16 Foods Tennessee Is Known For

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Stack of homemade moon pies with one cut in half to reveal the layers of graham crackers and mallow
Meredith Food Studio

The Volunteer State has quite a bit to brag about when it comes to food — the sheer length of the state ensures tremendous geographic diversity among its cuisine. From the barbecue and soul food of the western part of the state to the down-home cooking of the Hill Country, Tennessee has a rich food history with Native American, African American, and Western European influence. Get ready to take a tasty tour of Tennessee's most famous foods, spanning from the Mighty Mississippi to the Appalachian Mountains.

Tennessee Whiskey

rocks glass with whiskey on blue background
didyk/Getty Images

From humble beginnings, Tennessee whiskey rose to prominence as a piece of Americana — but how did we get here? According to the Tennessee Historical Society, Scottish, Scots-Irish, and Irish immigrants moved to the Tennessee frontier in the late 18th century, bringing with them their distilling practices. As whiskey consumption increased, distillers began using corn rather than rye to produce whiskey. Prohibition nearly decimated Tenessee's whiskey industry, and Jack Daniel's and George Dickel were the only Tennessee whiskey distillers to survive the period.

But not all whiskey made in Tennessee is Tennessee whiskey. In order for whiskey to be considered "Tennessee whiskey," it must be produced in Tennessee, meet the legal requirements for bourbon, and use the Lincoln County process, meaning the whiskey is steeped in or filtered through maple charcoal chips before aging. The resulting whiskey is super smooth (thanks to the charcoal filtering) with a caramel-like sweetness (thanks to its corn base).

Moonshine, another iconic Tennessee spirit (though not considered Tennessee whiskey), is essentially unaged, clear whiskey made from primarily corn mash.

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Memphis Pulled Pork

Two pulled pork sandwiches are plated with chips and served with beer
Meredith Food Studios

While barbeque styles are typically categorized by region, Memphis (along with Kansas City) is one of just two cities that can boast its own distinct barbecue style. Both cities actually claim the title "barbecue capital of the world," but we're certainly not going to attempt to settle that debate here.

Memphis, however, tends to favor pork, and you can't pass through the city without making at least one stop for a pulled pork sandwich. The meat gets its flavor from the dry rub and the hickory wood used for smoking and is typically served with a tangy, tomato-based sauce. For a true Memphis experience, serve the slaw on the sandwich and baked beans on the side.

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Nashville Hot Chicken

nashville hot chicken on bread with pickles
Chef John

It's hard to beat the Music City's signature dish: marinated chicken fried in a crispy, cayenne pepper coating served on a toasted bun with pickles. But turns out the origin story is as spicy as the sandwich itself. Legend has it that after Thornton Prince cheated on his girlfriend, she served him fried chicken doused in a heap of hot pepper as an act of revenge. The plan clearly backfired — Prince loved the dish. After perfecting the recipe, he opened his own chicken shack, and the rest is history: Prince's Hot Chicken Shack is now a Nashville institution.

And it seems like Prince wasn't the only glutton for punishment: Bite into a hot chicken sandwich and pretty soon you'll start sweating and your nose will be running, but for some reason, you can't stop. To tame the heat, you can serve it up with a little shredded lettuce or creamy coleslaw.

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Fried Pies

mini fried pies on plate with powdered sugar
Allrecipes Magazine

Now we'll head over to East Tennessee where you'll find Knoxville's own Dale's Fried Pies (which ships nationwide on Goldbelly, just saying). The portable hand pies feature both sweet and savory flavor combinations including Pimento Cheese & Bacon, Chicken & Waffles, and Banana Nutella.

But even before the success of Dale's, Tennesseans have been making these handheld treats for years. They're similar to turnovers, but fried pies usually feature a buttermilk dough rather than puff pastry.

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Memphis Dry Rub Ribs

ribs with seasoning on wooden board

Memphis's signature dry rub ribs were invented in 1948 by Charlie Vergo of Rendezvous — which is now one of the most famous barbecue joints in Memphis (and in a barbecue mecca like Memphis, that's saying something).

The ribs are traditionally cooked over charcoal, brushed with a vinegar wash, and finished with a dry rub usually consisting of paprika and salt, among other spices. It may sound simple, but it works. The ribs can either be served wet (with sauce) or dry (sprinkled with more seasoning).

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Moon Pies

Stack of homemade moon pies with one cut in half to reveal the layers of graham crackers and mallow
Meredith Food Studio

Invented by the Chattanooga Baking Company in 1917. The story goes that a Kentucky coal miner asked the company's traveling salesman for a snack "as big as the moon," and the bakery obliged with what's now known as a MoonPie. It's a simple combination of marshmallow and graham cracker dipped in chocolate for an out-of-this-world treat.

During the Great Depression, a MoonPie paired with an RC Cola would only cost you about a dime, earning it the name "The Working Man's Lunch." By 1950, the treat was so popular that the bakery nixed the rest of its menu to focus on their speciality. If you're feeling nostalgic, you can find the original MoonPie on Amazon, which has expanded since its inception to include vanilla and banana flavors too. Or make your own with some of our top-rated recipes below!

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Country Ham With Red Eye Gravy

slices on country ham with red eye gravy on a white plate
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This classic Southern dish is a great example of making something out of nothing. It's popular throughout the Volunteer State, where you'll find it on menus at local cafes, like Nashville's Loveless Cafe.

Country ham refers to ham that is dry-cured over a long period of time, producing an intensely salty and richly flavored meat. Its companion, red eye gravy (also known as poor man's gravy), is the product of thriftiness and a little old-fashioned ingenuity. To make it, simply fry up a slice of country ham and then mix the ham drippings with a bit of strong black coffee from the bottom of the pot. After several minutes, you'll have a dark brown gravy. It gets its name for the reddish circles of fat that form on the gravy's surface.

Enjoy country ham biscuits for breakfast with red eye gravy on the side or serve it with a side of veggies for dinner (don't forget the cornbread for sopping up the gravy!).

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Fried Catfish

Southern Fried Catfish
Soup Loving Nicole

West Tennessee is surrounded by some of the largest catfish farming states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, not to mention the Mississippi River. So it's no surprise that fried catfish is standard fare at Tennessee fish fries, diners, and even barbecue joints. In fact, Soul Fish Cafe in Memphis is a popular restaurant entirely dedicated to this bottom-feeding fish — here you'll find it on po' boys, salads, tacos, and more.

But the most traditional way to enjoy Southern catfish is fried with a cornmeal coating and a side of hushpuppies and fries.

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Stack Cake

apple stack cake with powdered sugar design on plate
Meredith Food Studios

Also known as the Tennessee Mountain Cake, this Appalachian dessert is a labor of love. No two versions are alike, but they are traditionally made of layers of cake that are shaped from dough (not batter) and baked without a cake pan (or on top of a cake pan, not inside), producing a dry and brittle layer that resembles a large cookie. The layers are then stacked with an apple filling between each layer to help add some moisture. Finally, the cake is wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the fridge overnight so the apple filling can continue to seep into the cake layers.

Dress it up with a little powdered sugar using a doily as a stencil for some down-home mountain charm.

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overhead view of grandmother's buttermilk cornbread partially sliced in a round cast iron skillet
Allrecipes Magazine

Cornbread fanatics, it's time to start making plans to attend the Annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee (which also happens to be home to the Lodge Cast Iron factory store). The event features a cornbread cook-off, tours of the Lodge factory, and a cornbread eating contest, among other activities. Pretty much every Southern state considers cornbread a staple, but it's clear Tennessee takes this obsession to a whole new level.

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Baked Beans

Down home baked beans in a casserole dish with a plate of hot dogs in the background
Meredith Food Studios

In the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains sits the town of Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, which also happens to be home to none other than Bush's Baked Beans. The company, which still calls Chestnut Hill home, keeps the family recipe closely guarded. But never fear, we have plenty of top-rated baked bean recipes that you can make yourself.

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Fried Pickles

Super Easy and Spicy Fried Pickles on a white plate

Everything tastes better dredged in batter and deep fried in a vat of piping hot oil, pickles included. The crispy coating helps balance out their tang (and makes it hard to eat just one), and you'll find them all across the Volunteer State.

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Banana Pudding

four sundae glasses with banana pudding in front of bananas
My Hot Southern Mess

You'll be hard pressed to find a barbecue joint in the state of Tennessee that doesn't feature banana pudding on the menu. It's up there with coleslaw and baked beans in terms of essential companions to barbecue. The legendary combination of bananas, pudding, and vanilla wafers makes for a light and creamy dessert that can be made ahead of time and chilled, perfect for those sweltering summer potlucks.

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Biscuits and Gravy

Sausage Biscuits and Gravy

You can find some version of biscuits and gravy in every Southern state (and beyond), but the dish is believed to have originated in Southern Appalachia in the late 1800s. At the time, biscuits were much more dense and brittle, so smothering them in sausage gravy made them softer and more palatable, in addition to providing much needed calories to the sawmill workers of the region. The commercial availability of flour, baking powder, and baking soda created a softer biscuit, helping to solidify this classic dish as the Southern staple we know today.

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Fudge Pie

slice of fudge pie up close on white plate

Hailing from Tennessee, this ooey-gooey dessert is made with some combination of eggs, sugar, flour, semi-sweet chocolate chips, cocoa powder, butter, evaporated milk, and vanilla extract. The resulting pie has a crackling brown crust with a fudgy interior that's best served with a dollop of whipped topping. Legendary Memphis barbeque joint Corky's even sells their famous fudge pie at Walmart.

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ramp sea salt

Nope, those aren't scallions. Ramps (also called wild leeks) are a species of wild onion native to North America that are particularly abundant in Appalachia, where they grow wild for a short season during the spring. They're famous for their pungent flavor and strong odor that makes garlic smell mild in comparison. It's not uncommon for mountain communities to have festivals and celebrations centered around ramp foraging.

In Polk County, Tennessee, the annual Ramp Tramp Festival is going on its 64th year. The festival was started in 1958 by a group of 4-H members who "tramped" up a mountain, enjoying a hike and a ramp meal. In keeping with the spirit of that day, the community continues to gather for a ramp meal and festival, where you can also buy ramps by the bag.

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