From gumbo to po' boys - the best Southern food to try on a Mississippi river cruise

Joanna Booth
A cruise along the Mississippi offers an opportunity to feast on Southern food, from beignets at breakfast in New Orleans (pictured) through to dry-rub ribs for dinner in Memphis - istock
A cruise along the Mississippi offers an opportunity to feast on Southern food, from beignets at breakfast in New Orleans (pictured) through to dry-rub ribs for dinner in Memphis - istock

No one ever accused the Deep South of sending a visitor home hungry. Even among seasoned cruisers, familiar with the standard post-voyage weight gain, a Mississippi river cruise has the potential to do some serious belt-straining. You’ll be cruising through states where food isn’t ever merely fuel, but speaks of culture, history and home. Where recipes pass down through generations, cooking methods are subject to intense discussion and almost tribal loyalty, and where hospitality is a matter of enormous civic pride.

Whatever line you sail with, you’ll be served Southern delicacies on board, and be plied with iced tea and mint juleps as you watch the Mississippi’s banks slide by. There’s no escape on shore, with grab-and-go temptations from po’ boys to mud pie at every turn. So simply pack something elasticated and prepare your tastebuds for iconic Southern flavours from barbecue to beignets.

Po' boys

The filling of this traditionally overstuffed Louisiana sandwich can vary greatly – it could be roast beef, fried seafood or even alligator. The bread, however, is non-negotiable, and must be crispy of crust and fluffy in the centre, like a baguette. Order yours dressed, and it’ll come with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayonnaise. Ask around in New Orleans and every resident will have a favourite po’ boy spot. One of the most famous is the Parkway Bakery & Tavern, open since 1911. If you can’t decide between its two classics, slow-cooked beef and gulf shrimp, get them combined – the 'Parkway Surf and Turf'.

183040356 - Credit: istock
Try getting your lips around the overstuffed po' boy Credit: istock

Gooey butter cake

This sweet, rich, firm cake has many origin stories, non-verified, but they all begin in St Louis. The general gist is that gooey butter cake was a happy accident, perhaps the result of a baker reversing the proportions of butter and flour when trying to make a traditional cake. With a brownie-like texture and vanilla flavour a slice feels simple but indulgent, and they’re wonderfully portable, making a great gift if you can avoid eating them before you reach home. Pick up some from Gooey Louie, a family run baker in St Louis that makes nothing else.

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Gumbo

This steaming, gutsy stew is the official state dish of Louisiana, and its variants reflect the melting-pot nature of the area’s cooking and culture. Gumbo can be thickened with okra (the dish’s name derives from the West African word for these glutinous green pods); roux, of French origin; or ground sassafras leaves, a contribution of the Choctaw. All gumbos contain a vegetable base of onion, celery and peppers, and then the most popular combinations are seafood and chicken with sausage. Try either at The Gumbo Shop, a French Quarter institution that has been voted best gumbo in New Orleans every year since 1999. Vegetarians needn’t miss out – order the green Gumbo Z’Herbes, which includes turnips, mustard greens and spinach.

gumbo - Credit: istock
You haven't tasted the flavours of Louisiana until you've had gumbo Credit: istock

Beignets

Doughnuts for breakfast? Only in New Orleans. When made freshly and eaten piping hot with a cloud of icing sugar on top, they’ll make you want to swear off the Weetabix forever. And though you’ll probably need to queue up with every other tourist in the city, there’s no denying the very best come from Café Du Monde in the French Market. Wash the light and pillowy beignets down with chicory coffee, served either black or au lait – don’t ask for an oatmilk latte here. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, try the delicate blue crab beignets at Le Petite Grocery, which literally melt in your mouth.

beignets - Credit: istock
Beignets for breakfast for is a very 'New Orleans' thing – much like colourful mardi gras throws Credit: istock

Barbecue

If you’ve got a gas barbecue, then keep that to yourself while travelling in the South. The ‘low and slow’ grilling of meat over wood is less a cooking method than a religion here, and each state has its own special way of doing things. In Memphis, tradition dictates that pork ribs dry rubbed with a mixture of garlic, paprika, cumin and other spices are smoked over hickory as slowly as possible, and sometimes served with a tangy tomato and vinegar sauce. Locals’ standards are so high you’ll struggle to find bad barbecue in Memphis, but if you want to stay conveniently close to the sights, Pig On Beale serves bold flavours cheek-by-jowl with the city’s best blues joints.

Memphis barbecue ribs - Credit: istock
'Low and slow' is almost a religion here, and in Memphis the standards of ribs is impressive Credit: istock

Pies

Whether it’s Mississippi mud pie, the eponymous and gloopy dessert of the river, a chilled lemon or peach icebox pie, a caramelised pecan pie or a creamy, subtly spiced sweet potato pie, you’re unlikely to escape the south without a slice of pie or two tightening your waistband. King’s Tavern, the oldest standing building in Natchez and now a restaurant run by Mississippi chef Regina Charboneau, serves another river-inspired pudding – the black bottom pie, whose dark base is said to represent the swampy lowlands of the Mississippi. But if your answer to "which pie do you want?" is "all of them", head to The Crown in Indianola, where a one-off fee to visit the Dessert Table allows you to sample any or all of six pies.

Mississippi mud pie - Credit: istock
The famous Mississippi mud pie is something worth indulging in... Credit: istock

Soul food

Soul food has African and Native American influences, and was shaped by slavery, resulting in delicious if calorific dishes made using inexpensive ingredients. Think fried chicken, ham hock, collard greens, cornbread, grits and black-eyed peas. If you like your soul food with a side of celebrity, head to Sweetie Pies in St Louis, where former backing singer to Ike and Tina Turner turned reality television star and restaurant owner Robbie Montgomery cooks the recipes her mother taught her. She even has her own cookbook, so you can try to reprise your favourite dishes back home.

Book it

• An eight-day culinary-themed Lower Mississippi cruise on America from New Orleans to Memphis with on-board cooking demonstrations and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Louisiana Culinary Institute departs April 4, 2020, and is priced from £3,277 (americancruiselines.com).

• A nine-day Upper Mississippi cruise from Alton (St Louis) to Red Wing (Minneapolis) on American Duchess departs October 4, 2020, and is priced from £2,375 (americansteamboatcompany.co.uk).