Earlier this week I attended the launch event for a book titled, Cornbread Nation 5: The Best of Southern Food Writing. The event, put on by Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, featured live readings from some of the book’s contributors, a traditional Southern meal, and a short lecture on highlights from the book, which spotlights food culture in the South.
When I arrived at the event, I was given a ticket and directed to a food truck to retrieve my meal before heading inside. Much to my disappointment, there was only one item being served and it seems whoever planned the menu made the assumption that everyone in attendance must like pork. While I understand staying true to the theme of the event and serving traditionally Southern food, a healthy alternative would’ve been nice. In any case, I decided to be a good sport and take at least a few bites of my BBQ pork sandwich topped with slaw. You don’t get much more Southern than that! And for dessert, banana pudding.
After washing down my meal with a glass of water and trying to forget what I’d just eaten, the lecture finally began. The book’s editor, Fred Sauceman, shared photos and stories of traditional Southern foods featured in the book, such as country singer, Janette Carter’s famous chow chow made with 2 lbs of brown sugar, the invention of the pepperoni roll, shrimp and grits, and a dish known as “beans all the way” made of soup beans, pinto beans, and potatoes cooked in lard. While the lecture itself was quite interesting and informative, it left me questioning even further something that’s been on my mind for awhile:
Why is Southern food traditionally so unhealthy?!
I can definitely say that there are foods and drinks I’d never even heard of until moving to the South. One of the biggies: sweet tea! I know, I know, stop gasping. Where I’m from we have iced tea—and you can add sugar to it if you want—but if you go to McDonald’s in Illinois and ask for a sweet tea, you’re going to get the same look I got when I asked for a lettuce wrap in Augusta, Ga. And while I can admit that sweet tea is actually quite good, it certainly isn’t good for you and I’ve personally experienced stomach aches after drinking a cup.
When I think about it, I honestly can’t think of any other place I’ve been where food is not only so commonly unhealthy, but trying to find healthy alternatives at times can seem an impossible feat. Call me high-maintenance, sadity, or what have you, but in my opinion, it simply shouldn’t be the case where wait staff look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language or some restaurants aren’t even equipped to furnish a request for whole wheat instead of white, egg whites instead of whole eggs, or fruit instead of home fries—all true experiences I’ve encountered. I once even attended an event at my job (and I work for a very large organization in Charlotte) where I literally had to go on a goose chase to locate a water fountain because the only beverage option available was pop…ahem, I mean soda.
While some of these experiences are a little excusable since they occurred in smaller Southern towns, Charlotte in particular is just as guilty. We’re a city that has taken a lesson from Starbucks in NYC, except instead of coffee, we’ve put our own brand of addiction on nearly every corner...Bojangles’! Then there are things that just boggle the mind, like fact that it’s not uncommon for local restaurants to list macaroni n’ cheese under the ‘veggies’ list on their menu. Yes, macaroni n’ cheese…I don’t think I need to say anything more on that.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t in any way meant to be a bash-session on the South or its traditions. I actually really love Southern culture, Southern people, and even some Southern food, which is why I I simply want to bring attention to the fact that we have to do better.
So my Southern friends and non-Southern friends alike, give me some insight: Why do you think Southern food is traditionally so unhealthy?
If you’re a “yankee” turned Southerner like me, have you ever had any of the same experiences I described above?