Now that the foodie fervor/outrage surrounding Paula Deen’s diabetes announcement has died down, it seems appropriate to address one reason I believe the food world should be more sensitive to her predicament—namely, the fetishization of southern food.
Sure, many may mock Deen’s mayonnaise-driven, multi-fried monstrosities (see “Lady’s Brunch Burger” and “Lady’s Fried Mac and Cheese“) with good reason. Yet the popularity/notoriety of these recipes points toward a larger issue. Whether it started with Deen’s show, or more foodie-friendly establishments such as Pine State Biscuits in Portland, Pies’n’Thighs in Brooklyn, or any number of southern-themed food carts camped out in various cities across the country, the “southern food” moniker almost always indicates a deep-fried meal covered with butter and bacon. This fact is embraced when the food is served in trendy restaurants, and then mocked when filmed for the Food Network. It doesn’t matter if the entrees are essentially the same.
My concern is not with the annoying double-standard in the foodieverse, it is instead rooted in this picture of a vibrant food culture that is shortchanged every time a restaurant slaps a piece of fried chicken on a waffle and calls it authentic southern food.
Yes, there are plenty of fried chicken platters, macaroni and cheese casseroles, bacon strips, pulled pork sandwiches, and biscuits served in the South, and yes, none of it is especially healthy. But there are also braised green beans, tomato sandwiches, an infinite variety of pickles, grilled corn on the cob, ripe peaches, and cucumber salads. Even in the most down-home of buffet restaurants, there are steam tables overflowing with vegetables, making it hard to squeeze in that one bit of pulled pork.
When I was growing up in Atlanta, we ate:
Biscuits or blueberry pancakes on Sunday mornings before church
Steamed green beans with London broil and mashed potatoes on Sunday nights when my dad cooked
Cold fried chicken from Publix on the Fourth of July
Peach (and sometimes blueberry) cobbler when my mom would come back from Charlotte with huge baskets overflowing with South Carolina peaches
Grits, with and without cheese, for breakfast or dinner
BLT sandwiches in the summer when my mom’s tomatoes were flourishing
Cracker Barrel when we went on road trips (I always got the veggie platter with fried okra)
Grilled chicken breasts and corn on the cob
Paul Prodhomme’s red beans and rice with Jiffy cornbread on the side and Pickapeppa hot sauce on top
Salads at every meal once my mom started growing lettuce
Of course, this list doesn’t include the occasional Frosted O at The Varsity, chicken sandwich from Chick Fil A, or half a dozen hot glazed from Krispy Kreme. (Yes, I once at six hot donuts while spinning on an empty twirly seat in the span of a few minutes. I was probably eight years old, so cut me some slack.) But these treats were not a regular part of my diet or the diets of many of my friends and family. I enjoyed them, as I still do, in relative moderation. I grew up eating southern food, but we didn’t grow up eating very much junk*. Granted, we didn’t really grow up in the Deep South, but we were still raised firmly within the realm of southern food stereotypes.
Perhaps Deen’s admission will serve as a point of departure in not only her portrayal of southern food, but also in the hip restaurant scene’s interpretation as well. Once that happens, we can all shift our focus to Deen’s relationship with Smithfield pork products, a problem I find far more troubling than whether or not she eats fried macaroni and cheese every day.
*(I realize that this is not the case for everyone, that many southerners each much more Waffle House or Church’s Chicken than I ever did, and that for many of these people poverty is part of the reason for eating so much fast food. However, I believe this relationship holds true throughout the country. The relationship between poverty and fast food is an important one, but not one I have the space for today.)