“Deep-fried foods may be causing trouble in the Deep South,” reads the opening line of a story published on the Fox News website. This was sorta big news last week when Suzanne Judd, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Alabama, presented her research at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference, linking strokes to consuming foods that have been classically considered part of the “Southern diet” — including fried chicken, bacon and sugary iced tea. Her research surveyed the eating habits of 20,000 people 45 years old and up. So, to recap. The “Southern diet” is killing people — those living in the South and otherwise. But, let’s ask ourselves, what really is the Southern Diet?
If you speak with any Southerner working even peripherally in the food world, they will be quick to admit that the South has a very big perception problem. That, although the South has a wonderful tradition with fried chicken and cured hams and barbecue, it’s not the only show in town. And it’s certainly not “the Southern diet.”
We’ve made efforts to expose the South’s other side. We’ve spoken with Mississippi chef John Currence about the South’s rich truck farming traditions. We watched Nashville chef Tyler Brown and Tandy Wilson do remarkable things with seafood and produce pulled from an urban garden. We were at last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance in October where Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC cooked a 12-course vegetarian lunch. Birmingham chef Chris Hastings told us about a recent duck hunt where he raves about the local sugar toads (puffer fish), sweet and delicious and served with lemony spicy aioli. These are all examples of the Southern diet, with nary a drumstick in sight.
Of course there is poisonous food being consumed in the southern United States (see also: A Voice From Within The Paula Deen Universe). “We have a responsibility as chefs to help folks understand that our food is killing us,” says Currence. Poisonous food is being consumed all over the country. In Upstate New York and Indiana and Kansas and Los Angeles. But for headlines to fly linking the “Southern diet” with death is the kind of stuff that makes our chef friends in the South go nuts. It sells the innovation and forward-thinking going on in the South very short.