Saturday, November 26, 2011

Southern Cooking in our hearts, stomachs and city

Recently, NPR released a story about the Food Network’s celebrity chef Paula Deen. The story explores why people love Paula and her southern cooking so much. The story opens with a questioning of what is healthy food and asks if southern cooking fits into this picture. Unfortunately, the story drops this thread and continues to explore Deen's fanfare.

Fried chicken, buttered biscuits with honey, and collard greens are often thought of as Southern comfort food. Diabetes,obesity and heart failure are also associated to a strict soulful diet. Deen's southern cooking has been criticized by other celebrity chefs. Anthony Bourdain had the following to say about Deen:
The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she's proud of the fact that her food is f---ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it's OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.
Although the personal attacks are unwarranted, Bourdain brings up a good point about marketing butter to a nation struggling to keep its weight in check. What is the role of popular figures like Paula Deen, or Anthony Bourdain for that matter, in educating Americans about food and healthy lifestyles?

It seems Bourdain is putting a lot of pressure on Deen to lead the masses to a better food choices. The NPR story revealed how a lot of people are fans of Deen because her cooking reminds them of home. Has Deen’s cooking become a symbol of something beyond comfort food? Bourdain’s critique can be read as somewhat elitist and gendered because he focuses on female chefs and their “low quality foods.” Maybe the reason why so many can connect to the Southern chef’s style is because it speaks to the reality of people’slives—people have to make do with what they got. After all, saffron isn’treadily available in a supermarket store for a reasonable price.

For a culinary cuisine that is often deemed as simple, non-exotic, cheap, or unhealthy, Southern comfort food is increasingly becoming more popular in cities across the country. Aunt Mary’s café is drawing in hordes of people for Sunday morning brunches or the Mac n’ Cheese restaurant serves up sides of cole slaw or crackling cornbread with your specialty mac n’ cheese dish. This is not to say that Southern cuisine has never had a niche in the city. However, instead of the humble mom and pop cafes that existed before, neo-southern offerings exist with special ingredients that you wouldn’t find in your traditional Paula Deen shows. I would even go as far to say that there’s an attempt to give southern cooking a “modern twist” to fit the urban lifestyle.

Its interesting to see that while there is an overall critique of southern cooking and often a cautionary ‘danger-to-health’ note attached to following chefs like Paula Deen or even eating her dishes (gasp!), the process of making Southern cooking exotic or foreign-likein the cities occurs with the same frequency. So, are American audiences being condemned for watching cooking shows like Deens’ and commended when they go to hip southern bistros in the city?

An article in The Economist also discusses the link between the South's love for comfort food and the rising numbers on the scales. The article highlights a 2007 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that marked mainly southern states with having high percentages of obesity. There is growing body of cookbooks that seek to address the gap between home-cooked southern food and health, arguing,that this does exist and people don’t have to pay for expensive meals at hip joints for a “healthy southern dish,” activist-chef Bryant Terry offers different nutritious recipes that are based on his family and community’s traditional southern cooking. Terry says this about his work:
[H]e felt called to engage a diverse national audience to confront the racial, economic, and geographic differences among eaters; recognize their own privileges; and reverse the negative impact the industrial food system has on our health, other animals, local economies, and the environment.
The reality is that Americans are tipping the scale. However, that doesn't mean we should either exoticisize or dismiss an American tradition because it does not easily fit into healthy or unhealthy diet picture. Southern food is all American (with African, French, Caribbean, Native American and Spanish roots) and if people can connect to that in whatever ways ( t.v. or expensive cafes) then what's wrong with that? Chef Terry demonstrates new alternatives to reclaim the southern diet while addressing the real inequities that exist in making those food choices (health, immediate expense, traditions, etc).

1 comment:

JLS said...

I have actually wondered about this before! I think that some people like Paula Deen specifically because she's "proud her food is bad for you," but I think many are drawn to the idea of Southern food for other reasons. Maybe a connection to something "simple" "homestyle" or even "rural"?

It reminds me of the cooking guru my sister (who is very health-conscious) follows most closely, The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond ( Her blog, book, and now TV show, are all about country-style cooking she has learned while living on a ranch in Oklahoma. Her book and website are full of images of rural/agricultural America. She does cook things like fried chicken, but also creme brûlée! She has a huge following, I think largely in part to the lifestyle she attaches to the food.