I live near the Florida-Alabama line and watch morning news on WKRG-TV in Mobile, Alabama. They’re currently airing a tourism commercial for Mississippi – that’s about a thirty-minute drive from Mobile. In the 15-second food travel spot, smiling diners reach out to accept plates of mouth-watering, juicy barbecue and crispy fried shrimp. I didn’t even realize food tourism was an industry, but I can relate because some days I feel like driving 496 miles to Savannah for She-Crab soup.
This relatively new industry has fancy names like culinary travel and gastronomic tourism. World Food Travel Association’s 2016 statistics show 93% of travelers are food travelers, in that they participate in a food experience other than dining out while traveling. While 75% of leisure travelers go someplace because of a culinary activity, only 18% are truly gourmet food travelers.
I’m in the first category. I’ve tasted haggis and listened to bagpipers at a Scottish dinner and enjoyed high tea at a fancy London hotel, but those were extras, not my reasons for traveling. But the foodie trend has sparked scores of food specialty tours. Culinary Backstreets organizes international food tours to Italy (as they say Eataly) and plan Eatineraries (custom made self-guided itineraries). In 2014, Elizabeth Bartman and Maureen Fant coined the term archaeo-culinary tourism and formed Elifant (a blend of their names). Their tours exclusively mix food and archaeology in Italy. Urban Adventures offers food walking tours in cities around the world, including ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York.
Down South there’s not much need of a walking tour – just grab a roadmap, stop at the welcome station, and hit the road to experience great food. Like the Visit Mississippi site implies with its “eat, stay, play” slogan — there’s no rush, no need to pack it all into one day. You’ll find plenty of Southern chefs and restaurants (and dives and joints) worthy of a four-star rating or a Michelin star, and you won’t have to go to New Orleans to find them.
In Pensacola, seven miles from where I live, Le Cordon Bleu Chef Blake Rushing, who worked for both Gordon Ramsey and Wolfgang Puck, has returned to his hometown to open Union Public House with his high school buddy Patrick Bolster. When Rushing worked at the Gordon Ramsey in The London in New York City, the restaurant earned two Michelin stars. Pensacola Magazine (combining tourism in one half and real estate in the other) recently featured Rushing’s gumbo recipe. I figure it serves at least 50, so you might want to either downsize or invite a crowd. As it reads, you’ll need a cauldron and a shovel to make it.
The April-May issue of Coastal Palate (food tourism in one half and lifestyle in the other) features a gumbo recipe from LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Owned by Lucy Buffett, cookbook author, chef and sister to Jimmy Buffett, the open air, casual dining spot is most famous for fried green tomatoes and a lively atmosphere. The same recipe is featured in Garden & Gun. Flip through an issue of Garden and Gun and you’ll have a list of a dozen places to go in the South.
If you have a few days and are hungry for gumbo, you can try the three-day gumbo self-guided tour of Alabama or head to Louisiana for their three-day gumbo jaunt. Warning: you can’t actually travel The Gumbo Trail. As interesting as it sounds, it’s an online oral history project from Southern Foodways Alliance. Beware: the interviews might make you reach for the car keys.
Of course, I would like to try one particular food tour in Louisiana. In 2017, Forbes magazine named Clandestine Food Tours of New Orleans as one of the nine best food tours in the world. I’m most interested in the Progressive Breakfast in the French Quarter. Imagine Eggs Benedict at Brennan’s, beignets and a steaming cup of chicory coffee with cream from Morning Call, a pecan-waffle at the Camellia Grill in the Quarter. Wait a minute – I don’t need a tour — just a credit card and walking shoes.