and manufacturers, and culinary attractions.
In Mississippi, the MDA plans to focus on food trails, dividing the state into geographic regions. Sarah McCullough, MDA’s cultural and heritage program manager, is spearheading the five state trails: Hills, Delta, Pines, Capital/River and Coast.
Eventually, McCullough said, the plan is to create trails by themes. But for now, the trails emphasize eateries and foods that are “authentic to the South in general or Mississippi in particular.”
“Authentic would mean typical Mississippi food that would be hard to find in other parts of the country or something that’s as distinctive to a region as slugburgers are to Corinth,” McCullough said. “It’s not so much about white tablecloth dining. In fact, it’s usually the opposite of that.”
Some of the proposed trail stops in the Hills include slugburger joints in Corinth, Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs, Johnnie’s Drive In in Tupelo and City Grocery in Oxford.
MDA plans to release the full itinerary in a few months via its Web site, visitmississippi.org.
Tamales, barbecue and boudin
The concept of a food trail or a food tour is not new.
The Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford introduced food trails to Mississippi in 2005 as part of an oral history program.
Amy C. Evans, an SFA oral historian, was collecting people’s stories about hot tamales. The project resulted in the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail.
The trail is an opportunity to discuss the food destination, the history of the food and the people behind the food.
On the trail’s Web site, www.tamaletrail.com, Evans posts interviews with people about their tamales, pictures of tourists who have traveled the trail and stories about tamale shops. The site also has an interactive map so tourists can drive the trail and get their fill of tamales.
The tamale trail led to the creation of the Southern BBQ Trail, the Southern Boudin Trail and the Southern Gumbo Trail. The trails can be accessed via www.southernfoodways.com.
The most difficult part about culinary travels, Evans said, is determining the destinations along the way.
“People have very different opinions about who should be on it and who shouldn’t be,” she said with a laugh.
Evans said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many people are traveling the trails, but “people tell us about their adventures all the time.” Most of the people she hears from are out-of-state tourists who want to make a vacation of doing one of the trails.
Usually, she said, culinary tourists take it a step further than the regular tourist.
“It’s not just one barbecue restaurant but trying 10 or 15 and making an McCullough is hoping to capture some of those tourists in Mississippi, along with educating locals about the culinary heritage in Mississippi.
“Culinary is part of the big picture of who we are as Mississippians,” she said. “Literature, music, art, architecture. It transcends all of those and is something we need to appreciate and preserve. It also helps our agricultural heritage.”
McCullough said this effort should dually benefit local restaurants.
“I’d love to see this help our small businesses and family-owned restaurants that have been in business for years … for people to see that they aren’t just businesses and that this is a part of our heritage,” McCullough said.
Boost to tourism
She expects a boost to tourism’s economic impact but doesn’t have any monetary projections. The specific numbers from cultural and heritage tourism, McCullough said, are “hard to track because so much falls in it.”
However, the last study she saw found cultural and heritage tourists spend more than the regular traveler. The good thing is that anyone can be a culinary tourist.
“One hundred percent of tourists eat out so it seemed like something that would benefit all sections of tourism,” McCullough said.
Added Evans, “Everyone’s a culinary tourist because everyone has to eat when they travel.”
Contact Carlie Kollath at (663) 678-1598 or firstname.lastname@example.org.