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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.”
What you call a trend, they call tradition.
Southerners eat local foods as a way of life, not because it’s trendy. “Where I live in Mississippi, we are locavores because we live in the middle of nowhere, not because of a fad,” she says. If you don’t grow it yourself, you’re limited to the veggies available on a truck or stand by the side of road.
Not everything is deep fried.
While Foose often travels to teach a popular cooking class she calls Fear of Frying, there’s not as much deep-frying going on at home as you’d think. “People eating a lot of fried stuff are probably going out,” Foose says. “Southern home cooking being all fried is not really accurate for these reasons: It’s a pain to deal with the grease and frying smells up your house.”
Mac ‘n’ cheese is not the only “vegetable.”
Most Southern dinner tables are laden with vegetables, such as boiled or pickled okra and in particular, marinated cucumber salad with onions, according to Foose. “We eat a lot of Jerusalem artichokes and pole beans,” she says. “It’s much more common in the summer, but we eat a lot of root vegetables and baked sweet potatoes in winter.” And legumes are often on the menu, including red beans and rice, pigeon peas and soybeans, which Foose’s cousin grows on his nearby farm.
Meat doesn’t have to be fatty and greasy.
“I have a Prawns in Dirty Rice recipe and when I make at it at home, I use turkey sausage instead of pork,” she says. “Little changes have a big impact. We eat a lot of venison, which is very lean. Farm-raised ducks are fatty, but not wild ones—we eat a lot of quail and ducks.”
Healthier changes are underway.
Foose notes that some local restaurants, such as the roadside lunch place Miss Pat’s, which has several customers with diabetes, are making healthier swaps in subtle ways. “[The owner of Miss Pat’s] doesn’t say ‘This is a healthy option,’ but she uses smoked turkey wings in her greens instead of a ham hock,” says Foose. “And for dessert, she’s making a lot more cobblers with fruit than she used to do. There are subtle changes that don’t get recognized.”
Foose also mentions a recipe dilemma that came up when she was food stylist for the movie “The Help,” which was set in 1962. For the bridge luncheon scene, Foose wanted to surround plates of tomato aspic with fresh steamed asparagus. “But I realized I didn’t see that until I was in high school,” she says. “You saw canned asparagus and were right proud of that, too. So a lot of positive things have happened in Southern food in the past 20 years.”
Hankering for a taste of the South? Try these healthy recipes from Foose’s "A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home."
“People think all things in the South are bound together with lots of mayonnaise—that’s not really the case,” Foose says. This no-mayo version of classic coleslaw features a protein-packed Southern staple.
In a bowl or glass measuring cup, mix together the peanut oil, rice vinegar, brown sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce and chile sauce. Whisk together until the dressing is well combined.
In a large plastic bag or glass bowl, gently combine the cabbage, green onions and cilantro. Add the dressing and chopped peanuts, season with salt and pepper, and stir a few times until the peanuts are mixed in.
Sweet Potato Wedges
“It ’s not mandatory to put a marshmallow on top of sweet potatoes,” says Foose. This tart-sweet update of a Southern classic (candied sweet potatoes) makes the most of a vitamin-rich root veggie with just ¼ cup of brown sugar divided among six servings.
Heat the oven to 400˚ F. In a large saucepan set over high heat, heat the vinegar, sugar, butter, salt, red pepper flakes and 2 tablespoons water to boiling. Remove the pan from the heat, add the potato wedges and toss to coat with the mixture.
Spread the potato wedges evenly on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast, turning the wedges occasionally, for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender and the glaze thickens. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the potatoes with additional salt, if desired. Let cool slightly before serving.
Pickled Crawfish Tails
Pickled crawfish (or shrimp) is a Low Country favorite that’s an accompaniment to cocktails. With this light and spicy marinade, you’ll forget about the deep fryer.
Put the crawfish tails (or shrimp) and onion in a large glass container. Bring 1 cup water, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, peppercorns, allspice, coriander seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves, star anise, sugar and ginger to a boil in a nonreactive saucepan. Cook for 5 minutes. Pour the hot liquid over the crawfish (or shrimp) and onion. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
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