Fried chicken, cracklins, oyster po’boys, candied sweet potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese (as a vegetable), a ham hock swimming in the collard greens. These are all beloved staples of traditional Southern cooking.
Although the region doesn’t have a monopoly on unhealthy food loaded with bad fats, grease or sugar, a 1965 study cemented the South’s bad reputation, earning it the nickname of the “Stroke Belt. ”
The research found that the stroke mortality rate in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee was 50 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S. Five of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee) have the highest prevalence of obesity in the country, with 30 percent of the population classified as obese.
What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the states with the highest incidence of diabetes overlap with the Stroke Belt.
“In Mississippi, we’re number one in obesity; we’ve got that title sewn up pretty well I think,” says chef Martha Hall Foose, who lives on a catfish farm near Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her cookbook, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook,” won the prestigious James Beard Award for American Cooking in 2009. Her latest book, A Southerly Course: “Recipes & Stories from Close to Home,” tells of a new Southern cooking, where Greek, Lebanese, Italian and Vietnamese flavors mix with locally-grown staples such as soybeans, sweet potatoes and peanuts.
Adds Foose, “it’s hard to glop all Southern cooking together—the East Texas-Louisiana border cooking is totally different from South Carolina cooking. It’s like saying all European cooking is the same.”
While Foose will own up to the South’s reputation as deep-fried heaven (and admits that hard-core Southern salad recipes are likely to contain mini marshmallows), she points out that the region is not the only offender. “Look at Wisconsin fried cheese curds,” she says. “It’s not exclusive to us, but we’re certainly the poster child.”
Foose believes that every dish has its place and that fried, fatty foods aren’t necessarily a daily mainstay. “At Christmas, I’m going to make Charlotte Russe, and we’re going to have cheese straws and regular holiday fare,” she says. “But not every day of the week is gravy day. Just like the rest of America, we have evolved. We’ve all made little changes here and there.”
Southern cooking can be a positive part of the culture.
“We’re proud of our cooking, and in a lot of ways, that commonality through food has kept us together,” says Foose. “You can get to the heart of the matter by discussing things around a dinner table. A big part of Southern cooking is taking care of people and sharing and that does a lot for your mental and emotional health.”
It’s about togetherness.
“That’s the thing about Southern culture, rural especially—we don’t have entertainment thrust at us constantly,” Foose says. “There’s no movie theater in town and not a lot of restaurants, so a lot of our celebration is built around parties. We spend a lot of time together telling stories. There’s a long tradition of celebratory events where we all get together and make hot tamales or have a crawfish boil. That’s what we do for entertainment.”
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