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Food and Nutrition

The Southern Diet

A Historical View on Food Consumption and How the Region's Foodways Gets a Bad Rap

Pucciarelli, Deanna PhD

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000425
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Abstract

When you say Southern food, people external to the region think of the iconic fried chicken, biscuits, peach pie, shrimp and grits, and sweet tea, among other food items. But if you ask a Southerner, it will depend on where in the South they were raised. According to the US Bureau of the Census,1 the Southern region of the United States contains states as far north as Delaware, and Texas is the region's Western border state. The South is subdivided into 3 regions: South Atlantic, East South Central, and West South Central (Figure), and the foodways, derived from immigrants and earlier native inhabitants and dictated in part by climate, have evolved into a complex and rich cuisine. But even within these subdivisions, there are hyperregionalities similar to wine appellations that make a portion of a state known for particular cuisine.2 The food historian Angela Jill Cooley argues that what makes Southern food distinct is “the way we cultivate, prepare, and consume food reflects the social, economic, and political history of the region.”3 Determining what is classified as “Southern cooking” can be problematic, however. You would think that a book titled The Southern Cookbook (1912) is based on a set of recipes from the South. After all, the author, an African American, S. Thomas Bivens, used the cookbook as a text in his domestic-worker, culinary school.4 However, Bivens pirated the cookbook from Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, the author of A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806), published in London, which featured British recipes. Debbie Gold, a James Beard award-winning chef, claims Southern food is influenced by West African slaves, Native Americans, Spanish, Portuguese, and the French, depending on what region of the South you happen to be eating.5

FIGURE
FIGURE:
Map of the United States showing census divisions and regions.

“The way [Southerners] cultivate, prepare, and consume food reflects the social, economic, and political history of the region.”

What is and is not Southern food is argued among Southerners, chefs, food historians, and tourists. Most of these groups will agree that menu items made from a hog; pulled pork, barbeque ribs, chitterlings, bacon, and the like are iconic Southern food. Disney World's The Polite Pig restaurant located in their Disney Springs retail, restaurant, and entertainment complex extolls through their blog, website, on-site themed architecture, and promotional media the stereotypical swine-based food selections. While many associate Disney and Florida with family fun and palm trees, Disney set out to create a distinct theme, as it does with all its theme-park eateries, a place where the visitor can become Southern for 45 minutes. Notwithstanding that Florida is a Southern state, barbeque is not a foodstuff associated with Orlando, or other parts of the state. The pulled-pork sandwich is titled “The Southern Pig”; most barbeque stands in the Carolinas, Texas, and Tennessee use the descriptive name, sometimes highlighting terroir or heritage, to help define precisely what ingredients you will soon be consuming. F. Evan Nooe suggests “the name [The Southern Pig] elevates a regional affiliation at the expense of clarity,” reinforcing to guests (perhaps some that are international) that you are eating Southern food, not only a sandwich filled with hog meat.6 Compounding the definition of Southern food is the confusion people have on where exactly the food item was derived. Yams are assigned a Southern food designation, but it is actually sweet potatoes, a new-world food, which people in the South most prepare and serve. The former were grown, cultivated, and consumed in West Africa and brought to the states as a staple food item on slave ships, but yams were growing locally, and enslaved people readily adopted the foodstuff. Even today, Western Africans visiting the United States become confused with the root vegetable's interchangeability used by the media around Thanksgiving on the one hand calling it a sweet potato, a yellow starchy tuber, and on the other hand, it's orange cousin the yam, where yams are candied here, but never back in the homeland.7

SOUTHERN FOOD AND CULTURE

Joanne Joy8 credits John Egerton with amplifying the conversation around Southern foodways over the past several decades. Joy contends Egerton “emphasized the interconnectedness between food on the Southern table and the culture that embraces it.” Egerton founded, in 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in partnership with the University of Mississippi to preserve the heritage of Southern food and invited chefs, writers, scholars, food processors, farmers, and layman to shape the organization. Egerton penned in his book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History:

Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctively characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region's image, its personality, and its character.9

Members of SFA study not only the food history of the region (how yams came to be an iconic table item), but also the significance of why these items are important to the cultural identity of the people living in the South who cultivate, process, prepare, serve, gift, and share therein. The food on the table is ephemeral, but the ties to each other are long lasting. Marcie Cohen Ferris10 argues that “food belies the harsh dynamics of racism, sexism, class struggle, and ecological exploitation that have long defined the South; yet there, too, resides family, a strong connection to place, conviviality, creativity, and flavor.” Connecting food to family and place is found in all locales, but what sets the South significantly apart from other American regions is its history of slavery and long struggle with civil rights. Perhaps in no other region of the United States do we see food preparing, serving, and consumption so closely tied to race. It is through food that people come together. Recently relocated, by choice, to cover Southern foodways, Kim Severson11 writes, “I've come to understand that food, more than prayer, politics, or politeness, is the language of getting along. It is the great equalizer, the common ground in a region still working to repair the scars left from slavery and the Jim Crow era.”

Connecting food to family and place is found in all locales, but what sets the South significantly apart from other American regions is its history of slavery and long struggle with civil rights.

In discussing Southern foodways, we are reminded that the very nature of food consumption is a social act, and the long and significant history of the bifurcation between European-descent whites and African Americans' everyday lives produced distinct cuisines, partly due to access to specific foodstuffs that dates back more than 150 years. Similar to art, music, literature, and dance, food sharing and consumption are shaped by power relations, politics—both governmental and societal, economics, and long-held traditions. Untangling the history of the American South foodways is problematically because the everyday acts such as eating were not readily recorded, or if they were written down, the record biases certain groups who had the agency to read, write, and maintain logs. Yet the stories of slavery and what was fed to slaves, and how those meager diets were augmented by subsistence farming have been shared; thus, tracing African American dietary provenance has been studied and recorded, albeit through mostly white academic authors' perspectives.

There are a number of methods used to study Southern foodways. One way is to look at a stereotypical foodstuff, for example, fried chicken, and explore how that item came to be associated with the region.12 Anthropologist Lisa Lefler, who studies Southern foodways, claims “cultural considerations of food and foodways include the way people perceive the place and role of certain foods.”13 Another avenue of inquiry, studied by scholars, is to explore the practice of eating, such as the infamous Woolworth lunch counter sit-in when 4 African American students protested the segregated South in Greensboro, North Carolina, and brought to national attention continued African American social injustices.14 Alice Julier,15 a sociologist who writes about inequality, food, and everyday life, posits in her book, Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality, “who gets invited to dinner and just as importantly who does not, how those social events are structured, is a snapshot of cultural norms and how they are negotiated.” A never-to-forget scene in the novel and film, The Help, is the power dynamics between the fired housekeeper, Minny, enacting revenge on her former employer, Hilly, where she serves her 2 slices of chocolate pie that contains, unbeknownst to Hilly, some poop in it.16 Later in the novel, Hilly wins a Junior League charity raffle of an untainted, famous Minny chocolate pie coveted by attendees, but Hillary cannot share her prior blasphemous experience without also disclosing her shameful act of eating the adulterated pie. Food is often used, particularly in literature of the South, as transformative for one or more of the characters, and is a vehicle to make a connection to the reader. Of late, however, who it is who tells the Southern black experience has come under scrutiny.

The Help, The Secret Life of Bees, and other food-centric novels narrate Southern, African American lives, but were authored by white women. This coopting of the Southern African American story by both white males and females has been critiqued17 while the authors come under heavy criticism. As Severson18 opines in the New York Times, John T. Edge,19 the current director of the SFA, has become famous writing on Southern foodways and at times his Southern narrative “[is] wrapped in too much romance, his style too ego-driven or his perspective sometimes skewed by his race, gender and power.” Edge19 has become famous by becoming the go-to person on Southern eating and a favorite guest on major television networks, National Public Radio, as keynote speaker at large foodways conferences, and as the often quoted culinary historian on the South. According to National Public Radio's endorsement, Edge's19 2017 book Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the American South, “[Edge] uses food as a lens to explore Southern identity, seeking to reconcile a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow with who claims the Southern table today.” Edge is not alone in studying Southern foodways from the outside in; membership of SFA is predominately white. How Southern food is sourced, prepared, shared, and consumed differs along class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation. And the health narrative correlated to a “Southern diet” differs as well along race lines.

THE SOUTHERN DIET AND HEALTH

The “[T]Raditional Southern Diet Is Bad News for People With Heart Disease” headlines the October 2018 Harvard Heart Letter.20 The unhealthy Southern diet moniker is widespread and propagated by both health professionals and academics, and often repeated propaganda has an unfortunate trajectory of morphing into “facts.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH), US Department of Agriculture, and other governmental funding agencies direct monies toward research interventions with aims to change the dietary patterns of people living in the South (and elsewhere). And these controls have been in place for a long time.21 Dating back to the early 20th century when food was scarce and vitamin deficiencies prevalent, mostly tied to poverty and lack of affordability to purchase food or due to blocked access due to incarceration or living in food deserts, national agencies were studying African American dietary patterns and blaming the victims for choosing a poor diet.22 But the all-encompassing Southern diet crosses racial and ethnic lines, whereas the stereotypical food items, which include deep-fried chicken, red velvet cake, sweet tea, and grits with butter and maple syrup, are all on the dietitian's taboo list. As the country's waistlines continued to expand from the mid-70s onward, more money from governmental and nonprofit agencies was directed to investigate why some populations weighed more than others and thus were considered unhealthy.23 Because poverty disproportionally affects people of color and national granting agencies' requests for proposals encourage applications written with at-risk populations as the focus groups, programs, outcomes, and associated published papers focus on African American dietary habits in the South, even though all races and ethnicities consume some type of stereotypical Southern food.

The “[T]Raditional Southern Diet Is Bad News for People With Heart Disease” headlines the October 2018 Harvard Heart Letter.

As an example of targeted funding, a 2016 Jackson State University NIH million dollar grant included in its abstract:

Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States experience an alarming disproportionate burden of disease, especially in the Southern region of the country, where Mississippi ranks lowest on many health indicators, the “most obese state,” and the “no. 1 unhealthy state.”24

The public can read via links on the NIH grants website much of the scholarship associated with a funded grant. Accordingly, the cannon of literature drafted from the aforementioned grant includes “Factors Affecting Dietary Practices in a Mississippi African American Community” and other articles where academics investigated, analyzed, and discussed determinants to dietary choice and how those eating decisions negatively impacted the health outcomes of the participants.25–27 Overwhelmingly, and across participant cohorts, low fruit and vegetable intake was recorded; however, between those categorized as having “healthy eating practices” defined as meeting the US Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans fruit and vegetable intake (≥5 per day) and “unhealthy eating practices” eating less than recommended, both groups responded that they found eating healthy to be easy.28 This suggests that what health professionals and academics deem as unhealthy eating patterns may not be agreed upon by the study subjects or that the participants find they can easily eat 5 fruits and vegetables every day, but chose not to. Ever since the 5 a Day for Better Health program was rolled out in 1991, almost 30 years ago, it has become a benchmark and qualifier for living a healthy life, while health promoters created marketing and behavior change interventions for all people, not only Southerners, with the aim for participants to adopt this singular dietary pattern.29 Thirty years later, most Americans still do not comply with the recommendations.30 The traditional Southern diet can be healthy, however.

In an early Southern cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. (1881), narrated by the African American author Mrs Fisher, a former slave, the table of contents suggests diets included preserved vegetables and fruit where more than half the recipes were dedicated to this subject area, although pies, cakes, fried chicken, and the like were also included.31 At the other end of the economic spectrum, Martha McCulloch-Williams32 writes in her cookbook, Dishes and Beverage of the Old South (1913), about a former genteel pre–Civil War life when her family cook prepared and served her family and friends an array of foods including pickles, with the classic Southern pickled watermelon rind given special attention. Under current dietary norms, watermelon pickles, which require a significant amount of sugar in the preserving liquid, would not be classified as a desirable fruit or vegetable, but collard greens would—albeit without cooking it in lard. Single-author cookbooks rather than community cookbooks, however, tend to be aspirational rather than reflective of everyday eating. Many historical community cookbooks were generated by women's church groups. Created to typically raise money for a specific cause, community church cookbooks pull together nonprofessional recipes. Recipes do include celebratory foodstuffs, but they also highlight everyday casseroles, fruit pies, and both pickling and side dishes, which often showcased vegetables.

Churches have become a target location for eating behavior interventions.33 In findings from a qualitative, focus-group study conducted in Georgia, where participants were asked about eating “healthy” (which was not defined) at church activities, a participant remarked “a tradition little kind of the thing that's inbred, or to change the menu is sort of like defying one of the commandments, I believe, because it's just the way it's done,” implying that using less salt or forgoing deep-fried foods for the sake of health is asking someone to sacrifice his/her cultural heritage.34 Other studies report similar findings when older adults were asked to reduce their salt intake they grappled with reconciling the important role of traditional foods in their identity as Southerners with their attempts to meet medical recommendations for healthy eating.35,36

Using less salt or forgoing deep-fried foods for the sake of health is asking someone to sacrifice his/her cultural heritage.

Edna Lewis, touted as the Queen of Southern Cooking, was an acclaimed chef for more than 40 years, born and raised in Freetown, Virginia, and a cookbook author of the famously referenced, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). Slender and free from chronic disease her whole, almost 90 years, of life, she is quoted:

The Southern diet is healthy… most people in Freetown lived to be 100 and older eating pork, butter, lard, sugar, and other Southern favorites… the secret is in the ingredients… if you don't put Southern ingredients in, it's not Southern cooking… some think the ingredients are too heavy or out of date, but I don't think we should throw away our culture because of some fad or new ideas.37

Lewis's Freetown residents' daily energy expenditure, however, wherein farming and traditional jobs required manual labor far exceeded today's typical job requirements. There is also an element of access and means associated with Lewis's comments. Researchers who documented poor Southerners' diets, both black and white, during the early 20th century paint a picture of scarce vegetable intake, and when vegetables were consumed, the vegetable intake is tied to seasonality when access was greatest.38 To suggest that there was a huge shift in dietary patterns away from a varied and vegetable-inclusive meal plan, at least among lower socioeconomic status individuals in the South, is undocumented. In fact, in peer-reviewed articles, authors posit that there are very limited, and not at all randomized, contemporary data on dietary patterns in the “Deep South.”39 Research does indicate that diet variety is directly related to income; whereas the highest obesity rates by county in the United States are in Southern states, these same geographic regions correlate with low-income populations who lack access to fresh food.40 To assign blame to the traditional Southern diet as unhealthy lacks scientific evidence.

Vegetable intake and Southern eating are not mutually exclusive in 21st-century eateries. Crimarco et al41 report that “African American adults are disproportionally affected by obesity more than any other ethnic group, particularly in the Southern region of the United States.” The researchers continue reporting that it is important to address “poor dietary habits” of African Americans and to tailor culturally suitable dietary interventions. The assumption is that the excess weight carried by African Americans can be mitigated by encouraging this group to adopt a vegan soul-food diet, thus coopting the current plant-based forward diet.

Trying to influence others, usually those who lack power and are marginalized, to eat in line with the current dietary paradigm that shifts by the decade and is created by agencies who monetize dietary reform, goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.42 People who were classified as having poor dietary habits during the pre–germ theory era when communicable disease was rampant, who are current-day, low-income groups, are told their diets are burdening the American healthcare system. Dismissing roughly one-third of the American public of their cultural heritage by proclaiming the “Southern diet” as unhealthy is a losing social marketing campaign and disrespects a significant population of the country's eating habits. It is easy to pull a few items from a repertoire of foodstuffs and cast blame for causing weight gain leading to chronic disease, but much harder to solve the rampant inequalities inherent to poverty, which are significant determinants to poor health outcomes.

SUMMARY

In the late 1800's, W. O. Atwater conducted dietary analyses in the South and elsewhere to quantify, by kilocalorie, residents' nutritional statuses. Notwithstanding the fact that methodologies and accuracy of these parameters have been questioned, although in general the results remain valid,43 a person's well-being and health status are not solely a product of specific foodstuffs. People draw comfort and psychological stability from cultural traditions, including dietary norms. It can be argued that the constant stress, originating from health professionals who build dietary interventions to change populations' diets, and felt by target groups, is counterproductive. The Southern region of the United States has a rich and varied diet filled with an array of food items. Southerners' identities are sourced, in part, from foods prepared, served, and shared, which has been passed down from their ancestors, mostly, earlier, through oral storytelling. Poor health outcome determinants are many, but inequality and lack of agency are in and of themselves drivers of food consumption patterns. Demonizing fried chicken and other stereotypical Southern delicacies serves no purpose in harmonizing dietary habits with wellness.

People draw comfort and psychological stability from cultural traditions, including dietary norms.

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