There are many different styles of cuisine at play in the South. Some find the taste of Home in a Monte Cristo sandwich with its blend of salt, sweet, and fat. Others take it to mean a Low Country Boil, shrimp and grits, or any of the spicy, seafood-rich dishes available in coastal areas. All of these have their legitimate place. But it would seem that much of the country sees our food culture through the monochromatic lens of the deep fryer. No, Paula Deen does not speak for all of us. No we do not all own our own personal deep fryers from which an endless stream of fried chicken emerges. True, it’s a thing here–but I see it more as a perversion of legitimate food ideas developed in the region. My experience is that real Southern food is no more all deep-fried than that we eat fried chicken three times a week or more. Anyone with any exposure to a working farm knows that fried chicken is reserved for special occasions, because only an idiot eats their Egg Layers. You might as well eat a plate of dollar bills.
Before I go any further into this line of thought, perhaps I should make it clear that I’m talking about food ideologies. That is to say, concepts that tend to persist within a culture, even in the face of increasing urbanization, the replacement of farm stands and stalls as a primary means of food procurement with the super market, and the loss of traditional knowledge or skills where food preparation is concerned. For me, this is not based on the Low Country, the Bayou, or the deep reaches of Appalachia. It is drawn from farm culture–larger and more commercial than subsistence farms, but still privately owned. It comes from the hill country of the Piedmont region, and a bit farther south in that middle zone where hills gradually fade into the flat coastal plain of South Georgia.
I generally call this particular cuisine and the offshoot variants of it Peasant Food or Field Hand Food (FHF). It certainly isn’t specific to the South, but can be found in any region where people have traditionally worked closely with the land. I often encountered it beyond the city limits of Albuquerque–foods that, while they may have been indigenous or Hispanic in origin, had the same feeling as those with which I grew up. Instead of homemade biscuits, there were homemade flour tortillas–the same ingredients, the same taste as my biscuits, but made on an old cast iron range, hot and slightly crisped where the bread had been scorched by the iron surface.
These foods and food ideas are very much the same in any population that works close to the land–pastoral or agrarian communities in which the link between life and death is not blurred by the sanitized fluorescence of the grocery store cold case. Even if individual life ways are no longer specifically bound to these pursuits, the ideas persist. I find that, in many cases, people who do not know where their food is coming from, who do not understand how food is produced (animal or vegetable) tend to have a difficult time with eating. They have to consciously seek out and learn about nutrition, preparation, and many other concepts that I see as elementary.
Take lard for example. It’s actually healthier for you than any margarine product. And yet it is vilified. Why? It makes you fat? It clogs your arteries? Given our cultural shift away from active jobs to sedentary ones, this may be true. And yet, fast food persists even so, which is emptiness in a paper wrapper. When used properly, in small amounts, there’s nothing wrong with lard in and of itself. The real problem, as I see it, is two-pronged. Lard is fat. Fat is a means of energy storage for animals, which also stores toxins and impurities taken in with food. What are we feeding our animals these days? Don’t know? That would be a function of the industrialization of our food–and also a part of how we have been distanced from it. The second prong of the problem is that FHF is designed to nourish people who are expending more calories than even the most active office worker in labor every day–that doesn’t account for what your body uses just to “keep the lights on.”
Your Problem Isn’t the Food, It’s Your Lifestyle
If you look at a traditional plate of Southern food as I conceptualize it, it’s typically about 70 percent vegetables and fruits. Then there’s the bread, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ve got a piece of meat that is actually pretty enough to be worth cooking on its own. We live in a reversed era–when these foods became popular, it’s because you were eating whatever didn’t go to market and meat was more often than not a flavoring, not the main dish. Today, vegetables and fruits might actually be the most costly portion of your grocery budget. An agricultural laborer, especially without the benefit of mechanized tools or modern poisons (yes, all lab-developed fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are poisons. Too much nitrogen is toxic to the environment as surely as that grub killer on the shelf next to it,) expended about 1600-1800 calories per working day, which could be as long as 13 hours. 2000 calorie diets aren’t cutting it.
So, fried okra, collard greens, mashed potatoes, and yes, even Grandma’s Famous Lemon Pound Cake are designed with the understanding that you’re going to be awfully hungry at dinner time. The problem is, most of us no longer follow that life way. This shift in occupation from plowing to paper pushing is a part of why such a diet, unaltered, is unhealthy. The other part is the fact that many of us don’t cook for ourselves anymore, never made biscuits or learned how to make pan-gravy while standing on a kitchen chair, and have no concept of where our foods are coming from, so we don’t actually consciously think about eating–just shovel it in and be done. We have become a nation of the Eaters of Emptiness, but that’s another subject, for another day.
In many cultures throughout human history, food has been a key aspect of our social sphere. Sociality, or the way animals form groups and remain in groups, is heavily dependent on eating–getting food, making food, serving and sharing food. Traditionally, in the South and in many other places, the Church Social and other public eating events structured around holidays, are heavily featured in the formation and transmission of cultural values. This influences what, how, and when we cook, how and why we share, and often solidifies food prestige structures within communities and across cultures. These segments will explore various topics, such as the necessity of multiple casserole dishes, determining difference between a food’s relative value based on preparation and intended setting, and the use of food terminology in our conversational language.