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Whether you’re visiting on business or vacation, you owe it to yourself to sample the most popular food and spirits in Alabama. At casual coffee shops, family restaurants, and fine dining establishments you’ll discover that chefs have perfected the art of comfort food.
Close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico means that restaurants from the coastal region to northern Alabama have access to more than 20 types of fish. The day’s haul always includes shrimp, oysters, and crab, but you’ll also find flounder, grouper, and lionfish on many menus. Alabama is known as the red snapper capital of the world and it’s not unusual to find catfish, crawfish, and shrimp served for breakfast with a side of grits. And how would you like it cooked? Fried, steamed, boiled, and grilled are the usual choices, and each has a different taste depending on the spices and sauces used.
Soul food is another Alabama specialty. The best soul food and southern restaurants rely on recipes that have been handed down by African-American cooks and early settlers. In the pioneer days of the state’s colonization settlers concocted dishes from what they had on hand, much like chefs prepare farm-to-table menus today. Look for fried okra and collard greens, pigs’ feet, chitterlings, and black-eyed peas as staples on many soul food menus. Southern favorites include fried chicken, biscuits, dumplings, fried green tomatoes, sausage gravy, and Brunswick stew. In some eateries, you’ll have the option of choosing “meat and threes” or “meat and twos.” That means choose an entrée and either two or three side dishes, depending how hungry you are.
Barbecue is equally popular, but it fits into a category of its own. The state is known for grill masters who are adept at preparing barbecued pulled pork and smoked chicken. You’ll find savory red barbecue sauces on menus everywhere, but white barbecue sauce is a specialty in Alabama. Chow down on savory ribs served with skillet cornbread, or settle in for a big country-fried steak served with buttermilk biscuits and gravy. Fried catfish teamed with hush puppies and cole slaw is another local favorite.
If you’re in the mood for something a little lighter for lunch, try a chicken salad or pimento cheese sandwich. Popular appetizers include fried dill pickles, fried green tomatoes, and boiled peanuts. No matter where you dine, be sure to save room for dessert. Banana pudding is a specialty along with peach cobbler, pecan pie, and homemade ice cream. You’ll also find a variety of watermelon-inspired dishes from cakes to delicious sorbets. Remember those delicious biscuits you couldn’t get enough of at breakfast or dinner? Some clever restaurants serve them slathered in chocolate gravy as a dessert. For an on-the-go snack, try a praline made from locally grown pecans or a fresh-picked peach from a local farmer’s market. There are more than 130 farmers markets in the state spread over 67 counties, so it’s easy to pick up fresh fruits, tomatoes, cheese, and bread for a picnic or hotel room feast. Pepper Place Market in Birmingham, Mobile’s Market on the Square and Madison City Farmers Market are three of the most popular venues and all offer live entertainment, crafts vendors, and cooking demonstrations.
With all that food, you’ll want something tasty to wash it down. Alabama is home to a growing number of craft beer breweries in every region of the state. Back Forty Beer Company is Alabama’s largest craft brewery. Their Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale is flavored with Alabama honey. Straight to Ale in Huntsville and Cahaba Brewing Company in Birmingham offer fun tours and tastings. John Emerald Distilling Company in Opelika is best known for gin made from Alabama juniper berries and their popular corn-based vodka. You’ll find other distilleries in Huntsville, Madison and Atmore.
Spend a day exploring Alabama’s wine country. Perdido Vineyards is the state’s oldest winery and located in the southern region. Travel on I-65 and take exit 45 to Perdido. The winery is open daily for free tours. Sample a large selection of gourmet wines and take home a specialty vinegar. The Shelby County Wine Trail begins at I-459 south of Birmingham and winds through vineyards in Jemison, Harpersville, Calera, North Calera, and Talladega. Taste specialty wines made from blueberries and muscadine along with more traditional red and white wines. North Alabama Wine Country boasts eight vineyards. It’s possible to visit several in a day, or explore the entire loop over a weekend. Visit wineries in Albertville, Attalia, Jemison, Hokes Bluff, Anniston, Fruithurst, Heflin, and Notasulga. Enjoy complimentary tastings and purchase bottles to take with you or ship home.
For those who prefer nonalcoholic beverages, Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale is an Alabama icon. First created by pharmacist Ashby Coleman to soothe upset stomachs in the early 1900s, the gingery concoction became a summertime favorite after grocer Sidney Lee added carbonation. The ginger ale increased in popularity during the Prohibition Era and remains a Southern favorite today. Darker than traditional ginger ales, it has more of a ginger-cola taste. It’s produced in Birmingham and available at grocery stores, delis, and convenience stores throughout the Southeast.
Set along Interstate 59, Wills Creek Vineyards is located in northern Alabama just outside of Gadsden. Wills Creek is divided into two parts: the Wills Creek Winery and tasting room, and the event venue, formally Wills Creek Vineyards at the Windmill.
Ideal for weddings, corporate functions, private parties, and of course wine lovers, Wills Creek Winery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors enjoy over 20 varieties of wine in the tasting room, wine making classes, tours of the facility, and a gift shop.